Willoughby: The value of a mineral is in the wisdom of the beholder
Legends & Legacies
My grandfather and his partners bought the Cowenhoven Building during the 1940s to open a bank. At the time of their purchase, Aspen had functioned without a bank for a number of years. The new bank opened within the old bank’s space on the corner. Grandfather moved the Midnight Mine’s office into the space next door. During World War II, my father directed the mine’s operations through three shifts a day. To save commute time, he transformed the space next to the mine office into a residence.
That was my residence as a child, a home in Aspen’s major commercial building. In addition to the bank, there were tourist-oriented retail stores. In those days no one locked their doors and we were no exception. So, passersby — expecting a store or restaurant — would walk into our home. Sometimes my parents invited them to sit down with us at the dinner table.
The location offered benefits for a child. For instance, my sister and I could walk out our front door, unfold a card table, and run a lemonade stand on prime retail real estate. My sister and her friends opened a card table museum that exhibited found art, mostly Victorian junk. For fascinated tourists, the museum became an “antique shop.”
As a tag-a-long little brother, I added rocks to the tabletop shop and even sold a few. I found most of my inventory during hikes up Little Nell. As I climbed and searched for sellable rocks, I discovered that skiers lost change while riding the lifts. Thereafter, my meanderings generally followed the lift line. I favored quartz, calcite and a few pieces that could pass for rose quartz. But the rocks I treasured did not always match the customers’ taste. I discovered a secret spot to collect the calcite crystals that my customers preferred.
In our backyard, a shed housed leftovers from when the Midnight closed, including piles of silver ore. But those did not excite my young eyes. Silver ore is dull and the dust that covered the pile blurred even the shiny galena lead. Had I carted those grey stones out to the store, I could have made a child-size fortune. Likely someone would have recognized silver ore in a silver mining town, bought it, and disappeared before I knew what I had lost. It never occurred to me that since my store was on Galena Street I could sell galena.
Two of my uncles had fabulous mineral collections, with colorful, exotic crystals of interesting shapes. They had obtained them through other rock hounds, who would write to them and promise in trade for silver ore.
Around the same time I searched for rocks for Fritz Kesear, who had a summer rock store. He sold polished rocks and jewelry that he fashioned in Tucson, his winter home. He found most of the rock — jade, jasper, agate and petrified wood — on excursions in Arizona. As a sideline, he collected and sold florescent rocks, such as my calcite finds from Little Nell. In exchange, he rewarded me with polished agate. I thought I got the better end of the deal.
When I began hiking with Peter, my son, I realized my advantage as a child. Closer to the ground, children find more valuable rocks than adults do. Pete valued colored rocks, especially the green ones. Every few yards he would grab one and ask if I would carry it for him. Then wow! A few yards later he would find another! Everyone with children knows how this goes.
I’ll never forget a cautionary tale from childhood, wrapped up in a shiny yellow mineral: fool’s gold. Ubiquitous around Aspen, pyrite excited me every time I found it. I ran with it to my father, with great hope that I had finally found gold. Every time he would praise me for my find, and then explain how to tell the difference. My disappointment softened when I realized my customers liked pyrite even more than my calcite crystals.
I never analyzed my profits and losses, so I don’t know whether I made more money through selling lemonade and rocks, trading with Kesear, or collecting lost change. The experience kept me busy, outdoors and out of my mother’s hair during the summer. And that was as good as gold — no fooling.
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 email@example.com.
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Aspen Sister Cities members dedicated a plaque in Sister Cities Plaza to Don Sheeley, who served as president of the organization from 1998 until his death in 2017.