Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 1, 2011
Imagine the big, heavy Concord stagecoach, rumbling along somewhere between a trot and a gallop, six gleaming horses up, two-by-two-by-two abreast, the driver leaning into every turn, nervously spitting tobacco juice, his able assistant ready at a moment’s notice to brake the wheels, if coaxed. The pace was brutal, every hillock to be negotiated, each turn to be skillfully navigated, being continually cognizant of the up-and-down, forward-and-back swing of the passenger-carrying coach, an exercise in understanding and utilizing gravity. In those days before rail, blowing and sweating horses needed to be changed about every 10 miles, with stage stops in Woody Creek, Emma, Yellow Dog (now Satank), and then on to Defiance (Glenwood Springs).Emma, a collection of deteriorating brick buildings alongside Highway 82, just west of Basalt, was originally located slightly further west, on what was the Vasten farm. There was strong impetus for a stage stop there, with accommodations, based on the needs of the horses and mules. Wait, the mules? Jerome B. Wheeler, well-known Aspen pioneer, had established coke ovens in Jerome Park, well-above Marion and Sunshine, and prior to the existence of rail, hauled the coke to Aspen for its use in the smelting of silver ore. Large freighters, similar to the one seen in “Dances with Wolves,” could not make the trip to Aspen in one day, and thus a stable was built to house and feed the overnighted mules. The ringing of the resident blacksmith’s hammer could be heard over the roar of the still-wild Roaring Fork and naturally, a saloon was built adjacent to the barn.Strangely, there’s a lot of conjecture about how Emma got its name, but quite simply, it was named after Emma Shehi, the woman who ran the eating house at the stage stop. Some people wanted to call it Garrison, an early name, but Emma won out by popular vote. There was no Aspen Junction (Basalt) until 1887, so a trip down valley by stagecoach would not have passed that burg of gurgling, hissing and huffing steam engines, clawing their way through the mountains. No, Emma was the mainstay of the midvalley, an agricultural community that held the only area post office for miles around. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad came through town in 1887, and Emma began to take on a new appearance. Sprawling stockyards were built to contain the cattle being shipped to distant markets and the local farmers could now compete in the town of Aspen, then in its mining heyday. The French-Italian farmers and ranchers arrived in the 1880s, bought out the original homesteaders and acquired additional lands. The flat, sagebrush covered terrain gave way to larger, more productive ranches. As a sure sign of the nationality of the settlers, the D & RG railroad would occasionally drop several carloads of grapes off on the local siding, to be used by the wine-making immigrants. The Emma schoolhouse, the one presently seen on the south side of Highway 82, was built between 1910 and 1912. There was a continuing, lively chorus of tough school marms over the years, my maternal grandmother, Nellie Stapleton Sloss and her sister, Julia Stapleton, included. I have a photo of my great-aunt Julia standing in front of the building with her students.And why am I talking about Emma, for God’s sake? For one thing, Pitkin County has fortuitously decided to save the old buildings from further deterioration; Emma’s importance to valley history has long been understated, but it’s more personal than that. My maternal great-grandfather, John W. Sloss, owned ranches nearby in the early 1880s and one of his brothers owned the Emma Store for several years. My grandmother Nellie married John W.’s son Bates, and when I’m irrigating neighboring hayfields, my mind’s eye can sometimes see my lonely grandmother behind the windows of the empty schoolhouse, waiting for her husband to take her home.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He thanks Katherine Grant Letey, who provided background information.
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