The derring-do of Ted Cooper
Ted Cooper didn’t just buy the first car that helped “metropolitanize” Aspen. His purchase was the beginning of a new era. And it was purchased in a spirit of adventure and challenge that permeated the community. Aspen was created by dreamers and by all kinds of people who had the fortitude and drive to make life interesting and rewarding. It still has lots of those kinds of people.
One of the things that is quite striking about the introduction of the automobile into Aspen’s daily life was the reaction of the local press. On a day-to-day basis the editors/writers of the papers built up an anticipation for the event: They commented on where and when it was purchased, they told the town’s folk that it was coming, and they celebrated its arrival. It was with almost personal pleasure that the front pages announced that “We have got the car!” It was a community achievement ” and rightfully so.
Ted was not only a product of the Aspen schools, but he was also a product of a community that valued achievement and effort. Mining was the principal focus, of course, but Aspen was also a town of “culture,” ideas and physical achievement. Aspen was not the typical rough-and-tough miners’ town. Its real character was represented by buildings like the Hotel Jerome and the opera house, by substantial churches such as the Community Church and St. Mary, by creative business owners and by leaders who took great pride in the town and its potential.
Ed Cooper, Ted’s brother, created a business in downtown Aspen called the Cooper Book and Stationery Store. What is notable about the “Cooper Book” is the fact that it was primarily created to feed the reading interests of the community. However, at various times in its existence it also sold tickets to the productions at the opera house, it rented (or exchanged) books when the town had no library, it framed pictures for your home, it sold Christmas toys and firecrackers, and it provided a kind of community center ” a place where one or more members of most families dropped in for their daily copy of the Denver Post. The Cooper Book was one of the longest-lasting businesses in Aspen’s history.
Ted didn’t found the Cooper Book, but he soon became a partner with his brother (and their dad, Fred, also helped). By the early 1920s Ed moved to Denver with his family and Ted became the sole operator of the business. Ted’s wife, Lil, also became an important part of the business enterprise, and she wholeheartedly encouraged the sale and rental of books. She was a woman’s “libber” long before the term was coined, and she loved books and ideas.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself in this story, but perhaps not. The point I’m trying to make is that Ted didn’t just suddenly get the urge to buy an auto. The auto was just another “outward manifestation” of his inner drive to make life interesting. Also, the purchase may fit into a family tradition of excelling. His grandfather founded a small town (Coopers Plains) in New York State. Ted’s grandfather and great-grandfather were some of the early medical doctors in the state. And Uncle “Theod” (Theodore, for whom Ted was named) was one of the foremost bridge builders in the world. He was also fairly “well-to-do.” It would not have been unusual for Theod to financially help his nephews, Ted and Ed, whether it was in the matter of starting a store, or ” perhaps ” in buying a car.
No one knows where Ted came up with $1,350 for the 1906 Buick, but all evidence points to Uncle Theod. There certainly wasn’t a whole lot of income from the Cooper Book, although brother Ed was likely involved behind the scenes. By the way, it appears that the cost of the Buick probably was equivalent to five or six times the average yearly income for a family at that time. The auto represented a major investment.
Ted, his brother and his parents had come from deep poverty in Kansas. They arrived in Aspen on July 27, 1892, and the only items they had were those they could carry on the train. Fred, the father, had purchased a suit and hat for $28.50 (we still have the family ledger), but he left his business of hog raising and fencing sales entirely behind. The extent of the poverty known by the family in Kansas in 1887 to 1891 is well illustrated by noting that the total expenditures for the family at Christmas ranged from $3 to $12.
One of the most important things that Fred brought to Aspen with him (in addition to his family) was his very good schooling in Coopers Plains and the fact he was quite gifted with words. He was even briefly a newspaper editor in Kansas ” along with the farming. And Fred kept in touch with his relatives in Coopers Plains, and he may have received limited funds from the sale of the family’s outdoor furniture factory in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
Don’t jump to conclusions. The Cooper family’s norm, even in Aspen, was near-poverty. Fred had been enticed to come to Aspen to start a branch of the Keeley Institute, a national business that focused on a “cure” for alcohol and cocaine addiction. (Yes, in 1892 there was a cocaine problem in Aspen!) Apparently the Keeley franchise was of very limited success (it was located in a building near the Isis), and the Cooper Book became the major source of income.
The family couldn’t have picked a worse time to move to Aspen. Its near-demise began in 1893 with the demonetization of silver, just a year after Ted’s family moved to Aspen. The decline in incomes over the years was to such an extent that Ted often commented that at the lowest point in the Cooper Book’s history the sales for one day totaled just one dollar.
Whatever the finances might have been, the basic reason that Ted was able to buy the first car was because of his dreams and ambitions. He made it possible. Of course, he had to have help, but dreams don’t come out of a vacuum. What also contributed to his success in buying Aspen’s first car was his history of trying to achieve the difficult, if not the impossible.
Ted and brother Ed reportedly bought the first balloon-tired bicycles in Aspen. It isn’t clear what prompted that idea, but it was followed a couple of years later (1902) by 19-year-old Ted’s urge to go to Yellowstone Park from Aspen, by bicycle. This was NOT the typical teenager of that era, one who is just drifting day to day, just trying to keep up with the routines. This was an “Aspen kid” ” much like the ones today who wake up and want to see more of the world. It required 60 pounds of supplies on his bike ” and as much on the bike of his friend Frank Waite. Their main diet was trout and rabbits.
They made it there ” and partway back ” quitting when Frank’s bike was “totaled.” The adventures were recorded (and printed in an Aspen paper) under the headline of “800 Miles On and Off a Bicycle.” On very undependable tires they traveled along semi-roads and railroad trestles, and crossed rivers with the bikes and clothing held over their heads. Even by Aspen standards, these were not normal teenagers! Let’s call them “adventurers.” Sturdy ones.
Ted probably liked the taste of success ” and the attention. So a year later (1903) he tried to talk a friend into going to Death Valley by bicycle. Too far. No takers. What Ted settled for was a 600-plus-mile trip that included about 15 towns and cities in eastern Colorado. This time his friend for the trip was “Doc” Parsons. All went well, but there is no recorded essay to give the details.
Obviously, Ted became tired of the bicycle. In the summer of 1904, at age 21, he decided to buy Aspen’s first motorcycle. It could make some speed ” but not too much. Ted entered a race from Basalt to Glenwood (basically a bicycle race ” with three motorcycles entered). Due to rough roads, only Ted’s bike made it. His time? Ten minutes faster than the leading bicycle racer.
Thus, as a sort of culmination of efforts and adventures, Ted, at age 23, decided to go to Denver to purchase an automobile. The auto was a fairly new “toy,” and the total number of autos in the United States was limited to the thousands. The amount of auto-worthy roads was also very limited. The assembly-line and Ford’s Model T were about to be produced in great numbers. However, in 1906, when Ted rode about Aspen in his new, burgundy-colored Buick, he certainly must have been in heaven with all the attention. He scared the horses and attracted the young (and old) ladies. And he learned (very rapidly) to become a mechanic. Ted often told his listeners that, on the average, he had to repair the Buick one hour for each hour he was able to drive it!
Ted went on to other adventures, including a well-documented trip to Montana in 1909 in a Royal Touring car. The story ranks as a fairly significant trip in U.S. history, but I’ll save that tale for another time.
On a recent September Saturday morning, I awoke with an intense yearning to lose myself in the mountains, disconnect from cell service, and rediscover why I decided to call Aspen home in the first place. Standing there, at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, I knew I was right where I needed to be.