Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It’s always been about staying warm in the winter, I reckon. We don’t think about it much what with thermostats, natural gas, electricity and solar energy taking care of us, almost behind our backs, but it is a concern.
In the summer of 1879, a total of 23 men arrived in Aspen, at various times and from over Hunter’s (Independence) and Taylor passes. A lot of prospecting occurred, but also a lot of time was spent preparing a winter camp and collecting firewood. They knew it would get cold. Ironically, only two stayed through the early winter; irrational fear of the Utes thinned them out, it seems.
In those days, wood was the only fuel of choice, until the coal mines at Marion began to make coke for processing ore. Such coke was an excellent heating fuel for homes and businesses, but the expense kept such use to a minimum. No doubt, some of that same, smoky bituminous coal that was being coked got freighted to Aspen by mule team, but until the railroads arrived, wood remained the main source of heat.
Almost every house had a coal or wood bin, either attached to the house or located in a shed or carriage house along the alley. Depending on when you lived in Aspen, your coal storage might have been filled by Judge William R. Shaw’s father, or by the judge himself. Other coal dealers were Ed Teideman, who kept a ready stash in the West End and who also ran a general store on what is now the Hyman Avenue mall. Pat Hemann, proprietor of the gravel pit alongside Stillwater, delivered coal in the winter, and United Lumber and Mercantile, a long-ago Aspen institution, could be counted on to supply the necessary fossil fuel.
It takes a lot of work, and money, to heat an entire house with coal or wood, and since the beginning in Aspen, frugal folks saw the sense in closing off portions of their houses during the winter months. They quickly learned to live around the kitchen stove during the day and to make a mad dash for the bed covers at night. The comfort zone of indoor bathrooms, if there were any, always seemed to be kept at a level just above freezing.
Unlike heating systems of today, coal (or wood) stoves needed to be manually stoked or replenished on a regular basis to keep the fire alive. During long winter nights, such stoves would generally be allowed to burn themselves cold, making early morning a rush to get the stove burning again.
Some of the fancier homes had thermostatically-controlled basement coal furnaces which generated steam heat, distributed throughout by the ever entrancing, always hissing heat radiators. The Red Brick School was warmed by such a system and it was always a thought, as the registers hissed and clanged into action, that perhaps an explosion might let us out of school for a day or two. It should be noted that directly inside the door of the “old” Red Onion, there was a working heat register, coveted by beer-addled raconteurs on cold nights.
Even at age 85, my great-aunt Mary Stapleton, severely stooped with age and genetics, who lived in a Bleeker Street Victorian with her two sisters and one brother, had a great knack for heating river rocks in the oven of their coal cook stove, to be wrapped in a towel and gently placed under the blankets at the foot of a freezing bed. The trick was to wait until the coal stove had died down enough that the rocks didn’t overheat and split apart, making them worthless. She would walk the precious cargo the entire length of the large house, one large gem at a time, from the kitchen to the huge north bedroom, being very careful not to drop them or burn herself.
It’s a little different now with solar, natural gas, electricity and radiant floor heating systems, but one thing hasn’t changed: It’s still about staying warm in the winter.
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