Plotting the past
Red Butte Cemetery, for which Aspen’s Cemetery Lane is named, is quiet at this time of year.
Beneath tall, bare trees and a deep layer of snow, stand tombstones of stone and wood. They mark the final resting places for many who were influential in forming Aspen, as well as the ranchers and miners who knew a lifestyle worlds away from today’s Roaring Fork Valley.
Many of the grave markers bear recognizable names such as Twining, Herron, Marolt, Sardy, Cerise, Vagneur and Gerbaz, men and women who came to Aspen decades ago and whose descendants still live in the valley today.
One of the cemetery’s oldest graves dates back to the 1870s. Others are unmarked, or are inscribed with little information about who is buried beneath.
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Now, though, a computerized database and map of the grave sites in Aspen’s Red Butte Cemetery distinguishes it as more than just a well-manicured lawn dotted with granite and marble blocks.
The database, no small undertaking (and no pun intended), was created in November 2001 by two longtime locals. And while the project had the blessing of the cemetery’s board of directors, it was Carol Foote and Judy James’ passion for the past that made it a reality.
For more than a century, three tattered, hand-inscribed books have held information about who is interred in at Red Butte. Stored in the cemetery’s maintenance shed, these precious logs rarely saw the light of day. Their deteriorating state and inaccessibility left many genealogy buffs stymied as to how to find information about loved ones who passed away in Aspen.
This is why sisters Foote and James dreamed up the idea of creating a computerized database showing who lies where in Red Butte Cemetery. As 32-year employees of the Pitkin County Treasurer’s Office, the women often helped people find their ancestors through birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and tax records.
It was a fitting pastime for Foote and James, who grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and come from a generation that remembers the town during a different time. Year by year, more people with those kinds of memories are coming to rest at Red Butte Cemetery. “There’s a lot of people I know out there,” Foote said, “and the older I get, the more I know.”
Foote and James moved from Oklahoma to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1954, when their stepfather found work in the mines near Carbondale. Their mother was a homemaker and part-time waitress, and the girls attended school in Basalt.
The sisters’ lives are still closely entwined: Both live in Blue Lake, and both have worked three-plus decades for Pitkin County. They recall a time when nothing in Aspen stood taller than the Pitkin County Courthouse and the Hotel Jerome, and they remember when a quart of fresh cream would turn to homemade butter on the unpaved road over Independence Pass.
One of their friends and longtime coworkers, Aspenite Warren Conner, was buried in Red Butte Cemetery not long ago. Conner basically grew up in the courthouse, emptying spittoons there as a boy and then working in almost every office in the building ” social services, the treasurer’s office, county clerk and the assessor’s office.
“He’d have the best time talking about old times in here,” Foote said. “Those days are soon going to be gone for a lot of us. There aren’t many old-timers left.”
So while tramping through a snow filled graveyard may not sound inviting to many, the sisters say the cemetery is pleasant in summer and that many of the old tombstones are worth a look ” a former Colorado governor, Davis Waite, was buried there in 1901; Helen Zordel, the former Pitkin County treasurer who hired Foote and James, was buried there last December.
“You hate to see that old Aspen go,” said Foote. “There’s nothing wrong with being young ” I was young once. But the old-timers here, they have stories to tell.”
Mapping the markers
The idea to create a cemetery directory initially hatched about eight years ago when Foote and James were helping an Oregon woman find a deceased family member. Aspenite Jane Stapleton had been the custodian of records at the cemetery for years, and one of the sisters contacted her to find an actual grave location of a grave.
“Jane helped me go out there and look at this horrible old grid, with names just written in tiny little squares on it,” Foote said. “As I was looking, I said, ‘Boy, if you ever wanted to get this stuff on a computer, I’d help you.'”
Five years later, Stapleton remembered that offer when the Red Butte Cemetery board found a computer and some perfect software. The first step was to review the old log books, of which only two were actually legible. Thus, of the 2,707 people buried at Red Butte, many are listed as “unknowns,” according to Foote.
The next step was to spend some serious time walking the cemetery grounds. Red Butte Cemetery is laid out in a basic grid pattern where rectangles of land are divided into blocks, which are subdivided into lots and then specific plots. Of the 18 acres deeded to the cemetery, roughly half have been plotted as grave sites, some used and some not. A strip of land to the east of the cemetery ” “river-view property,” as cemetery bookkeeper Stoney Davis calls it ” was just parceled out for use last summer. Eventually the cemetery will grow into its acreage to the north. (The land is currently nothing but a large, empty lot separated from the cemetery by a barbed-wire fence, bordered by the Roaring Fork River and a row of homes.)
As far as the sisters can tell, the oldest graves date back to the 1870s. Most of these are located in a thin strip on the far right upon entering the graveyard; one of the oldest tombstones stood smack in the middle of an overgrown lilac bush when the sisters visited the cemetery in summer 2002 to photograph the grave sites.
“Imagine losing a headstone in the middle of a flower bush,” Foote said. “It just grew up around the grave.”
The Red Butte Cemetery’s computerized directory, comprising a giant grid and long list of names, can be viewed at the cemetery’s new, corrugated tin kiosk near the entrance. A copy of the directory is also available at the Aspen Historical Society, the Pitkin County Library and the county clerk’s office. Eventually the records and photos of each grave site may be available for viewing on the USGenWeb project, at http://www.usgenweb.com.
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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