The history of the Aspen Historical Society |

The history of the Aspen Historical Society

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes
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The future of the Aspen Historical Society is secure and bright, thanks to the creation of a Historical Park and Recreation District, enthusiastically approved by Aspen voters in November 2005. You are invited to celebrate at a community picnic on the Wheeler/Stallard Museum grounds Sunday, July 1, from 1 to 4 p.m. With a theme to “Archive the Good Old Days, a nostalgic journey into the ’50s,” the gathering is also a “fun-raiser” for the renovation of the Historical Society’s archives facilities.The following article, written by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, was published in The Aspen Times on June 23, 1983.The history of Aspen is fascinating and much of it is documented in archives and in displays at the Wheeler/Stallard House, the Victorian mansion built by Jerome B. Wheeler that is the museum for the Aspen Historical Society.Joan Lane, one of the founders of the Aspen Historical Society, explained how the society was first begun.”Artist/designer Herbert Bayer wrote a letter to the editor of The Aspen Times, saying that someone should start a local historical society,” she remembered.”Herbert said he was concerned that many of the old historic buildings were being torn down and lost.”Julie James read the letter and decided to do it, and dragged me into it because she knew I liked old photographs.”

Lane said that at that time, 1963, none of the locals seemed very interested in their own history.”I think the national media had something to do with that,” she said. “The stories about Aspen always depicted it as a ghost town. I think that was a put-down for the some 1, 000 people who lived here.”An exception was Dorothy Shaw, who saved everything she could get her hands on.She had barns and sheds full of treasures and old photographs – even old cars.For a short time, she even opened a small private museum in the building where the Mother Lode restaurant is now located.James and Lane were able to get copies of many of the old photos from Shaw. They held their first old photo exhibit around the summer of 1963 in the Armory, which is now City Hall.James and Lane had their first office for the Historical Society in the Elks Building, then one in the Wheeler Opera House.

“Julie was immersed in trying to save the old buildings,” reported Lane.”She certified several important buildings and put plaques on them. Buildings like the courthouse, Francis Herron’s house, the Catholic Church and the Community Church.”The society is still doing this.”James also made the Society into an organization with a board of trustees, a building committee, a research committee and a museum committee.James was the first president, Lane the secretary.

They collected other things besides photographs. Things like miners’ lamps and tools.”It got to be that people with old things knew where to give them,” laughed Lane.”We assessed them, tried to figure out what the things were.”James and Lane also talked to old-timers and recorded their stories.”County Treasurer Phil Crosby told us about his walk to Leadville in the winter, fixing telephone wire.”Lane pointed out that later members of the Historical Society continued gathering the stories of the old-timers.”George Madsen did many tapes with Louise Berg and with Bede Harris and Auzel Gerbaz.”As some of the old-timers died, their belonging ended up with the Historical Society.Miss Rothchild’s organ is there and some pieces of her furniture and her old books.

Old photographs kept cropping up. Many were found when the Bowman Block was renovated. John Bowman had been a photographer and had his studio there, along with his father, Col. John Bowman, who had the Musee Saloon in the same building. Many of the photographs are of the colonel, who looked just like Buffalo Bill.Another early photographer was James Kelly, known as “Horsethief” Kelly. Glass negatives of his were found in the house on Aspen’s Main Street that belonged to him and later to his daughter, Bertha Kelly Masterson.

Lane reminded that copies of many of the old photographs can be purchased at the Wheeler/Stallard House.Then Lane became uninterested in the Historical Society as an organization – and interested in producing a book using Horsethief Kelly’s photographs.She and Janet Landry published the book entitled “Horsethief Kelly and His Camera” in 1972.What Lane likes most now about the Historical Society is that some of the “old Aspen names” from the old Aspen families are the ones that appear in stories about the Society.”I read that Cherie Gerbaz Oates has organized style shows, that Tim Willloughby gives talks about the mining history, that Kathy Snyder has served as the president.”It seems that locals are now interested in their own history.”This article is in a published collection, “The Story of Aspen,” by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, with photographs by Chris Cassatt and others.

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