Willoughby: The approach to 1920 resembled our countdown 100 years later | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: The approach to 1920 resembled our countdown 100 years later

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

The turnover to a new decade at the end of 1919 foretold the same transition during our own time. The issues outshone those of other decadal demarcations.

Long-term residents had arrived in Aspen during the 1880s. They had survived multiple decade changes, and aged as Aspen’s seniors. They felt the full meaning of a rise in the price of silver, which had climbed back to $1.30 an ounce ($16.45 in today’s dollars) from $.22 ($2.80) in 1914. The new level equaled the high price of the 1890s.

Charles Dailey, editor of the Aspen Democrat Times, wrote “The bright outlook for silver makes it fashionable — and permissible — to speak hopefully of mining, the ladder by which Western states climbed from the ‘great American desert’ to the promising fields for profitable investment.”

One year previous to the price increase, some of the largest mines such as the Smuggler had shut down major operations. An increase in the price of electricity had raised the cost of pumping water out of the mines. An operation could not profit from mining low depths of the mines, where water accumulated. Close to the same time, Aspen had suffered the influenza pandemic, which killed a third of the city’s young men.

As life began to improve in town, national concerns captured locals’ attention. World War I had ended. As with today’s continuing concern about bringing troops home from Afghanistan, Aspenites of 1919 welcomed home veterans and helped them to find jobs. In a statewide effort, a job seeker or an employer would register with the county clerk. In the absence of a local match, names would circulate throughout the counties. By New Years Day, more than 1,000 returning veterans statewide had found jobs. Dailey headlined that there were “no idle men in Aspen.”

For weeks in advance of the change in decades, newspapers recounted President Wilson’s efforts to win Congressional approval of an end to the war. A year after the warring parties signed the Armistice, negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles stalled. Germans, or “the Huns” as Aspenites referred to them, threatened to return to war. This angered Aspen’s residents. Congress complicated Wilson’s negotiations, and a major stroke had befallen him in October. Barely functioning, he concealed his condition into 1920.

A pressing issue for Aspen, which Wilson supposedly negotiated, holds high relevance to today. The United Mine Workers had gone on strike in the coal mines, and created a national shortage of coal. Aspen’s residents were instructed to “handle (coal) like you would eggs.” Three railroad cars of the precious material may have had to suffice well into 1920. The Smuggler used coal to power its bare-bones operation and stored a two-month supply. But the supply of coal for heating homes dwindled. To weather the strike, locals burned wood.

At the time, the nation produced 700 million tons of coal annually. The strike spirited a debate that echoes today: Should we switch to alternative fuels? Coal naysayers advocated “white coal,” also known as hydroelectric power. Aspen already used hydroelectric power and boosted Charles Daily’s headline, “The power of water — hundreds of tons of coal are floating past Aspen every day of the year — streams should turn water wheels.”

Just as the decade flipped, the pursuit of a coal alternative focused on oil. The liquid required less space to store.

The U.S. border with Mexico fills news today. And at the turn of this decade during the 1900s, Aspen’s newspaper featured headlines about Mexican “bandits.” These men, Villistas, followed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. In mid-December they attacked a border town and killed more than 600 Mexican government troops. Villa had crisscrossed the border, a safe zone, for years. U.S. General Pershing received orders to track Villa down and invade Mexico in the process. Villa evaded Pershing and the operation was withdrawn during the outset of World War II.

At the change from 1919 to 1920, reports said “Mexicans tired of revolution — farmers want to go to work — people want to settle down.” In 1920 the Mexican government forged an agreement with Villa that ended the rebellion. Here’s hoping we forge an agreeable 2020.

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.