Aspen Times Weekly: Narrating history in Aspen

by Karl Herchenroeder

If You Go ...

Aspen Historical Society

620 W. Bleeker St., Aspen

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Silverpeak Apothecary sold Aspen’s first bag of recreational marijuana on March 5, 2014, and the Aspen Historical Society was there to record it, grabbing a receipt of the purchase, a weed grinder, a lighter, a T-shirt and a Silverpeak menu. One day, those items will be artifacts, proof that prohibition had ended in Aspen.

“We try and anticipate what types of things are going to have some historical significance in the future,” said Kelly Murphy, the Society’s new executive director and chief executive officer. “That was something that was kind of a no-brainer because it was a historic thing for our state and for our community. So we thought let’s look ahead and get some stuff now because in the future, someone’s going to ask us for something on opening day, and we’ll have it.”

Any discussion about the Aspen Historical Society would be incomplete without mention of Murphy’s predecessor, longtime local Georgia Hanson, who served in the role for 11 years. During her tenor, Hanson oversaw a highly successful rebranding of the Historical Society, an organization left for dead in the late 1990s after going through two executive directors in three years.

When Hanson started, the organization had a $250,000 budget; and she had basically been hired to shut it down and sell its assets. Six weeks into the job, she lobbied for county support and was granted $250,000. In 2005, the organization earned 63 voter percent approval for a property tax mill levy and the budget ballooned to $750,000, turning three staff members into 10.

“History is stories — that’s what it is
— and who doesn’t love a good story?
Aspen’s full of good stories.”
Kelly Murphy, Aspen Historical Society

“We took a floundering, almost bankrupt nonprofit and turned it into a flourishing, sustainable institution,” Hanson said in August.

“When I think of people like Georgia Hanson, I don’t think of myself on the same kind of level,” Murphy said earlier this month. “She’s been here for so long, so it was kind like, ‘If they hire another Georgia, that’s not really me.’”

While Hanson vacations in Mexico, where she has been since January, Murphy brings a new set of eyes and an extensive legal and marketing background to the position. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Murphy came to Aspen in 1987 without any real plans. A few years in, she fell in love with the place and decided to stay. But she couldn’t land a “real job,” despite numerous interviews.

“For whatever reason nothing worked out, and I thought, ‘Well, all right — I need to go out and get some experience and come back,’” she said.

That led her to Omaha, Neb., where she worked as a newspaper reporter, and then Seattle, where she worked for a Fortune 500 company in the public relations department. That gave her the experience she needed to return to Aspen, where in 1995 she joined Aspen Skiing Co.’s public relations department. For seven years, she worked with the likes of John Morton, Kitty Boone and Bobbie Burkley, only to leave Aspen again in pursuit of a law degree.

On the Front Range, Murphy worked as a district attorney and later, for the Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel, prosecuting unethical attorneys. After three years, her career changed directions again because of the “Aspen clause” — a reference to Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, Lou Holtz. In 1984, Holtz accepted a head coaching job at the University of Minnesota, but his contract included a “Notre Dame clause,” which said he could leave if the Irish made him an offer. He switched schools in 1986, just as Murphy switched jobs in 2005, joining the Matthew C. Ferguson Law Firm in Aspen. She practiced there until December, a month before stepping into her Historical Society role.

One of the Society’s first tasks under Murphy has been determining what to do with the hundreds of items unearthed with the Aspen Time Tube in September. The Tube, which was buried in 1983 during the International Design Conference, included a mouse from one of Steve Jobs’ biggest commercial flops, the Apple Lisa personal computer.

Murphy, who lives in El Jebel with her husband, Danny, and their son, Kian, also has been looking for ways to document Aspen’s ski culture and social scene. She’s been in discussions with individuals who have been hosting wine parties at Blondie’s Cabin on Aspen Mountain for 53 years.

There’s also the “Seasons of the Nuche: Transitions of the Ute People,” an exhibit on display at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum, which received two national awards for leadership in history — an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History and another from Mountain-Plains Museum Association. This time next year, the Ute exhibit will be replaced, with the planning process starting in the coming months.

“Right now, we’re just really in the brainstorming stage,” she said.

One thing Murphy said she would like to change is the public’s understanding of what the Society does. In addition to existing educational programs with third-graders, she wants to engage middle-schoolers.

“If people can start out young with an appreciation of history, where they’re from and a sense of place, I think that will carry through their lives,” she said.

To further increase awareness, Murphy hopes to establish more partnerships with local organizations. On April 4, the Society partnered with Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club to deliver a screening of “Climb to Glory,” a film about the 10th Mountain Division that showed at the Wheeler Opera House. Tickets sold out, and about 150 people were turned away at the door. The Society is planning another screening of the film.

“I hear from a lot people, ‘If people aren’t interested in history, you just need to forget about them because they’re not going to be fans of yours or come to your events,’” she said. “And I totally disagree with that. I think that anyone who’s here, anyone who loves this place, does so partly because of the history. I don’t think you can separate your love of Aspen, or this community, or this valley, from the history.”

For its ongoing series “Time Travel Tuesdays,” the Society will be adding a cemetery tour. It’s also planning a June 17 summer kickoff party, which will be a ranch-themed hoedown at the Holden/Marolt barn. The event will include the presentation of the Fish Wit Award, named after Freddie Fisher, a prolific Aspen newspaper letter writer in the 1950s. Murphy is hoping to work with editors of both daily papers to determine this year’s winner.

To increase traffic at the Holden/Marolt site, Murphy wants to raise awareness of the grounds, possibly through a partnership with the WE-cycle bike-share program. The site features a map of all the old mines and tunnels in the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as operational mining machines that were used to crush ore. There’s even a model of all the equipment that used to be on-site, including a massive smokestack.

Murphy said she hopes people in the community will take time to experience at least one Historical Society offering.

“History is stories — that’s what it is — and who doesn’t love a good story?” she said. “Aspen’s full of good stories.”