Tony Vagneur: A grandmother’s love stands the test of time
My maternal grandmother, in her early 60s at the time, took me over to the Eagle Valley for a few days, maybe it was only a couple of nights, to meet one of her students. Why? I think I know, but still, why?
Nellie Stapleton Sloss was, at the deepest part of her heart, a teacher. She and her sister, Julia Stapleton, had taught at numerous one-room schoolhouses, including Black Hawk, Central City, Emma, Snowmass, Owl and Brush Creeks. Nellie was a specialist at teaching grades 1 through 8, sometimes all at one time, with student ages often ranging from 6 to 16. She loved it.
Anyway, when the one-room schools in the Roaring Fork Valley closed in the early 1950s, Nellie and her sister hunted up new opportunities in the Eagle River Valley, teaching at such haunts as Avon, Gypsum, Edwards and Minturn. As was the custom, the teachers usually lived with one of the families who had students in the school.
And that’s where this story really begins, my grandmother staying with the family of Arnold Nottingham, a proud, third-generation Avon sheep-ranching family. It was a beneficial match and the Nottinghams and my grandmother were soon good friends.
Grandma, who came home to Aspen on weekends, began talking about this particular student, Mallory, a kid a couple of years older than me who was very smart but a mischief-making handful. Maybe it was because Mallory didn’t have any classmates his own age, or maybe because Mallory and I were a lot alike, but the consensus between the two families was that yours truly should spend some time on the Nottingham ranch. If memory serves, I was 6 or 7.
The similarities between the Nottingham and Stapleton families were, in retrospect, quite amazing. Tim Stapleton, Nellie’s father (my great-grandfather), arrived in Aspen in 1880. The Nottinghams came to the Eagle Valley in 1880. Arnold was born on the family ranch in 1916 — Nellie on the Stapleton ranch in 1893.
William Nottingham, the 1880 patriarch, was killed in a gunfight with one of his business partners after the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the Avon area fell on difficult times. Besides, his dead-eyed partner, Ernest Hurd, was suspected of fooling around with William’s wife, a fact later born out when Hurd and William’s widow became business partners and eventually married.
Tim Stapleton’s life wasn’t quite that wild, but he had numerous run-ins with squatters, claim jumpers and dishonorable people as he did his best to protect his property and family against trespass. At the time of his death he had one unresolved court battle over attempted murder with a firearm. Other than the use of guns, he wasn’t afraid to use his fists to convince intruders of his sincerity.
In the hundreds of times I’ve driven past Avon since that one visit in the early 1950s, I’ve always wondered about Mallory and how it all turned out for him.
Mallory and I were alike in many ways, both fourth-generation natives of our respective valleys and I guess Grandma saw the parallels between us. Mallory may have had me, though, in the achievement department. We both won academic awards through the eighth grade, but in high school, we went somewhat different directions.
He was very active in 4-H, me a little, and Eagle had a Future Farmers of America club, something Aspen didn’t. While I was busy running touchdowns, skiing, high-jumping and damned-near flunking out of school, Mallory was a perennial officer of the above clubs, was editor of the Eagle Valley High School newspaper, “The Devil’s Doings,” and played in the school band. He also played football. Vail hadn’t yet been founded. He was an excellent writer as evidenced by a series of columns he wrote for the Eagle paper in 1963.
He went to Mesa State College, transferred to the University of Colorado and majored in art. He also played in the Grand Junction Civic Symphony Orchestra. He was one of 33 national FFA leaders invited to Washington, D.C., to participate in a leadership forum and then tour the Western Slope discussing what he’d learned.
I went to the University of Northern Colorado and majored in English, listened to jazz and blues at an after-hours club in Denver, and finally transferred to CU, majoring in marketing and business.
Mallory died in 2011 and the time is long past to ever make the connection again.
Impressive to me, and it came suddenly in researching this, was how deep and astute my grandmother’s understanding of two separate but similar worlds were for two kids, who barely knew each other but had a lifetime of attachment.
My grandmother died in 1964, aged 71. It took me until now to understand, on a much deeper level, how much she was working in my best interest and how well she understood history and its march through time.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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