Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 11, 2009
This is the column that didn’t get written, and never will, for reasons you shall see, in the end. We’d talked about the column briefly, as intently as two people can through e-mail, and she even sent me some photographs and the beginnings of additional commentary she thought might be useful. Then my computer crashed, and I have nothing left of what she sent. But still, that was before tragedy struck.
The year was 1903, and Aspen was struggling from the demonetization of silver, although farming and ranching still showed a lot of promise. Over in the neighborhood of St. Benedict’s Monastery, pioneers by the name of William C. and Alice Nicholson moved to a point high above Capitol Creek and built a ranch straddling a clear, gurgling mountain brook and raised a family. One of their sons, J. H. “Hod” Nicholson, acquired the title on this property and made it his home for many years.
To me, this is where the story gets interesting, for the Capitol Creek tributary that flowed through the Nicholson holdings was, understandably and undeniably, ultimately named Nicholson Creek. But if you look on a Forest Service topography map, you can see that the small stream is called “Nickelson Creek,” for God only knows what reason. Maybe it was simply a mistake, but the cartographer in charge made a grievous error. Perhaps he failed to check on the proper spelling and simply assumed everyone spelled the name just like “the Nickelson’s back home” in Podunk. For whatever reason, the name has been misspelled from the beginning, and will probably never be corrected, but you are now part of a very small minority that knows the true name of Nicholson Creek.
Rolling with the punches, Hod Nicholson went from farming to raising horses, which were in demand not only locally, but as far away as Leadville. Along with hay, horses were shipped out of the valley by rail, allowing ranchers to make a decent living. Hod was a cowboy, averse to the day-in, day-out responsibilities of raising hay and the back of a horse was where he longed to earn his keep. For many summers, he took groups of boys from the Ohio area into what is now the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness area, on pack trips. This business was so good, in fact, that one summer he guided the horse-mounted group north to Wyoming for the Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration. Hod gave it all up in 1929 and moved to Aspen, having been elected to the office of Pitkin County sheriff.
Hod had a son named Hod D. Nicholson, a name that may be familiar to you if you remember Aspen Laundry and Cleaners (Hod D.’s establishment). In turn, Hod D. and his wife Ellen (nee Stapleton) had a daughter named Alice Marie, in honor of Alice Marie’s great-grandmother who had moved to Nicholson Creek in 1903.
Little Alice Marie was a cousin of mine, younger in years, but much better on the piano, and during my college tenure, she was a sounding board for my short stories and futile attempts at Shakespearean poetry. When I started writing in this space, she became a devoted reader, and that’s how the recent talk of a column about the “Hod’s” and Nicholson Creek began.
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We saw each other maybe twice since my college years, but had forged a friendship that would endure a lifetime. Literally. Alice Marie Nicholson Hanson-Vigil died June 28, 2009, still a young woman, and thus extinguished was the desire to see her Nicholson ancestors lit up in a weekly column about her hometown. I’m sorry we didn’t get it done, Alice, but I’ve told ’em all of what I could.