Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Last week I swore that I was going to stop looking at the 1940 census, but two friends of mine suggested that I look up Aspen and next thing I knew, I was back at it.
With roughly 2,000 residents in Pitkin County in 1940, it was relatively short, and the handwriting of the census-takers was a lot better. Bill Herron was one of them, and one was a woman – so much for my assumption that all the census-takers were men.
I knew that real estate prices were dirt cheap before (and even after) the Paepckes came to town, but I was still surprised to see that the most expensive property in the entire census was D.R.C. Brown’s place at 475 N. First St. at $5,000. The census included large spreads such as the Marolt ranch – our treasured entrance to Aspen – which was shown at $3,500, so Darcy’s house must have been splendid indeed. He was 27 years old, listed as an oil-lease broker with no stated income.
Louise Berg’s beautiful yellow Victorian, on the big lot at the corner of Spring and Hopkins, was said to be worth $100.
William Shaw, who snapped up many properties with Walter Paepcke in the late ’40s, earned $1,200 per year as a judge and owned a $2,500 home.
Addresses on the census were hard to come by, rarely differentiating between east and west street numbers and often vaguely referring simply to “the South (or East) section of town.”
Few of the adults had any college education, and, of those few, most were women. This was well before the study we’ve been bragging about (outdated, I think) that reported Aspen has an educational record second only to Los Alamos, N.M.
It also was difficult to get a grip on people’s incomes. Farms apparently were exempt from this question, and a cursory look at the data showed that hardly anyone worked full time, if at all, or wasn’t saying if they did. The highest annual salary listed, $3,600, was for the manager of the Power and Light Co. Nine-hundred dollars per year for a teacher was average; a postmaster, $2,100; a county assessor, $1,400; a nurse, $780.
An entry that brought me up short was the one for Hannibal Brown, one of only two black county residents on the census in 1940, who gained local fame as the cover photo and featured citizen in Kathleen Daily and Gaylord Guenin’s marvelous book, “The Quiet Years.”
Brown, age 58, owned his home where the Courthouse Annex is now, worth $350. He had a fourth-grade education and worked full time as a fireman for a salary of $720.
Wait a minute! Full-time fireman? That didn’t sound like the Hannibal Brown I’d read about – the cook, chauffeur and bootlegging womanizer who was the life of the party during the Quiet Years!
I got out my copy of the book and found that I had been wasting my time reading the census. If you want to know about Aspen in 1940, read “The Quiet Years.” The census doesn’t say squat, and it isn’t even true: Hannibal Brown lied about his age! He was born in 1876, so he wasn’t really 58 years old in 1940 – he was 64.
The cast of characters match: the Maddalones, Stapletons, Hoaglunds, Christiansens, Conners, Becks, Bishops, Elders, Herwicks, Herrons, Moores and others, but they are alive in the book and flat on the census page. Check “The Quiet Years” out.
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