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Tony Vagneur: Enjoying a ride along the paper trail

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The intersection of history has been rather intense the past couple of weeks, and maybe I’ve learned some tidbits that, hopefully interesting, I’m throwing out for your perusal.

First of all, I re-established contact with an old friend from many years ago, a most interesting gentleman who not only taught at the university level and most everywhere else, but who also calls himself my “almost cousin.” It’s a long story to explain the interconnectedness, and would likely be worthy of a book itself, but to make the story short, two of his female first cousins (good-looking twins, no less) married two of my Vagneur cousins, brothers to be sure, of my dad’s generation. That’s about as close as you can get, I reckon, without sharing blood.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Lisa Hancock at the Aspen Historical Society, wondering if I could bring in the original Stapleton photos of some I had earlier emailed to her. Uh-oh, I had cursorily looked for those photos and couldn’t find them, so one day shortly ago, I dedicated whatever time it might take to find those pictures. In the end, the search proved fruitful, and to be about much more than the photos themselves.

The gentleman mentioned above, Earl V. Elmont, was born in Basalt, was an educator for 34 years, traveled the world, lived in Argentina a couple of years, comes from French heritage, and speaks numerous languages. You haven’t lived until you’ve received a decorated envelope from Earl, or read through one of his detail-filled emails, generally composed of two or three different languages, often replete with dizzying phonetics. An experience I cherish. He sometimes even writes with an Italian accent.

He is the author of “Basalt and the Frying Pan,” which made The New York Times best-seller list. He also wrote “Basalt, Friendly Town,” and “Woody Creek and the Italians.” If you want a copy of one of these books, please contact me at the email below.

We’re all there, Dagos, Wops, honorable, parsimonious, hardworking, good-looking and trustworthy (and other names), all mentioned in the Woody Creek tome. It’s a fascinating history of many of the families I knew as a young man growing up in Woody Creek. Names like Arbaney, Arlian, Elmont (not Italian, but intrinsic), Grange, Smallwood (not Italian, but powerful), Gerbaz, Berthod, Bionaz, Cerise, Natal, Duroux, Trentaz, Vagneur. You recognize some of those names, I’m sure. Can you see where I might go with this? The complete list would be too long to mention here, but there’s an interesting story on my lips about each one of them.

In any case, Della, the wife of Briece Arlian, was a sister to Sally Sarchfield Stapleton, married to W. E. Stapleton, which sent me in the direction of my Irish maternal side of the family and photos for Lisa Hancock. Be cautioned, it’s not that easy. My parents, who saved boxes and boxes of documents and photos of Vagneurs and Stapletons, half of which got destroyed in a flood, did the convenient thing in many instances by putting them all together. That’s wonderful, except if you’re looking for something specific, it is very easy to get sidetracked.

Naturally, there were photos and letters that pertained to people in Elmont’s books, from both sides of my family, and before long, my mind got burned out on all the information it was receiving. The scary part is, and I’m not exaggerating, I still have a basement room full of more boxes, chock full of historical letters, photos and other minutiae. The correspondences is what takes the time.

From the Stapleton side of the family, there were two particular letters, one each from two of my grandmother’s brothers, who were stationed in France near the end of WWI. The first one, undated, from Edward Stapleton (Buck), said “we’ll be home for Christmas, we just don’t know what year.” The other letter, from her brother Timothy (Newt), dated January 1919, and in much more detail, asked about how severe the flu was in Aspen (influenza killed off about half the Aspen population in 1918). He also suspected the candy his sister had sent ended up in the pocket of the censor.

The war was over, he mentioned, and he wanted to visit Ireland while he was in the neighborhood (his ancestors were from County Tipperary, Ireland), but the Army wouldn’t let him travel outside of France. And then, a third brother, Jim, the baby of the family, crossed paths with Newt as their divisions were in the same area for a couple of days. They hadn’t seen each other in over two years.

And that’s the interconnectedness of history from the past couple of weeks. I’m anxious to continue the journey, but for now, I’m gonna play a game of pool or ride my horse.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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