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Vagneur: Aspen’s Italian movement

It was back in the early days, before Aspen, when U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes proclaimed that white men were forbidden from crossing the Continental Divide into what would someday be called Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. Folly, of course, for in June 1879, three adventurous men trespassed onto those Ute lands in search of silver.

That was the opening of the floodgates, and although it took some time to get established, a whirlwind of silver mining followed. Almost in lockstep with the miners came the farmers and ranchers — you can’t run a mining camp full of people, burros and horses without agriculture to feed it all.

In the early 1880s, a few Italian immigrants from northern Italy began to show up, most at the urging of a man named Fred Clavel, my great-grandmother Estefan’s cousin, both of whose tombstones you can find in the Red Butte Cemetery.

Coaxing a living from the soil has never been easy, especially in this valley, what with the rocks, dry climate and mountainous terrain. But those northern Italy gents knew how to make things work. They had witnessed the great irrigation canals built by the Romans, knew about crop irrigation and its importance and generally were aware of how to husband the land.

The tumultuous years of mining were short-lived, petering down to a comparative trickle with repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase in 1893. It was a blow to agriculture, as well, but forward-thinking farmers and ranchers had an ace in the hole, a life-line left over from the mining frenzy.

The railroad, which was so important to the success of the silver mines also became incredibly important to the success of farmers and ranchers in the Roaring Fork Valley, so much so that agriculture here began a period of remarkable success. With a ribbon of steel laid down the middle of the valley (two early on), produce and livestock could be sent to Denver, or even as far away as New York City.

According to a list compiled by Ed Grange, long-time president of Holy Cross Electric Association and offspring of an original pioneer family, there were, at one time, more than 100 families from Val D’Aosta, Italy, folks who, with notable exceptions, owned almost all of the arable land between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Names that still ring with vibrancy today are Gerbaz, Duroux, Arbaney, Cerise, Glassier, Grange, Vagneur, Diemoz, Montover, Dossigny, and that’s only a partial listing.

No, they haven’t been marginalized out of existence by the continual wave of newcomers, not yet. Last Saturday, at The Gathering Center at the Orchard, a memorial service was held for a man with direct ties to one of the patriarchs of the Cerise family. The life of Clifford Cerise, a well-liked and stalwart leader of the community who spent his life on his family’s Carbondale ranch, was celebrated.

The older folks came mostly two-by-two, slower now with advancing age, and sometimes one at a time, the widows or widowers who traveled alone, offspring of those original pioneers, to pay their last respects. Younger couples bounded up the walk, sometimes followed by groups of young men and women, solemn in appearance but pleased to see such a large gathering. The lobby was soon filled with the buzz of valley inhabitants who either knew each other, were related, should have known each other, or who did business together. The only requirement being that one of our own had to be sacrificed to ring out the call to gather.

There was an Aosta preponderance of representation there, but other folks signed the register, as well, with names like Perry, Fales, Nieslanik, Schenck (a marvelous family of musicians), Longnecker, Farris and, hell, it’d take until the middle of next week to name them all.

Such gatherings bring together not only the heart and soul of the history of the Roaring Fork Valley, but they also are a solemn reminder that with the passing of each of these dignified, self-sufficient old-timers, a portion of the trail of the West becomes dusted over, more difficult to see. For although we can read the stories, have heard of the escapades, glories and hardships, we will never fully understand the significance of those times unless we’ve actually lived them ourselves.

Fitting for an Italian cattle rancher’s wake, prime rib of beef and polenta were served, with baked salmon for those with more fastidious taste. And no one was in a hurry to leave. Horses and cows got fed a little later that afternoon and early evening toasts were made to Clifford Oscar Cerise (1929 to 2017). As it should be.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.