Willoughby: After fire, the most thankful Thanksgiving in Aspen history | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: After fire, the most thankful Thanksgiving in Aspen history

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
During Thanksgiving 1919 a fire blackened downtown Aspen. (Willoughby collection)

Thanksgiving Day 1919, the year pandemic flu returned, James Parsons chatted with acquaintances outside his Aspen Drug store on the corner of Galena and Hyman. The group included the mayor, Charles Wagner.

An explosion shook the building.

The sound came from the store basement. Parsons investigated, but it was dark. He lit a match and the spark ignited a fire. The flames burned Parsons, and Wagner rescued him. Worried that Parsons’s burns would be fatal, the men took him to his home.

Parsons survived, but by daybreak only the brick and stone walls of his business remained. The story of that snowy night reveals Aspen’s warm camaraderie.

The fire department rushed to the scene, and attached several hoses to hydrants. Although the Aspen Democrat Times labeled the fire a “disastrous conflagration,” the flames spread slowly. Thick smoke emerged from the store basement, and then poured out of the second floor, the location of Beall’s Undertaking and Furniture store. Wearing gas masks, fifty volunteer firemen worked to keep the fire from spreading to neighbor buildings. They knocked a hole through the basement wall to the store next door, and flooded it with water.

The fire attracted a crowd of people who sprang to action. The newspaper reported that many men stared with their hands in their pockets. But women and children scurried back and forth across the street, arms loaded with merchandise that they removed from the threat of destruction. They worked their way down the block from Dr. McKee’s store, from which they removed jewelry, china and cut glass. Then they moved merchandise from McKeanna and Hacker’s clothing store.

Additional merchants feared the fire would spread farther down the block. The crowd responded by moving Al Lamb’s drugstore stock and Hugh McCabe’s clothing goods. While contents of Clyde Goldner’s barbershop moved easily across the street, the contents of Kobey’s clothing store—one of the largest enterprises on the block—presented a bigger challenge. Yet the community moved all of the stock from Kobey’s vast basement.

Aspen Drug and the businesses and tenants upstairs withstood the worst damage. One elderly woman, rescued, survived the fire. But all her belongings and those of other tenants were lost. The law office of Harold Clark was completely destroyed, along with his records. The office of the Hope Mining Company burned.

The estimate of damage to all the businesses added up to $72,000 ($911,000 in today’s dollars.) Some businesses had insurance, but not enough to cover the damage.

The ground floor of Aspen Drug was rebuilt. When I was a child the building next door to it remained in ruins. Eventually, only part of it was reconstructed leaving a gap all the way to the basement level which Ellina restaurant uses for outdoor seating. A few decades after 1919 a worse fire burned down buildings along Hyman to Mill Street.

But those who know the story of the fire of 1919 feel forever inspired by the “fire ladies,” who saved downtown businesses on Aspen’s most thankful Thanksgiving Day.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.

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