Willoughby: Nostalgia often avoids the ugly details

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Galena Street before the city had resources to upgrade sidewalks, paving and gutters and building owners spruced up their buildings. Willoughby collection

Sheltering in place created a media demand so I filled it watching the 1990s television series Northern Exposure. The setting is a fictional town, Cicely, Alaska but scenes were actually filmed in Roslyn, Washington. The streets and buildings reminded me of Aspen in the 1950s.

Those of my generation, especially those a few years older, have a nostalgic view of Aspen in that decade that avoids the actual details. It was a fantastic place to grow up, a small town but with a growing cosmopolitan character, but it was also a run down town that needed massive repair, rebuilding and higher construction standards.

There are town scenes in the opening of Northern Exposure that are so close to what I viewed daily from my back yard with a mostly empty half-block, an unpainted cinderblock building, and snow cats and old trucks with fading paint that look like they are waiting for repair. I lived in the Cowenhoven Building and behind it was a cinderblock building built by Dale Grant for his plumbing company. When it became Zeke Clymer’s welding shop, trucks and other vehicles were parked waiting for repairs.

The cinderblock building was actually, by the standard at the time, a notable new structure. Any building built in the downtown area had to be fireproof and cinderblock was less expensive than brick. Later some of them were painted, but at that time they stayed their natural grey. Four downtown cinderblock gas station/repair shops were built in that decade along with Mathew’s Drug (now Carl’s).

The Northern Exposure street scene also includes another 1950s Aspen look, add-on plumbing and wiring on old commercial buildings. The sides of buildings have protruding wiring and plumbing, fortunately in Aspen most of that was done in the alleys so not as visible, but they still looked haphazard.

Like in Northern Exposure the only Aspen street that was paved was the highway through town. Parking lots were simply empty sections of blocks sometimes with gravel but often just a dirt surface. Very few streets had concrete sidewalks. Snow in the winter was not removed, just plowed to the side into giant snowbanks.

Many buildings and houses had not been painted for years with either faded paint or bare deep-grained wood siding. The painting prep work discouraged coats of paint so they were either left that way or, the new 1950s fad, they were replaced or covered over with aluminum siding.

In Northern Exposure there are weeds growing out of the sides of streets, even in the downtown area. That was true in Aspen as well, the city had enough expense just keeping the drains working. Downtown streets drained into the sewer system built in the early 1890s.

Aspen incomes were not high and businesses were just beginning to break even. I remember being in a family house, one with five children, that had a dirt floor. Maintaining a house and yard was often beyond income levels. Businesses did what they could to spruce up, but major renovations were beyond them.

In Northern Exposure there is a retail store known as Ruth Ann’s where you can buy all basics like groceries. Merchandise is displayed on the shelves without our modern plastic covering/wrapping. That is how it was in Aspen. Stores were referred to by the name of the owner, shelves were stocked with basics and there was no plastic.

Contemporary Aspen bemoans every building season. Enough already! Nearly every existing structure is either replaced or remodeled. That takes capital and there is no shortage of that in Aspen. Locals from the 1950s bemoan the fact that the town no longer looks like it did for them in their youth, even icons like the Crystal Palace are being rebuilt. Constant construction may be noisy and inconvenient, but I do not think anyone would want to go back to the Aspen of the 1950s.

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