Bringing Aspen’s history to life
ASPEN – One recent evening at the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, Dean Weiler took to the podium and launched into a 10-minute speech on the glories of Aspen and its minerals that would have done B. Clark Wheeler proud.
Who’s B. Clark Wheeler, you ask? If so, that’s half the desired effect of Weiler and the Aspen Historical Society. They also want to inspire folks to poke around in Aspen’s history resources to find the answer.
Wheeler was the “other” Wheeler who was instrumental in the founding of the town. Mining magnate Jerome Wheeler is better known, mostly because he left behind the legacies of the glorious opera house and hotel bearing his name.
But B. Clark played a major role as well. He changed the name of the fledgling camp from Ute City to Aspen, surveyed the townsite, laid out and named the streets, founded The Aspen Times, and tirelessly traveled to Denver and points farther east to promote the town.
While he hasn’t exactly been forgotten, he’s definitely been overshadowed.
“I see him almost as a minor character,” Weiler said, referring to Wheeler’s standing in history, not his actual role. “It fascinating how much [Wheeler] really did and how little is known about him.”
He learned of B. Clark Wheeler in his own research of Aspen and jumped at the opportunity to continue with more in-depth work with the historical society. A special program called the Characters of Aspen at the Aspen Historical Society gives interested residents a small stipend that allows them to take the time to thoroughly research a character from Aspen’s past, be it from the mining era or Aspen’s second coming after World War II. They study how the characters ended up in Aspen, how they fared while in town and, in the case of the pioneers, what happened to them after the town withered and nearly died after the 1893 silver crash.
The program was funded by a grant from the city of Aspen.
Two weeks ago, Weiler came across a lecture that B. Clark Wheeler delivered on March 9, 1880, in Denver, and most likely in other places around the time. Wearing a black suit and a black, broad-brimmed hat that materials say Wheeler was fond of, Weiler recited the speech to 30 or so Aspen residents and visitors as part of the historical society’s Time Travel Tuesday series.
He spoke with gusto about the geologic occurrences that dumped rich veins of silver and other minerals in the rocks of the mountains surrounding Aspen. He tempted men with tales of opportunity, both for the mining investors and the common laborers. Come to Aspen, he said, and you will be rewarded.
The crowd appreciated the performance, particularly when people “planted” in the audience call out questions, such as whether a person is safe from Ute Indians, much like the audiences probably did back in the day. Weiler as Wheeler fires back quick responses to the questions.
Speaking after his performance, Weiler, 38, said it appealed to him more to speak in Wheeler’s own words rather than for him to come up with a skit based on what he learned.
“I’m really into historical accuracy,” he said. He operates Aspen Walking Tours, which explore different parts of the town’s history, separate and in addition to his volunteer gig with the historical society.
The performance was his first as Wheeler. He plans to keep studying the man’s history, and to hone and expand his performance.
“I still have a lot of room to work with this character,” Weiler said.
That’s the spirit that Nina Gabianelli loves to hear. She is the sites and tours manager at the historical society. The character presentations work best, she said, when the person has a real passion for the historical figure they are studying and portraying.
The character studies have been good because it gets residents more involved with the historical society, both the students studying and portraying the characters, and the audiences. So far, 12 characters from Aspen’s history have been portrayed, as far back as Sarah Gillespie and Charles Armstrong, two earlier settlers, portrayed by Gabianelli and Tom Egan, respectively, to post WW II icon Isabel Mace, portrayed by Naomi Havlen.
The point of the program, Gabianelli said, is to bring history to life for people. “We’re not trying to recreate these people. We’re trying to tell their story,” she said.
Gabianelli was recruited to the historical society from the Crystal Palace dinner theater. As a trained actor, she does a spectacular job of bringing Gillespie to life, with mannerisms and facial expressions that delight the crowd while she talks about the hardships faced in the young mining camp and the good times had as one of the first and few members of Aspen’s high society.
Gabianelli said her presentation seems to come naturally after a great deal of study of Gillespie. “I didn’t create it. I didn’t manufacture it. It just comes,” she said.
Portraying the character she has spent so much time studying truly did bring history to life for her. “I was overwhelmed with the fact she really walked these streets,” she said.
The historical society’s hope is to present each character portrayed by residents at least once per year at various functions. Characters have been portrayed at everything from formal society functions to personal parties and, in one case, even a memorial service.
The Aug. 24 Characters of Aspen performances will be of Emma Parry, an Ashcroft school teacher, and Herbert Bayer, the world renowned artist and designer who helped form Aspen during its rebirth. The event is at 5:30 p.m. at the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum. It is free for historical society members and $8 for non-members.
More information about historical society programs can be found at http://www.aspenhistory.org.
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