New era for the Aspen Historical Society
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” Dressed in brown cowboy boots, a black vest and a fedora complete with a red and gray feather, Mike Monroney draws stares as he drives around downtown Aspen in a pint-sized electric vehicle.
After years as a performer at Aspen’s Crystal Palace, Monroney is no stranger to costumes. But this time, instead of heading to the dinner theater, he is heading outside, leading tourists and residents around town in the Aspen Historical Society’s new “history coach.”
The six-seat electric vehicle is part of the Society’s new outreach program to foster interest in Aspen’s mining town-to-ski resort past. It’s perhaps the most visible sign of the Historical Society’s ongoing and ambitious makeover.
Six years ago, said Executive Director Georgia Hanson, the organization looked like it was headed for an early demise.
“At the time that I arrived, the Historical Society was struggling to keep the doors open,” she said. “The Historical Society had tried to head in a direction that was not exactly community-based. It was because there was a group who tried to make it a world-class, cutting-edge entity and in a way they forgot to turn around and bring the old-timers along with them.”
A temporary name change to HeritageAspen was just one example of the society’s “disconnect” with the community, Hanson said. The Society was housed in the historic Wheeler-Stallard mansion in the West End, but was otherwise alienated from many of the town’s residents. One example of the problem was an ambitious museum exhibit called “The Spirit of Aspen” that didn’t quite live up to the promise of its title.
“The exhibit itself was thoughtful and meant to be interactive,” said Hanson. “But budget cuts removed the interactive part and we ended up with an ultra-modern exhibit in a historic house. Many people were shocked.”
Short on funds, the society needed to make a change. In 2002, the board hired Hanson to take over. Basic programming continued but the society reduced staff to between one and two people and became completely dependent upon volunteers.
“There were about two or three years when it was so difficult,” said Hanson. “We got to a defensive place. Everybody had ideas for the society, but we had no funds.”
In 2004 Pitkin County and the City of Aspen agreed to provide emergency funding for the society for one year. In 2005, voters approved an actual property tax district for the organization with 65 percent of the vote in favor. The tax, which raises $500,000 dollars a year, has enabled the Society to beef up its staff to 12 people and effectively manage its multiple sites: Wheeler-Stallard house, the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, Ashcroft ghost town and Independence ghost town (A ski museum at old Lift One on South Aspen Street is also possible in the future.)
“I think that the major way that it has changed, and is also a fairly direct result of the tax that was passed, is that we were able to hire a staff,” said Communication Director Tom Egan. “Getting the word out is as important as doing stuff. The idea was to get someone on board who could help with that aspect.”
Along with an increase in staff, the society began to form a vision for the museum, located inside the Wheeler-Stallard house.
“When we do most events we tend to have an aspect of the event that is just not what you would expect,” said Egan. “In the museum world, we are probably more irreverent than we realize. We are trying to make history fun, interesting and something that people would want to come and enjoy.”
As stated by the society’s website “The days of those ‘dead white man’ museums are gone.” Accordingly, the society has developed new programs to reflect what Egan says is the best way to describe Aspen: “irreverent.”
The museum’s new exhibit on transportation is thus titled “Go West, Young Man! But Park at the Intercept Lot.” Egan also cited the “Fishwit” prize ” named for a former Aspen resident, jazz musician and fix-it man ” as the best example of the society’s irreverence.
“Freddie Fisher is a classic example of an irreverent Aspen character and we honor his birthday,” he said. “When we do that, we give away the Freddy Fisher irreverent wit prize, which we call the Fishwit, for letters to the editor. Freddy is well-known for his irreverent and sometimes sarcastic letters to the editor.”
The Fishwit prize, a Philly bass that has been spray-painted gold, is given annually to a local who writes the best letters to the editor.
Along with the golden Philly bass, the society hosted a July 5 pie contest and plans to have a haunted house in October.
“The idea is this: It is fun, it is old-fashioned and I imagine that there will be people who will stick their faces in pie,” said Egan. “Instead of the reception being perceived as something as a formal glass of wine in one hand, walk around and get factual information about our stuff, people can eat pie and we’ll see where that goes. You wouldn’t expect a pie contest at a museum.”
But you might expect a guided tour from a historical society. So the Aspen History Coach will continue to give tours around town, with Monroney as the guide. Monroney claims he has fallen in love with Aspen all over again since starting the historical job.
“I started out knowing that the town had been a vital and productive silver town, but not realizing how interesting the people were that were involved and how short-lived the glory years were,” he said. “Also learning that the same sort of human foibles that we’re dealing with now in the town ” which can be greed, generosity, intrigue, political manipulation and a true love for this area down through the ages ” none of that has changed. We are basically all still just the same as the people who arrived here in 1880.”
Tiffany Wilson, an intern for the society and a recent college graduate, struggled at first to understand why Aspen didn’t look more like a 19th-century mining town.
“When I first got to Aspen, I asked my guide why none of the stuff looks old. He told me to ‘take off the ruby slippers. You are not in Kansas anymore,'” said Wilson.
Wilson came to understand that modern-day Aspen reflects several historical and architectural periods. Having worked with various historical societies, she now says she finds Aspen to be the most intriguing.
“It is cool to work with an organization that’s starting to draw in the community and is also an active member of the community,” she said.
Longtime Aspenite Jane Click, a tour guide, also was drawn to the society despite intentions to retire.
“I had a store in Aspen and I knew all of the gossip in town, so I decided that I wanted to learn the history,” said Click.
Despite Aspen’s rich history and well-documented post-World War II revival, Monroney says the most common question he gets is “Where do the celebrities live?”
“My answer is, I am not dealing with the celebrities of today,” he said. “I am dealing with the celebrities of the past. I will show you where the celebrities of the past live.”
For more information on the Aspen Historical Society’s programming, mission, budget and upcoming events, go to aspenhistory.org.
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