Willoughby: We are a young country, an even younger town | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: We are a young country, an even younger town

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Not so long ago, farmland flanked both sides of Cemetery Lane, a dirt road.

Beyond a few courses in history or the historical fiction we read, for most of us the past boils down to personal memories. Remembrances of our lifetimes and those of our ancestors accumulate as clan knowledge. As we trace time through our relatives' experiences, we may realize the past is not so far away as it seems in books.

Consider the timeline of Aspen history: Years since pioneers settled — 138; years my family's memories span, since when my mother was 6 years old — 103; years between the American Revolution and Aspen's founding — 103.

My mother's lifespan — 82 years — serves as a time measuring rod. The time between Lewis and Clark's trek across the wilderness and Aspen's founding is less than her lifespan. The time between the Civil War and the birth of Aspen Skiing Co. is the same length of time. My mother may have conversed with Civil War veterans just as I chatted with veterans of World War I.

My parents saw the first cars in Colorado, the first airplanes. A Stanley Steamer impressed my mother much as the first Apple computer enthralled me. My father, as a boy in Topeka, Kansas, witnessed one of the last old-time cowboy gunfights. I tell my son about men walking on the moon.

Ten years seems long as we live through them. But when we look back, memories condense around the outstanding events. Historically, we think of a decade as a relatively short increment of time. What changes in Aspen do you remember from 2007 until now?

For comparison, consider these decades. From 1880 to 1890 Aspen grew from a handful of people to nearly 10,000. From 1917 to 1927 the city lost most of that population. Between 1937 and 1947 Aspen grew into a major skiing phenomenon. Between 1960 and 1970 condominiums, a new concept, likely covered more acreage than was covered by fresh mine dumps between 1880 and 1890.

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More than half of all U.S. presidents were elected after Aspen was founded. Rutherford Hayes led the country when Aspen was founded. Benjamin Harrison, the midpoint president at number 23, presided during Aspen's peak mining years.

Grover Cleveland, a consequential president for Aspen, held the office four years before Harrison and again, four years after Harrison. Cleveland served during the monetization of silver and during the removal of that legislation. Aspen's women were allowed to exercise their right to vote during the first year of Cleveland's second term in 1893. That was 27 years before the entire country ratified the 19th Amendment, and 31 years before Native Americans were granted citizenship.

The history of the United States of America reaches back not much further than many of our family's memories. The anecdotal memory of my family survives in diaries, spoken tales, and events recorded in newspapers. These memories stretch back to the life of my great grandfather, before the Civil War, when the first European settlers arrived in Colorado. They range through more than half the country's history, and nearly all of Aspen's. The city, a paradox in time, remains young in years yet rich in memories.

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching at 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.