Tim Willoughby: The soul of the story about Hoofy’s cottonwood and the ants that ate it
Legends & Legacies
When old-timers retell a particular Aspen story from the 1950s, their exaggerations grow and distort the subtleties of the main character. I know because I witnessed the event first hand.
During earlier times, Swedish immigrants had settled the area called Oklahoma Flats, along North Spring Street on the north side of the river. By the 1950s, the land stood mostly empty. That’s when Russell Volk bought several lots and two old houses for weekend and summer residences. He assigned his two sons, Dick and Drack, to upgrade the properties.
My extended family maintained a web of friendship with the Volks. My uncle Frank Willoughby and Russell attended the Colorado School of Mines together during the 1930s. And my sister Jeanne enjoyed summer companionship with Denise and Desha, the two Volk girls. Being younger, I tagged along with the girls.
We transformed Oklahoma Flats into a playground. The Volks excavated a not-too-successful swimming hole, we built a playhouse, and the Volks boys constructed a tree house high in a cottonwood on the bank of the river. Using a rope, they hauled their mother up into the branches to share the pleasures of that high perch.
In those days a rickety wood footbridge connected the Aspen side of the river to the end of the street through the flats. This connection enabled quick passage from my ho-hum home in downtown Aspen to a land of childhood exploits and freedom.
The Sandstrom family lived between the two Volk houses. Carl Sandstrom had worked at the Midnight mine with my father. He was the only miner to die there, killed in 1946 by falling rock. John Albert “Hoofy” Sandstrom and Albin — two of Carl’s brothers — lived in the house with Antona, Hoofy’s wife.
As I recall, Antona cooked with a coal stove, commonplace at the time. She specialized in sugar cookies, as did many women of her generation. When we kids walked past her house, she would offer the treats to us.
The shutdown of the mines interrupted the regular flow of paychecks for the two brothers who had worked there most of their lives. Afterward, as much as Antona tended her cookies the brothers focused on dandelion wine. They consumed spirits as a pastime and were known to go on binges. One rumor spread that Hoofy had spent so many nights in the county jail that the sheriff did not bother to lock the cell. He simply put Hoofy to bed to sleep it off and then headed homeward.
One summer day the Volk girls, my sister and I played Monopoly in the Volk living room of the house by the river. We took a break, perhaps to walk to their other house. As we strolled past the Sandstrom residence, Hoofy stood out front, shaded by two cottonwoods that flanked his home. Inebriated, Hoofy pointed out the ants at the base of his trees. Those familiar with Aspen’s cottonwoods would expect to find the pesky insects there. But Hoofy expressed annoyance, said they were killing his trees, and declared he would take care of that problem.
We returned to our game. Some time later, our Monopoly pieces jumped. The house windows reverberated. A loud explosion rattled our teeth. We rushed outside, saw smoke in front of Hoofy’s house and raced down the street to find him.
A grin spread slowly across Hoofy’s face.
“I took care of those ants,” he said.
In the words of other storytellers, Hoofy blew the tree into toothpicks. That haphazard explosion draws laughter but misses the soul of the story. Even intoxicated, Hoofy, a miner who had blasted with dynamite daily, knew precisely what he was doing.
His cottonwood survived.
As tough as his tree, Hoofy was one of Aspen’s few miners who survived into modern times. Whenever the ancient miner dropped into an Aspen bar, anyone willing to buy a round would hear the historic reach of local history. In 1962, near the footbridge, Hoofy drowned. His spirited life reached a tragic end, but the soul of his story lives on.
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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