Willoughby: Cottonwoods good for shade, not a namesake
July 7, 2018
A town devoid of trees alongside its roadways holds little appeal for people raised on tree-lined streets. Native trees have long encircled Aspen, but few trees graced the valley floor. After development of a street grid, early settlers acquired lots, planted saplings, and dug irrigation ditches to keep the trees alive. After a decade or so of growth, Aspen looked more like settlers' original homes.
The visual appeal of trees and nostalgia for tree-lined streets motivated the settlers' transformation of the landscape, along with a yearning for shade. Cottonwood, native to the valley and fast growing, shed the leaves that shaded summer and let winter's sun shine through. Whatever the season, its branches provided a windbreak.
The building boom of the late 1880s led to extensive tree planting. You could buy cottonwoods at Hollister and King grocery store at Fourth and Main streets. The Aspen Times commented that year that "a great many cottonwood shade trees are being sent out this spring in the residence part of the city which with the many already planted will in a few years make Aspen a beautiful sylvan retreat."
Cottonwoods dominated Aspen's streets for years as the Rocky Mountain maple, also a native tree, increased in popularity. Less water sucking, less enticing to ants, and shorter, maples gained favor as a decorative tree.
In the 1950s Aspen turned to Lou Willie at Aspen Nursery and Landscaping for trees and advice. Willie sold cottonwoods for $6, and that included planting them. Willie also sold silver maple, which grew faster and survived snow damage better than the native maple.
Town peoples' opinions divided on cottonwoods, primarily by sex — tree sex, that is. Some residents felt insane with allergies each year, when the female trees wafted cottony seeds. At times it seemed almost like it was snowing. Just as you can get tired of shoveling snow, cleaning up piles of cottonwood fiber exhausted many a person's patience.
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A Times editorial in 1945 waxed sexist, "Our contention is that shade trees are not really needed in this climate, that lawns grow better if not shaded, and last, just how many of these cottonwoods are beautiful trees? Most of them are only prolific spreaders of cotton. We estimate that about one-third of the trees are females and the judicious use of an ax will hurt no one."
Cottonwoods lost favor during the 1960s. Many of the oldest trees were dying. Their limbs broke off in windstorms and a few trees toppled. The city trimmed and removed some of them. A candidate in one city council race suggested the city begin a replacement program, but the idea died. With the advent of air conditioning, shade was not as important. Voters wanted no cotton and no worries about falling tree limbs.
I remember around 1964, the city embarked on a street-paving program. Someone thought soil cement would be better than asphalt, and city workers would save money by doing the work. The process involved gutters, some sidewalk work and new trees. I was living on Hopkins Avenue between Mill and Monarch streets. The city planted maples on our block. We rescued them each fall, when snow fell on unshed leaves and the accumulated weight threatened to break branches. The trees rewarded our efforts with splendid autumn colors.
Few crabapple trees eked out survival in the city. They grew more commonly downvalley, especially below Glenwood, where orchards grew well enough to provide farmers a decent living. Wherever the fruit came from, crabapple jam sweetened many an Aspen breakfast. Having chawed into a few of Aspen's crabapples straight up, I can attest to the superiority of jam.
During the 1920s, when the Midnight Mine office inhabited the building on the corner of Hyman and Monarch, my father and grandfather would eat lunch outside. As they lounged against the west brick wall below the White Owl ad, they tossed their crabapple cores in front of them. When a tree took root, they nurtured and watered it, and it continued to grow and survive Aspen's winters. Another large crabapple tree on Main Street between Second and Third likely got off to a similar start.
Aspen trees on many streets have grown large enough, now, to provide the aesthetics and shade envisioned by settlers. Those pioneers found cottonwoods along the Roaring Fork, aspens and pines on Aspen Mountain, and aspen groves at the base of the mountain. How easy it would have been to name the town Cottonwood — a name too long to engrave on a sterling belt buckle! Aren't we glad they chose Aspen?
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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