The Brown brothers – two tough miners |

The Brown brothers – two tough miners

Willoughby collectionTravel to Aspen's high-altitude mines was a slow, cold trip even in the best weather.

Bill and Tom Brown, my father’s childhood neighbors and favorite characters, lived in a building that once housed a business on the corner of Hyman Avenue and Aspen Street. They would engage Father in conversation when he played in the area. As a teenager, Father enjoyed playing pool at the Jerome Hotel while observing the interaction of the Browns with other older men and listening to their chatter.

The Browns, oversized miners and immigrants from Scotland, together weighed more than a quarter of a ton. Tom exercised with dumbbells and could hold 100 pounds in one hand with the same ease that most of us display when handling one or two pounds.

Tom once told a story about his youth, circulating around Aspen’s saloons. He had wagered a $20 double eagle that he could drink 20 mugs of beer in a short time. After winning his bet, he said, “Now I’ll let you have a chance to get even. Another double eagle says I can drink another 20 mugs in the same amount of time.” No one called his bet.

Bill Brown was hired to work at the Montezuma Mine above Ashcroft sometime between 1910 and 1920. The story of his first day on that job was told and retold each time a stranger saw him pull off his boots.

Brown had sent his bedding and other possessions by teamster-driven sled to the mine’s bunkhouse below Castle Peak, high up in the bowl at the end of the valley (above 12,000 feet). The next day he caught a sled from Aspen to Ashcroft. They arrived late in the day, in a mid-winter snowstorm. Brown proceeded to Dan MacArthur’s saloon to socialize with old acquaintances. After a few whiskeys, Bill announced that he would climb the final five miles to the mine instead of staying in town for the night. Against the advice of the saloon crowd, Brown, known as a stubborn man, headed out the door.

After a couple of hours the men in the saloon, worried about Brown’s irrational decision, called the mine to see if he had arrived. He had not. After anxiously calling again an hour later, they organized search parties from both ends.

They found Brown totally exhausted and nearly frozen. Medicine’s widely-applied solution to frostbite in those days was amputation of both feet to the heels.

Bill Brown worked for the Midnight Mine in the 1920s. Father noticed, while working with him, that Brown’s artificial feet never diminished his work output. Father himself had had a finger amputated to the wrist when gangrene set in after a falling rock had crushed his hand. He never flinched at mining’s physical demands. The miners’ ethic modeled for him by Bill Brown as a teenager was, “It’s a tough profession, not one for whining over lost limbs.”

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