Barstool history |

Barstool history

Willoughby CollectionThe Red Onion in the 1950s served as many stories as drinks.

Jeanne Willoughby, my older sister, might not have been able to top Watson, the computer, playing Jeopardy, but I don’t know anyone who could beat her playing Colorado Trivia. She had one of those photographic memories, able to recall the minutiae that most of us gloss over. She had a passion for all things Colorado, having traveled the state, lived in three different regions, and read every tome about the subject. When I began researching Aspen’s history in the 1970s, she acted as my fact checker and taught me two important lessons in historiography: oral history has its limits and views of past events change over time.

Sister schooled me in barstool history. While she was a student at the University of Colorado, she wrote a paper about Aspen’s famous Apex mining claim controversy. While searching the stacks of the CU library, she discovered graduate students’ theses about Aspen that included stories that she knew were exaggerated or untrue. Then she discovered why: the accounts were derived from interviews with Mike Marolt, bartender at Aspen’s Red Onion, and other longtime barstool boasters. She knew the sources and had heard their stories firsthand. And she knew the difference between great entertainment and great history.

If you wanted to learn about Aspen’s mining period from an “old-timer,” the best place to find one between the 1940s and early 60s was the Red Onion. Students from CU would sidle up to anyone who dressed in rugged-old-miner attire and sported a weathered face. Bill Herron and Hoofy Sandstrum would oblige any tourist or gullible student with stories, so long as they were buying. In their absence, Mike Marolt would spin yarns. Modern media seem to have diminished storytelling skills, but at that time it was an art form that the elder Red Onion patrons had mastered. Some of what they told was true, much was embellished and a few stories were pure fiction. Once in print, the history was repeated in subsequent papers and publications, along with the misinformation.

Sister was the editor/writer of the Southern Ute Tribe’s newspaper in the 1970s when it was fashionable for Colorado’s resort towns to make known their connections to western folklore and Native Americans. Steamboat marketed itself as a wild west town complete with Stetsons. Indian jewelry and blankets filled store windows, even in towns that were little more than a filling station stop. Aspen’s galleries featured Edward Curtis Native American photographs. Other businesses began using the original township name, Ute City, as a moniker. A local shopping guide, titled Ute City, featured an Indian chief on the cover.

Sister noticed that the Indian on the cover was not a Ute, but rather a well-known chief of the Apaches, ancient enemies of the Utes. When she showed the Southern Utes the guide, they had a good laugh. Around the same time, promoters were developing a ski area in Marble where avalanches, mudslides and other calamities occur on a regular basis. Legend had it that the Utes had put a curse on the area. The developers contacted the tribe to do an official de-cursing and, for a fee, the Utes were happy to dress in native costumes, dance, and chant away the curse. Although they believed in their curses, they didn’t remember specifically castigating Marble.

Sister was often called by tribal members who wanted to contribute to the newspaper. She would take notes and listen to their “news,” but when she asked when the event occurred they would sometimes say, “Oh, might have been last year, or maybe two or three years ago.” Their concept of time and news was clearly different from that of many newspaper editors. Efforts to gather oral history before the elders passed on were sometimes met with family rivalries that impeded objective accounts of any event. Even the U.S. justice system requires 12 jurors to provide enough points of view to, perhaps, corral the truth in a story.

Which goes to say that not everything you read in print is 100 percent accurate, not even in “Yore Aspen.”

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