Stories in stone: Aspen Grove reflects the town’s history
October 29, 2010
ASPEN – Over the last week, the first of the snow and the last of the Aspen leaves just east of town fell to create a winter blanket over the headstone of Helen Agnes, marking 120 years next month since she was buried at Aspen Grove Cemetery.
Helen, 8 months old when she died, shares the graveyard with the remains of hundreds upon hundreds of people, some of their graves indicated by headstones and countless others unmarked. Some of them were among the post-World War II pioneers who created modern Aspen – Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, Freidl Pfeifer – and others, like the Cowenhoven family, were influential in Aspen’s mining era.
But baby Helen was not influential in either era. In fact, little is known about her, apart from what a Fort Collins historic preservation consultant has been able to dig up for a book he is writing. Helen is part of the majority of people buried in the Aspen Grove, just ordinary folk who, despite their common qualities, defined a chapter in Aspen’s history.
“There are many more hundreds of Aspen’s common people than the movers and shakers,” said the consultant, Ron Sladek, president of Fort Collins’ Tatanka Historic Associates.
That statement is apparent in the headstones that line the network of trails and roads – “the grid,” as Sladek calls it – that winds through the cemetery, which now lies under a peaceful layer of undisturbed snow. Many of the headstones indicate that the grave occupant never reached his or her first birthday. Theodore Ackerman died in 1887 as a 21-day-old. His little brother Henry died in 1896 as a 10-day old.
Some century-old headstones were carved out of wood, and the weathered writing can barely be read anymore.
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The cemetery is “really the repository of a tremendous amount of information … and it’s considered sacred ground,” Sladek said
Many of the people of that era who did make it to young adulthood died prematurely because of the sub-par medical services. Move forward to more recent grave markers, and the ages of the occupants increase. The feeling of historical significance is palpable in the cemetery. But just as apparent upon entering the cemetery gates is the feeling of peace that keeps members of the Aspen Grove Cemetery Association (AGCA) volunteering there.
“The town of Aspen’s always busy,” said Jim Markalunas, a former city councilman and former director of Aspen’s public works department who volunteers with the AGCA, during a tour of the cemetery early this month. “But you can always come here and find peace.”
In 2007, the city of Aspen and the Colorado Historic Preservation Society jointly funded a study of the Aspen Grove, which resulted in Sladek’s study and his recommendation that Aspen seek to list the property with the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The honorary listing with the NRHP is just that: honorary. But it provides the AGCA with a strong marketing tool in applying for grant money. Sladek’s own initiative led to his current project – an effort to profile every person buried there and record it in a full-length book – which he is funding out of his own pocket.
It will provide, he said, an essential look into what shaped Aspen as a community.
“A book on the cemetery is really a book about the town, about the people of Aspen,” he said.
Nineteenth-century Aspen might seem utterly foreign to a member of today’s society, in which advanced medical technology and healthy living conditions are often taken for granted. But it’s one of the reasons that Sladek and a number of volunteer caretakers say the graveyard must be preserved.
Sladek has been gathering information about each person he knows is buried in the Aspen Grove Cemetery from various historical records. He started with the headstones, which provide the name and dates of birth and death of each grave occupant, and went from there. He looked through microfilm of old editions of The Aspen Times at the Pitkin County Library and the Aspen Historical Society, seeking obituaries and other articles. He examined death records from across the country to find where people came from and to correct any misinformation on the headstones.
Following those efforts, Sladek completed a draft historic preservation plan, recommending that the Aspen Grove be listed with the NRHP and noting several aspects of the cemetery that need attention, like the deteriorating wooden rail fence that lines it.
Nonetheless, during a tour he hosted early this month announcing the preservation plan, Sladek applauded the AGCA volunteers, who make the best of a slim, $10,000 annual budget to maintain and care for the graves, and ensure the graveyard doesn’t go into near abandonment, as it did just after World War I.
In July 1889, the newly formed AGCA bought the 15-acre plot for $700 as a reaction to the deteriorating condition of Aspen’s Ute Cemetery. It started as a robust and beautiful burial ground, lined with aspen trees and marble headstones, and for the following 40 years, it was a proud component of Aspen culture.
But as the Great Depression took hold of Aspen’s economy, the AGCA became effectively defunct and stopped caring for the burial ground.
“The cemetery was almost abandoned during the Depression years,” Sladek said. “I wouldn’t say it was abandoned, but it was pretty close to it.”
Burials continued in the graveyard between the 1930s and the 1960s, but the parcel of land that made up the Aspen Grove Cemetery was all but forgotten by maintenance volunteers. Today’s stand of aspen trees and a large amount of scrub oak invaded the cemetery and the surrounding area. The plants filled in the open spaces, roads and trails, making it difficult to navigate between the graves.
City officials and AGCA volunteers agree the cemetery should stay in its natural, unmanicured state, but they want to protect it from damage and secure enough funding to appropriately maintain the site.
A number of prominent community members – some of the “movers and shakers” Sladek mentioned – began an effort to revive the graveyard and re-establish the AGCA in the 1960s. Florence Glidden, whose son Dan Glidden now volunteers at the cemetery, Ramona Markalunas and Elizabeth Paepcke formed something of an action committee to gather a new volunteer base, prune the vegetation that had colonized the grounds, and ensure visitors respected the property.
During the recent tour, Jim Markalunas said he still occasionally ousts rascally teenagers who escape to the cemetery for privacy or mischief.
But some of the acts committed at the graveyard are more serious. One grave marker on the east end of the cemetery, a statue of a woman holding a bouquet of roses, is missing its head, presumably because of vandalism.
That’s one reason why, though the dedicated members of the AGCA have been commended for preserving the layout of the cemetery, as well as its timeless tranquility, it needs more solid funding to secure it. Fundraising efforts have not started yet, nor has a funding goal been established.
The AGCA prunes trees, cleans up trash and reports any suspicious activity – anything, really to keep the cemetery beautiful. And the members, many of whom have plots reserved for their own remains, are planning to pass responsibility for the cemetery to their offspring. But with a national historic listing, the AGCA would be positioned to expand its budget and establish a sure operating fund.
Misinformation on headstones is not uncommon, Sladek said, noting a case study of a Civil War veteran named John Moss who is buried in the graveyard.
Sladek’s journey through Moss’s death records, newspaper clippings and military records produced a one-paragraph biography on the soldier. They reveal that Moss had originated in California, fought in and survived military conflicts on the West Coast during the Civil War, found a passion for music, took it up professionally and finally ended up in Aspen, a member of the Masonic Lodge.
One day in 1885, Moss was playing with a dog, when the dog snapped at him, caught him by the lip and broke the skin. The cut became infected, and Moss, experiencing terrible pain from the infection, overdosed on morphine.
Moss’s friends had buried him in the cemetery. They etched the age 40 into his headstone, the number picked from a guess one of them made. Sladek’s research has discovered Moss was really about 33.
“They’re basically typos on the stone,” Sladek said. “It’s amazing what you can find with good research skills,” he added, noting the vast amount of information that is available through death records.
Though his grant through the state historical fund is almost out, Sladek’s research for the city will be finished within the next couple of months, when he will file a final report. The city plans to spearhead the effort to get the cemetery listed with the NRHP. Cemetery officials hope that effort, combined with volunteers’ ongoing commitment to protecting the graveyard, will maintain Aspen Grove as a token of Aspen’s history for many years to come.
“I hope that, in 100 years from now, people can still come here and find peace,” Markalunas said.