Willoughby: Red Cross a longtime favorite Aspen institution | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Red Cross a longtime favorite Aspen institution

The American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton, was close to Aspen’s hearts and pocketbooks. Early settlers had experienced it during the Civil War, hence one of Aspen’s early mining claims was named Red Cross.

The community followed the national organization through the newspapers. The work of its workers got as much attention as the soldiers and war victims it was serving. A major typhoid outbreak in Pennsylvania in 1889 and the Armenian conflict in 1896 were well reported. The war with Spain in Cuba but especially in the Philippines attracted attention. Red Cross aid in the Russia-Japanese war in 1905 also filled newspaper pages. The local Knights Templar helped organize Aspen’s support for foreign Red Cross work.

Nurses on the ship The Red Cross sailing to aid in World War I. (Library of Congress)

Closer to home, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake demanded immediate support. In a matter of days about $27,000 in today’s dollars was raised. About half was sent directly, the other half purchased a train carload of food and supplies from local outlets. Colorado, the first state to send aid, shipped 20 train carloads.

The American Red Cross embarked on a new project beginning in 1909 — battling tuberculosis, “the white plague.” It raised money by selling stamps and then seals through one-cent purchases.

World War I expanded local activity. It began primarily through enticing locals to become Red Cross members. Lewis Tomkins, the hardware store owner, and D.R.C. Brown, a major mine owner, chaired the local chapter. Membership was a dollar ($22.70 in today’s dollars). They held a successful fundraiser showing a silent movie, “A Naked Soul,” with Aspen’s Mandolin Club providing music at the Isis. They also organized a fair featuring an elk barbecue, Vaudeville show, auction and keno game, and finishing with a dance that raised $55,000 in today’s dollars.

In 1917 “Aspen patriotic women,” as the newspaper dubbed them, put together boxes of supplies they sent to France filled with pillows, gauze, bandages, helmets, mufflers, sweaters and socks. The next year, using the phrases, “Do Your Bit” and “Do Something,” women led by Mrs. M.J. Healy organized a knitting group. Two-hundred and seventy-five volunteers knitted sweaters and other items including 542 pairs of socks in one month.

The organization and its experience were put to work again in World War II. In 1940, Mrs. Orman King, Mary Babic and Miriam Evans quickly enlisted 16 volunteers to make bed shirts. That group grew to 34 knitters and 40 sewers. Fundraising began like in WWI with Red Cross membership drives. Mrs. Charles Greene led the first effort in 1941 signing up 272 members in the county, 174 in Aspen. They also started a paper drive with the proceeds of the sale of gathered used paper products going to the county Red Cross.

As the war proceeded, the effort escalated. Aspen was one of the first in the state to reach its membership quota. More were signed up through several annual drives. One year my mother led the Aspen drive, another my aunt Doris Willoughby was the chair of the county drive, and another year Pearl Bishop led the efforts. Paul Smith, followed by Tom Sardy, were the heads of the County Red Cross leading a fund drive that in one year raised $14,000 in Depression times.

The local chapter did more than raise money and knit. It also formed a Junior Red Cross and created home nursing classes because so many nurses were dealing with military casualties leaving few to care for others. To prepare for any eventuality it also created an emergency response training program. It also organized the training and testing to qualify ski patrol volunteers.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.

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