Willoughby: National trends dominate Aspen during 1920 and inspire resilience today
“How Dry I Am,” the Aspen Democrat newspaper headline of Jan. 16, 1920, marked the start of Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment took effect one minute after midnight. According to the article that followed, “It is estimated there is 60,000,000 gallons of whiskey in the United States, what will become of it is up to congress although it is generally believed its destruction may be ordered.”
Despite the national law, Colorado did not give up alcohol easily. The state’s liquor venders sued, with a demand that state residents could vote to overturn their legislature’s ratification of the amendment. But the state supreme court did not accede. Colorado liquor producers attempted to get the state to allow the production of 4 percent alcohol beer and 10 percent wine with home delivery, but even that went nowhere.
In Aspen, as elsewhere, the January enforcement date presented an anticlimax to several years of the debate. The temperance movement had cajoled and constrained saloons to close. Mansor Elisha, owner of the Jerome, converted the hotel’s saloon to a soft-drink establishment. Soft drinks took hold in Aspen with Jim’s Place a popular site to congregate.
The 19th Amendment, which determines women’s suffrage, also dominated news that year. Twenty-two states, including Colorado, had ratified the amendment in 1919. By February, the number grew to 27 states. Each month the number increased, accompanied by setbacks from a number of rejections. In March, 34 of the required 36 states had ratified. And then Tennessee ratified in August. Yet that vote did not conclude the matter, as a challenge arose to Tennessee’s ratification. In September, before the courts settled the case in Tennessee, Connecticut supported the amendment. As with the anticlimactic circumstance of Prohibition, the constitutional recognition of women’s right to vote nationally affected Colorado belatedly, because Colorado had recognized the right in 1893.
Another national trend held economic repercussions for Aspen. By 1920, silver prices had climbed to $1.37 an ounce, more than double the price a decade before. The increasing payout spirited exploration and production. Three big projects were underway. The Hope Mine was pushing a long tunnel from Castle Creek north under the older workings of the Little Annie Mine. The Midnight Mine expanded its number of shares to fund a mile-long tunnel under the old Midnight and Little Annie ore bodies, but at a higher elevation than the Hope tunnel. This tunnel drove south from Queens Gulch. And the Park Tunnel drove from the Castle Creek side of Aspen Mountain, under the Tourtelotte Park mines. By 1920, the Park tunnel extended more than 2,000 feet and opened the way toward shipment loads of fresh ore.
In 1920, the Red Scare threatened America. Bolsheviks and Socialists infiltrated unions, followed by frequent strikes. A transit strike in Denver devolved into riots.
Meanwhile, Aspen’s workers wrestled with a more personal outbreak: influenza. After the flu had claimed many lives in the city a couple of years before, health officials sprung to action as soon as they detected this new round. They closed schools for two weeks. Churches, theaters and poolrooms shut down. Parents confined children to their homes and yards. No more than three people were allowed to gather on the streets at any time.
The year 1920 introduced much change — Prohibition, women’s suffrage, a peak silver economy, new political ideas and influenza. Aspen’s residents sought entertainment to help them enjoy the times, and perhaps to help them forget or cope with collateral damage.
The Isis Theater screened films such as “Les Misérables” and “Anne of Green Gables” during the 1920s. Tickets cost 20 cents for adults ($2.18 in today’s dollars) and a dime for children. “In Old Kentucky” featured a character who “drinks moonshine, glad of Prohibition.” The city of Aspen owned the Wheeler but had not been able to make the necessary repairs to open it.
The National Football League formed in 1920, and Harvard beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Darius Milhaud, in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, composed “Le bœuf sur le toit,” a ballet that premiered in 1920. A prolific French composer, Milhaud became a mainstay of the Aspen Music Festival throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
A century ago, Aspen’s residents survived changes on many fronts. Perhaps such resilience stems from the iron in our water or gumption in the mountain air. If so, there’s extra hope for us today. Along with the same water and air, we consume the stories of our successful forbears.
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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