Obituary: Harriett Billings
April 9, 1927 – April 27, 2023
Harriett Elizabeth Billings, known as Hattie, died on April 27 at Aspen Valley Hospital with her son by her side, She was 96.
Hattie was born April 9, 1927, in Kirkwood, N.Y., to Foster and Myra Thurston, who ran a small farm and roadside sandwich stand in the small town just outside Binghamton. A witness to the turbulence of the times, Hattie grew up during the Depression and attended high school while two brothers were abroad at war. After graduation in 1945, she went to work at International Business Machines (IBM), joining her father and both brothers on the job. She was a “tracer,” a job performed mostly by women who had the artistic skill to trace machine parts for manufacturing and engineer plans. Eventually, she transferred to IBM in Manhattan, but a desk job was not Hattie’s style. In 1952 she quit to go cycling around Europe, taking an 11-day boat ride on the S.S. Columbia to England, cycling around the Netherlands to Denmark, and then wrapping up with a summer in Paris. From then on, Hattie lived an unconventional life unapologetically.
While living in New York City with friends, she spent weekends skiing upstate and in Vermont. In the late 1950s she heard about the skiing in Aspen and drove out west in an old Ford coupe. She got on the train in Glenwood Springs, arrived in Aspen on New Year’s Day, and checked into a hotel. Although she did live in other towns over the years she always stayed connected to Aspen.
Shortly after landing in Aspen she met Deane Billings and they started a family together, with their son Boyd born in 1957. Always a dynamic personality and always buzzing with busy, Hattie helped Deane run Alamo Photo, a ski and portrait business, sold her handmade “Hattie’s Hats,” worked as a ticket seller and checker for the Aspen Ski Company, was a singing waitress at the Crystal Palace, and was a member of the Piltdown Jug Band on the side.
In the late 1960s, in anticipation of a new ski area to be developed, she joined a small crowd of Aspen locals who were migrating to Telluride and buying up land. After her marriage ended in divorce, she arrived in Telluride as a single mother and bought a house on Alder Street. A far cry from Aspen in those days, Telluride had only one paved street and ore trucks from the Idarado Mine rolled past her new house every forty minutes. Over the next decade, Hattie sold tickets at the Sheridan Opera House, opened a restaurant called the Goodtime Society, and worked at the Telluride Toggery. An exceptional seamstress, she also opened a sewing business with a partner called the Sweatshop. She continued to travel as well, with highlights being a trip around Australia and, later, Italy, France and Japan.
Throughout the years, Hattie also lived in Norwood and Grand Junction and returned to New York state to care for her aging parents, buying a house near Woodstock. She drove back and forth across the country in a Volkswagen Bug, and eventually returned to the Roaring Fork Valley for the rest of her life, living in both Carbondale and Aspen. She spent many years volunteering for the Aspen Thrift Shop, where she could put her deep knowledge of antiques and clothing to use. She also volunteered for the Aspen Music Festival and the concerts and rehearsals became a highlight of her summers. She sold her creations at one of the original booths at the Aspen Saturday Market and sang in the “Messiah” choir. An avid gardener, Hattie always planted vegetables wherever she lived, and even grew chard at her little place at the Crystal Meadows. She was a little whirlwind that never stopped.
Harriett Billings was preceded in death by her parents, and brothers Richard and Howard. She is survived by her son, Prentice Boyd Billings of Aspen, and her sister, Ellen Thurston of Hudson, N.Y., as well as various other nieces, nephews and cousins. A memorial event will be held in the summer.