Tim Willoughby: Some of Aspen’s extraordinary Fourth of July celebrations
Legends & Legacies
COVID-19 curtails Aspen’s long string of Fourth of July celebrations. The most important celebration of the year, Independence Day usually attracts visitors from across the country and around the world.
Aspen’s residents planned a special July Fourth celebration for 1901. Two days of displays, social events, sports and activities would draw visitors from across the western slope. Afterward a number of locals commented on the event — one of the most exciting during their times in Aspen — which entertained a crowd of 1,500.
For the highlight 50 floats broken into five sections paraded down the street, with a band for each section. The first section featured the professional band Daggett’s, members of the Confederate Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic, military cadets from the high school, and the baseball teams. The Citizen’s Band from Grand Junction comprised another section along with horses and mules ridden by men dressed as Native Americans and Rough Riders, a stagecoach and a Pocahontas float.
The third section included another band from Grand Junction, city and county officials in carriages, Shetland ponies and firefighters. The other sections were composed of business floats. Float sponsors included the Smuggler and Aspen mines, Kobey’s clothing store and Tomkins Hardware. The end rounded off with a gang of bicyclists and a bevy of racehorses.
For one of the most notable floats, a 6-ton block of black marble had been brought down from the Conundrum valley. A trophy was awarded each year, and A. Williams’s Oriental Tea Store won the 1901 distinction. The store featured saucers and cups. Tea and coffee sold for 33 cents a pound. ($8.25 in today’s dollars.)
Some parade-goers competed to personify Uncle Sam. Since the current popular image did not come out until 1917, the contest was open-ended and declared no winner. The crowd responded strongest to Veen Beck, a small child whom the newspaper dubbed a Lilliputian Uncle Sam. Beck rode a float with 54 young girls dressed in white dresses, who represented all the states, territories and possessions.
The celebration included baseball games and matches of some of the state’s best boxers. Races for youngsters included an egg race a potato race, and a 50-yard sack race. Adults competed in the 100-yard dash, shot put and greased pig contest. The winning team at tug-of-war had recruited more men to their side of a 195-foot rope. Only four contestants registered for a wheelbarrow race around the Wheeler block. Two disqualified when they cut through the alley.
Horse- and horse cart-racing had drawn crowds at the west end racetrack back then. A half-mile Fourth of July race featured favorites R Bird, Primus and Nicola Tesla. Red Bird won.
The celebration featured a staged fight between cowboys and Native Americans, similar to the staged fights of the Buffalo Bill touring show. In this case, Native Americans attacked a prairie schooner in front of the Hotel Jerome.
Nighttime featured balls. The Knights of Pythias held a masquerade ball. Sponsors claimed “the occasion will assist in transporting the onlooker and visitor to the realms of paradise.” They “mixed Japanese women with cowmen, prospectors and others who helped transform the scene into one grand cosmopolitan picture.” The Roaring Fork Electric Light and Power Co. staged a musical light show.
The goings-on of 1901 don’t hold much in common with Aspen’s modern Fourth of July celebrations. But the key event remains the same, the fireworks on Aspen Mountain. In “A Blaze of Glory,” organizers promised skyrockets, and foretold the “grandest pyrotechnical display in honor of the nation’s birthday ever seen on the western slope.”
Is it too late to plan a 1901 holdover for next year? Historically, many Aspenites navigated treacherous mine tunnels with ore-loaded wheelbarrows on a daily basis. Perhaps a Wheel(er)barrow race around the block would revive the tradition, with a finish crossing through the Hyman Avenue fountain. Businesses could field contestants. And, as a fundraiser, tickets could be sold to bet on the winners.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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