Willoughby: Aspen Christmases in the 1880s
Legends & Legacies
The year 1886 marked the last Aspen Christmas before the railroads reached town. The improved transportation increased the town’s size, pace and number of merchants, though Christmas did not change demonstrably. A few residents may have welcomed the growth, while others likely felt nostalgia for simplicity and silence.
What did a woman buy her husband for Christmas in 1886? Advertisements suggest she may have bought a Victorian mustache cup from the Old Reliable Furniture and Queensware House. This makes sense because the 1880s brought on the height of facial hair fashion for men. Beards abounded.
A man could return his wife’s sentiment with a gift of Brownfield china from the same store.
C.E. Noble’s recommended “for ladies to give to men” a “thing of beauty and utility”: a neck muffler. Webber’s offered “the finest line of ladies slippers.” When in doubt, no shopper could go wrong with a gift of food. Hardeman & Miller’s recommended candies and nuts.
Christmas wasn’t all about presents. The Episcopal church offered a special Christmas Eve program. The Presbyterian church delighted pedestrians with a decorated Christmas tree unveiled on Christmas Eve. If you wanted your home decor to rival that of the churches, you could purchase evergreens for wreaths and English holly from local florist Charles Green.
On Christmas night the Rink Opera House offered a skating carnival for the younger crowd and a matinee event for ladies and children. The Grand Army of the Republic, with the help of the Sons of Veterans, put on the most festive event, a Christmas ball. If you wanted to splurge on a meal outside the home, LaVeta and Delmonico restaurants served dinner on Christmas Day.
Especially during this time of year we think of the many immigrants who send money home. It was no different then. Mr. Connor, Aspen’s postmaster, told The Aspen Times that customers sent out thousands of dollars of foreign money orders for Christmas.
The newspaper featured Christmas stories, perhaps as society news or to invoke the spirit of giving. The most spectacular story of 1886 involved Harry Koch.
That year, Koch had lived one year in town, where he operated a lumber business and sawmill. By 1905 he expanded his business to five sawmills. He was a member of the Foresters’ Association and was instrumental in getting a forest reserve in Colorado.
Koch had planned a surprise gift for his wife, who had been touring back East with her sister. He met her at the stagecoach when it arrived. Rather than drive her directly home, he took her to a place called “the mesa,” the newest subdivision in the area near Aspen Meadows. There he had constructed and elegantly furnished a brand new house. Inside, on a table, he had placed the deed to their new dwelling. And, in a move considered unusual for men of that time, he had made out the document in her name.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for 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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