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Rewards of reading old Aspen papers

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
The 1907 Aspen Democrat, like many old newspapers, advertised today's antique collectibles.
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A 1960s folk duo known by two names, Pat and Victoria and Mr. And Mrs. Garvey, spent a winter entertaining in Aspen. Performing mostly original material, they found inspiring sources for songs in Aspen’s decades-old newspapers. One resulting recording called Ghost Towns included these lyrics: “Now they’re only ghost towns, blowing in the wind, memories of a bright and better day.”

Even if you’re not searching for creative inspiration, perusing past papers can provide entertainment. The 25-50-100 section of the Aspen Times Weekly reviews interesting old Aspen stories. Reading the older daily papers available through the Colorado Historical Society’s online collection, you will discover political satire, human interest, exposed scandals, poetry plus ads for products we now consider antiques.

Newspapers’ contents have not changed. Aspen’s yellowing newspapers reveal a combination of the styles of today’s tabloids, national news summaries like USA Today, and local news. Contemporary papers are beginning to look more like those from a century ago, with their recent reintroduction of medical testimonials printed as if they are news stories from nationally syndicated papers.

In 2010, pharmaceutical advertisers reflect the style of a testimonial from Aspen druggist Al Lamb in the Aspen Democrat: “Rev. John S. Cox, of Wake, Ark., writes, ‘For 12 years I suffered from yellow jaundice. I consulted a number of physicians and tried all sorts of medicines, but got no relief. Then I began the use of Electric Bitters and feel that I am now cured of a disease that had me in its grasp for 12 years.’ If you want a reliable medicine for liver and kidney trouble, stomach disorder or general debility, get Electric Bitters. It’s guaranteed by Al S. Lamb.”

Crime news covered front pages back then, just as today. One of my favorites, a plot for a western novel, is a 1904 Aspen Democrat article titled “Kids Intended To Rob Dead Passengers” that went this way: “Lowell Ellis , of Florence, the leader of the boy bandits who last January pulled a spike from the rails of the D and R G near Adobe, causing a freight wreck, was placed on trial in the district court here this afternoon before Judge Bennet. Ellis and his two companions in crime, Myron Adrich and Will Benton, were arrested at Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they had fled after the wreck. They said they intended to wreck No. 1 passenger train and rob any passengers who might have been killed.”

Newspapers were proudly politically partisan. Aspen offered more than one paper, each with their own loyal readers. Editors exchanged sarcasm and scathing insults that delighted their partisan readers. Today’s right-wing blogs barely match the penmanship of editors from a century ago. During an election-time recession, Aspen’s Charles Dailey wrote about Republicans and their incumbent candidates Theodore Roosevelt and Governor James Peabody: “The Republican headquarters’ windows look like an advertisement of a county fair. The picture of the prize hog is the chief feature and he looks the part.”

If you intend to write a historical novel, old papers supply context and content better than anything you can make up. Compare present-day Episcopal gay/lesbian marriage controversies with the following: “The house of deputies of the Episcopal general conference today adopted by a large majority a compromise resolution on the divorce question, by which the innocent party in a divorce for adultery may remarry after one year and a presentation of satisfactory evidence of the facts. The debate was extensive and warm. The bishops have adopted a resolution forbidding all marriages of divorced people.”

Take a break from cable news and People magazine, and peruse past periodicals instead. Inspirations for folk songs and best-seller books and plain old fun reading will be your reward. It’s guaranteed by F. T. Willoughby.


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