Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
November 12, 2011
They are there, in several black-paged books, glimpses into the past with sobering clarity. Hundreds of photographs, taken by my paternal grandmother, Grace Prindle Vagneur, during the years 1913 to 1919, depicting an era seldom seen because the polish had worn off the silver lure and there was little enthusiasm for recording a dying town.
Many of the old-timers who anted up for “Aspen: The Quiet Years,” weren’t old enough to have lived then, or were very young if they did, leaving many of the stories to be told in a secondhand fashion. I call my grandmother’s collection, “The Lost Decade.”
Born in Aspen in 1893 (in a small, two-story Victorian near the top of South Mill Street), she kept a meticulous record of life in Aspen during the above years. She worked as a columnist for The Aspen Times, was the court clerk for 9th Judicial District Judge John T. Shumate, and was, just recently discovered, an excellent amateur photographer. In 1919, she married my grandfather, Ben Vagneur.
The photos are an unexpected, refreshing slice of Aspen life we’re not much familiar with, a misunderstood era relegated to the assumption that those years were mostly unimportant. Friends sitting on a hitching post in 1913 Ashcroft belie the ghost town’s status, as the storefront behind them is covered in white clapboard, a rusty tin sign nailed to the doorway, advertising commercial goods for sale. Curtains cover the windows from the inside, the building clearly locked up, and a rustic log cabin can be seen in the background.
It’s impossible to say, and maybe I’m a distrustful soul, but those Ashcroft buildings didn’t turn into windowless, doorless log remnants of a glorious past all by themselves. By 1900, there probably weren’t more than two people living there, so I suspect much of what was left of Ashcroft in the “Lost Decade,” important artifacts of the archaeological record, were carted off to far-flung places, including Aspen, for house repairs, souvenirs and otherwise underappreciated “junk.”
The Smuggler Mine is photographically well-documented, its sprawling footprint, towering smoke stacks and mine tailings visible from across town. Literally, it would have been impossible to look almost anywhere in town without getting a peep of the Smuggler. And, in an interesting twist, there are several photos from inside the mine, miners’ carbide lamps lighting the way.
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Clearly evident in a couple of the photos are two large greenhouses, located directly below the hubbub of the mine. They were huge, and were it not for the fact that Aspen has always been known for its praiseworthy gardens, one might think they were needed to keep summer alive during the cold seasons.
There were large Fourth of July parades in 1917 and 1918, flags as big as small houses draped around horse-drawn carriages, disguised as floats. Aspen might have been on the skids, but one would never know it. The men dressed in suits and ties, many with hats and the ladies wore long, white dresses, their abundant hair put up in varied, but always appealing, fashions. And just like today, it was almost impossible to get a picture without a dog somewhere in the background.
The beauty of photos is that they simply depict an instant in time, a flash of the past that revives a memory or brings a long-lost loved one to life for the time it takes to visualize the scene before us. Our imaginations run free within the context of the times and journeys through our reminiscences are many and pleasant.
Sweet nostalgia has a tendency to sometimes overtake us. We cry for the simplicity, the imagined innocence of an earlier time, but the black-and-white of the record keeps it just beyond our reach.
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