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Hands-on history

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It has been nearly 13 years in the making, and yet it’s only the beginning for Aspen’s Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum.

A dedicated group of volunteers celebrated the realization of a dream last week with the ceremonial ribbon-cutting on Aspen’s newest museum – one dedicated to the famous ski resort’s lesser-known historical eras, when mining and then agriculture were its economic drivers.

“What you’re looking at here is like the tip of the iceberg,” declared Carl Bergman, who has spearheaded the museum’s creation since the beginning. “I still feel, with what we do here, we’re on first base.”

The efforts of Bergman and his colleagues felt more like a home run, though, for first-time visitors to what’s commonly known as the “Marolt barn.” On a sultry July afternoon, young and old alike turned out for a day of old-fashioned fun and a peek at what Bergman and his buddies have been doing for the past decade-plus. They’ve been doing a lot, as it turns out.

They’ve restored the once-dilapidated barn and assembled a fascinating array of artifacts from both Aspen’s mining days and the early 20th-century ranching era in the Roaring Fork Valley. And, they’ve done it on a site that played an integral role in both pursuits.

“The piece of property alone is important, because it tells so much of the story,” noted local historian Larry Fredrick. “It was the site of the most advanced ore-processing facility of its time. Then ranching came in and sustained the community.”

The Marolt Open Space, west of Aspen proper, is a triangle of land hemmed in by Highway 82, Castle Creek Road and the creek itself.

The grassy expanse, though the focus of many a battle over whether or not the state should realign the highway through it, is by and large a passive place. Aspenites grow vegetables in the community garden within its borders and paragliders seek the safety of its landing zone. Still, the barn is largely hidden from view to all but those who cruise along the bike path that connects West Hopkins Avenue to Castle Creek Road.

That wasn’t always the case.

The barn-turned-museum was once part of the Holden Lixiviation Works, a huge complex of buildings that stretched from the barn site to the creek. The state-of-the-art facility, built in 1891, used crushing, heat and chemical salts to refine silver from ore. In those days, about a sixth of the country’s silver was being produced in Pitkin County – almost $1 million worth a month.

Nearby was the town’s baseball diamond, where up to 1,500 spectators reportedly filled the grandstand to cheer on Aspen’s semi-pro ball players.

Unfortunately for its investors, the lixiviation plant was completed just 14 months before Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Act, devaluing Aspen’s most precious commodity overnight and sending the venture into bankruptcy.

It’s difficult to visualize what was purportedly the tallest smokestack in Colorado at the time (165 feet) standing there amid a mass of brick buildings that housed 40 stamp mills, among other things. Ore was crushed beneath stamps that weighed up to 850 pounds apiece.

The plant was subsequently dismantled brick by brick – 700,000 were used in the buildings alone, not counting the smokestack.

In 1940, with the remaining buildings in decay, the Marolt family acquired the 22 acres and combined it with other land to form the Marolt Ranch, where they raised sheep and cattle.

The former plant’s assay office became their home and the remaining pieces of the lixiviation works, the barn and the salt shed, became ranch buildings. In the 1950s, the family began selling off pieces of the property, finally selling what is now the Marolt Open Space to the city in 1983.

Later, Bergman, owner of Carl’s Pharmacy and the Miners’ Building, along with Rick Newton, then-president of the Aspen Historical Society (now HeritageAspen), and Graeme Means, a local historian and architect, began negotiating to lease the barn for use as a museum.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a 75-year lease of the 1.9-acre barn site to the historical society in November 1989.

“We saw what was out here and we knew the Aspen Historical Society needed a mining aspect. It was sadly neglected,” Bergman said.

The barn wasn’t in great shape, either, he recalled. The windows were boarded up, and looking up from inside the inky blackness of the decrepit barn was like stargazing. Sunlight leaked through thousands of tiny holes in the roof.

Volunteers set to work repairing the barn and replacing the rooftop cupola, which the Marolts had removed, with a new one that matches the aged barnwood so well it looks like it has always been there.

In 1993, the Colorado State Historical Society provided a $38,000 grant to help fund the building restoration, leaving the society to raise $76,000 in matching funds, which it did.

“It was an amazing beginning,” Bergman said. “We spent one whole Sunday removing junk from the site.”

The city arranged for use of five dump trucks and a front-end loader for the cleanup effort.

The grounds are now dotted with historic agricultural equipment and other finds by volunteers who always have their eye out for a fitting artifact to add to the collection.

“We’re constantly collecting stuff,” Fredrick said. “We’re hoping the ranchers in the valley get excited. This is a chance to tell their story.”

Inside the barn is one of the biggest finds, literally.

With permission from the U.S. Forest Service, the historical society relocated a stamp mill, left standing in a shed at timberline at the headwaters of Difficult Creek. Local men Stoney Davis and Norbert Anthes dismantled the 15,000-pound mill, used to crush ore, hauled it down Taylor Pass last fall and reassembled it inside the barn, where it nearly touches the ceiling.

“That’s the kind of dedication that makes this place special,” Fredrick said. “I hope the community will catch on.”

Also inside the barn is a model of the Marolt property, with the former lixiviation plant painstakingly recreated in miniature detail by members of the Roaring Fork Valley Model Railroaders.

A shiny, reconditioned steam engine is also on display in the museum and volunteers are at work refurbishing another one in their workshop – the former salt shed. Bergman would like to see the latter engine operated to run a lumber mill on the property, showing visitors how the timber frames for Aspen’s mines and other uses were once milled.

The stamp mill and the steam engine inside the barn are both operational, and the volunteers who labored on the machinery dream of the day they hook up the two with a shaft and show a new generation how old-timers crushed ore. It’ll be an air compressor, though, running the steam engine.

“It’ll be a once-in-a-while thing,” Fredrick added.

A display of minerals collected from the Aspen area, including the kind that glow in fluorescent fashion under a black light (there’s a room for that in the museum, too) are likely to get oohs and ahs from schoolchildren.

There’s also a display on “natural ice” to show kids how ice was once cut at Hallam Lake and stored to keep local ice boxes cold all summer.

When third-graders previewed the museum last winter, one youngster said, “What’s natural ice?”

“Ice to them means you hit a lever on the fridge and ice comes out,” Bergman said.

For Bergman, teaching local youngsters about Aspen’s past is the museum’s key function.

“It’s a wonderful tool for them to learn about the valley,” Fredrick agreed. “It’s so cool.”

A tour of the museum for kids – and anyone else – comes with an explanation on the use of a coal-fired boiler (the museum has two, both scavenged from other sites in Aspen) and the steam engine.

“Steam was an era – the first mechanical source of power,” Bergman explains, his own enthusiasm gaining steam. “Steam was the basis of the industrial revolution, and the mining era. To me, it’s one of the most forgotten pieces of history that we have.”

Remembering is what it’s all about, according to Bergman, who rescued one of the two steam engines in the museum’s possession from a former lumber mill on the far side of Castle Creek a quarter-century ago.

Other possibilities for the museum include an outdoor plot where youngsters could plant potatoes in the spring and harvest them in the fall.

Bergman would also like to see interpretive trails around the former lixiviation site, allowing visitors to explore the ruins that remain on the property.

“This is a work in progress,” Fredrick said. “We don’t see this as being close to being complete.”

For those who’d like to check out what the museum has to offer so far, it’s summer hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.; it’s open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children and $5 for senior citizens.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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