Willoughby: Aspen’s 2017 mirrored 1917, but that does not mean 2018 should resemble 1918
Legends & Legacies
I wonder what stories my grandchildren will tell their grandchildren about the year 2017. My mother and father, around 10 years old in 1917, passed along a few memories from the past century. But the Aspen Democrat Times may provide a better gauge of historic happenings. The following items from December of that year suggest that daily news has not changed much.
Russia is on our minds these days, with questions about election collusion and the war in Syria. In 1917 Russia signed an armistice with Germany that ended a fight over a disputed region at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. There, people had declared their independence and established a provisional government. Famine and revolution dominated the news. Trotsky had just proposed the use of the guillotine on those who opposed the Bolsheviks.
Jerusalem has been in our news with President Donald Trump recognizing the city as Israel’s capital. This month in 1917, 60,000 Turkish and German troops vied with England for command of Jerusalem. Eventually, England raised its flag there and marked the first time in 700 years that non-Muslims controlled the city.
World War I dominated the talk of Aspen in December 1917. The YWCA raised money for the War Fund and asked every girl to donate 25 cents to build a nurse’s hut in France. A productive canning year and foreign purchases reduced the national sugar supply and Aspen’s residents complained about the shortage, as did everyone else in the country.
The first wave of the draft selected 13 Aspen soldiers. They represented 5 percent of the eligible and registered men of Pitkin County. Soldiers who had already signed up for the army wrote holiday letters to send home. Bill Sheehan, my great uncle, served as a supply clerk at Camp Funston when Raymond Robinson, another Aspenite, was assigned to work with him.
As we end 2017, newspapers and film feature inspiring stories about women. In 1917, a local man stationed at Camp Kearney in California sent home a story about another such woman. He had seen an exhibition by aviatrix Katherine Stinson, poised to break a woman’s distance record by flying from San Diego to San Francisco. He said of her flying demonstration, “she glided over the camp like some huge bird, dipping, twisting and looping in the most reckless manner.”
Our president has disparaged many immigrants and refugees. In 1917, The American Defense Society, a vigilance corps, proposed a national plan to counter “those responsible for fires, ammunition plant explosions, sabotage and other attempts to damage the morale of the American people.” They wanted every city to classify all residents as loyal, disloyal, doubtful or unknown — and to designate “alien enemies,” “pro-Germans” and “anti-government” citizens.
Congress of 2017 stirred controversy with tax reform. The U.S. Senate of 1917 voted 47-8 to approve prohibition as a constitutional amendment, and sent the amendment to states for ratification.
Stock prices have climbed more than 20 percent as 2017 comes to a close. A century ago, World War I drove metals prices up and Aspen’s mines thrived. That year, miners sent 2,640 railroad cars of ore to the smelter, a 20 percent increase over 1916. Rounding out the economy, county residents raised 7,000 range cattle and 5,500 sheep, produced 7,200 tons of hay, and wished one another happy new year across 654 miles of phone lines.
Aspen’s residents must have approached 1918 with expectations for continued success. But within the next 12 months, almost a third of its young men died from influenza, and others died in the war. The price of electricity increased, mineral prices sank to low prewar levels and major mines closed.
As we raise a glass to the end of 2017, let’s envision a break from historic similar similarity.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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