Aspen Times Weekly: A Mountain of Mining History
It all started so casually one summer in the late 1990s when Julie Hesse ventured into the Colorado mountains with a gemologist friend who was searching for minerals and gemstones.
The hunt stoked her interest from the start. A few years later, in 2000, she visited one of the biggest mineral and gem shows in the country in Denver and was blown away by the vast displays. She decided then she wanted to start her own collection.
“I was totally overwhelmed and didn’t know what I wanted to collect,” Hesse said.
Hesse soon determined she wanted to tap into Colorado’s great mining heritage and focus on minerals and gems from the state. Boy, did she.
Hesse has built an incredible collection of not only minerals and gemstones but a vast array of fascinating mining artifacts through her business, Silver Queen Minerals. The business name is tied to an interesting part of Aspen’s mining history. The 18-foot Silver Queen statue was taken on the road for display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. It was last seen at the Mineral Palace in Pueblo, Colo. Its current whereabouts has remained a mystery.
By her estimates, Hesse has 600 minerals, mostly from Colorado, and 125 faceted gemstones and cabochons. The mining artifacts number greater than 500, with everything from lunch pails to stock certificates for Aspen’s Midnight Mine.
She has candlesticks that clamp around the wax and have a pointed end to jam into a wooden beam in a mine. They are called sticking tommies.
She has little wooden birdcages complete with water troughs and food bins. Miners would keep a canary or other species deep underground to warn them if the air was getting too foul to breath. If the bird died, they split for the surface.
Hesse has 150 sterling silver spoons promoting Aspen or Colorado. One of the most intriguing promotes Aspen in name and with a loaded-down burro on the ladle and hefty miner carrying a pick on the handle.
At first, Hesse just collected for herself. Her purchases came down to what she liked and what she could afford.
“I don’t have much self-discipline, to say the least,” she said.
As her inventory grew and she learned more about the art of collecting, Hesse started offering a limited amount of her collection for sale starting about one year ago.
“I’m just a small collector. I’m playing with the big boys, “ she laughed.
But her work was getting recognition even before she started selling. The Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum in Golden, Colo., featured her Colorado “rough and cut” minerals and gemstones in a yearlong display starting in September 2010. It featured about 50 minerals and gemstones in the condition they were found as well as the “cut” condition where they are prepped for use in jewelry or for display.
Her minerals and Aspen mining artifacts have been at the Aspen Historical Society’s Holden and Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum.
A select portion of her minerals and gemstones, as well as mining artifacts, is for sale at Toklat Gallery in Basalt. Toklat owner Lynne Mace is Hesse’s sister-in-law. Hesse was married to the late Greg Mace.
Additional artifacts from Silver Queen Minerals are for sale at Ouray Alchemist in Ouray, Colo.
The display at Toklat features some of her favorite items. She has numerous miniature lunch pails from the late 19th century. Salesmen would make the rounds and show miners small replicas of their lunch pails. She also has carbide lamps and various generations of hardhats, including a unique corduroy one.
Rough and cut examples of purple fluorite from the Rock Creek Mining District near Gunnison are on prominent display. There’s dazzling aquamarine from Mt. Antero. One of her favorite pieces is smoky quartz with amazonite, which she called a unique and aesthetically pleasing pairing, from the Smoky Hill Mine in Teller County.
Some things Hesse isn’t willing to part with. Two of many items that stand out in her personal collection are a white serving tray from the early 20th century that features an image of “The Famous Cowenhoven Tunnel” and a pink china cream pitcher with the imposing, industrial-looking Molly Gibson and Smuggler Mines. Materials show that Aspen merchants sold the souvenirs to tourists in the struggling mining town.
Other standouts in her collection are different-size bottles from the Lamb Pharmacy that helped Aspenites deal with what ailed them from 1888 to the 1930s. They contained everything from prescriptions to opium and, later, gasoline, according to her sources.
“I’m interested in the mining,” Hesse said. “I’m particularly interested in Aspen artifacts.” It shows in her museum-quality collection.
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In 1895, the fad sweeping Aspen for women was to dye their hair red.