Willoughby: Examining history through generations
Legends & Legacies
Oral family history provides context that textbooks lack. Tying personal experience to collective events renders them relevant. Most of us have family oral history going back only a few generations, but that spans more history than you might think.
Since my father was 40 when I was born and his father was 40 when he was born my family history span may cover more years than in other families, but looking back in my family through four generations covers a long timespan and there is no oral history passed on to me beyond those generations. Using my great grandfather as a starting point, and starting when he was around nine or ten years old when he would have had a memory of events, takes it back to before 1850, 170-plus years.
Using presidents as a context that spans 35 of the 46 presidents beginning with Zachery Taylor. Great-grandfather, Edmund Willoughby, was one of the first 100 settlers of Denver so on that side of my family most of Colorado’s history is encompassed. On my mother’s side, her grandfather, Joseph Powell, moved to Aspen in 1888, so all but nine years of Aspen’s history are included.
Like most families, previous generations passed on stories, diaries, photos and other artifacts. Many of those are combined, stories about a photo or stories that a photo elicited. A saved letter detailing the acquisition of a cherished chair, or in my family silver, not a silver candelabra, but silver specimens from inside Aspen Mountain and the story of how it was discovered, are tangible history.
Stories change as they are told and retold even by the originator of the story. They represent the view of the storyteller and the context of the time. Checking the veracity is not always possible, but for my family the digital Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection has been a godsend. For others genealogy research comes up with information gems.
Having taught American History I was always aware that the brief entries in a textbook hardly moved the high school reader. Reading about the Wright Brothers first flight was not as interesting as my father’s story of seeing the first airplane land in Hotchkiss when he was a young boy and how exciting it was especially in the context that some locals came in cars and others using horse and buggy.
I have read numerous books about World War I, but I learned more from my mother’s account of being taunted in school because her grandmother spoke German at home and the excitement of watching for the flag on top of the Jerome signaling Armistice. My uncle, John Herron, who was wounded in the war and a brother killed, gave me a terse summary of the futileness of the war in a way the books only attempted to do in impersonal analysis.
My father’s accounts of his father’s accounts of his father’s coming to Colorado in the gold rush and forever having and passing on the excitement of mining explained why three generations of Willoughby’s were as at home underground as they were above ground.
Every family has a similar collection of family lore that adds to their understanding of history, but more important the emotional side of those who experienced it. Steve Goodman has a song, My Old Man, that resonates with me. One line haunts me,” I would give all I own to hear what he (referring to his dad) said when I wasn’t listening.” There is a flip side to that thought, your children and grandchildren can’t hear the family stories if you don’t pass them 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 email@example.com.
Tracing the source waters of Glenwood Canyon’s iconic Hanging Lake is a little like a game of whack-a-mole.
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