Tony Vagneur: Every man for himself
The other day I got an interesting phone call from Mia Valley of Valley Fine Art in the Wheeler Opera House building. It appeared she had come into possession of genuine, original mining maps (and photographs) from back in Aspen’s silver mining days. Truly priceless artifacts, and she wondered if I would be interested in talking about what I knew of those early days and maybe shed a little light on what life was like back then.
“Complicated question,” I replied, “but what I would like to do is try to explain that farming and ranching existed alongside mining — in fact, it was a symbiotic relationship and neither could have existed without the other.”
The West was a miner’s delight, or curse, depending on what your success level might have been, and with the discovery of gold in California in 1849, then gold in Colorado in 1859, people had been schooled in the evolution of mining camps and how the successful ones turned into towns.
Let’s face it — miners needed picks and shovels, clothes, food, somewhere to stay, somewhere to drink and brag, and there were people ready to drop everything and head to the next promising mining camp, men like H.P. Cowenhoven and his astute clerk, D.R.C. Brown. Freight wagon operators, stagecoach lines, drug and liquor stores, boardinghouses, sawmills, you name it, it took many enterprises to keep a mining camp or town going. And right at the top of the list, along with everything else, was agriculture.
Sensing a likely opportunity, my maternal great grandfather, Timothy C. Stapleton, came over Independence Pass in 1880 and settled on a tract of land, much of which is now known as the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. He had his first-born son, William E., with him (whose mother had died shortly after childbirth) along with his second wife, Ellen Kilker Stapleton, and first child of this second union. The old ranch house and some of the outbuildings are still visible, southwest across the airport runway.
Sure, it’s clear right away that people need to eat, and that was a good reason for farmers and ranchers to surround Aspen with pastoral scenes of open spaces, but one doesn’t always make the connection between agriculture and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of four-legged animals that were necessary to the success of the mines and the town.
Prior to 1887, the only way to get ore from the mines into Aspen was on the back of a burro, and from there it needed to somehow get to Leadville, either on a train of burros or mules, or in a freight wagon. Horses were needed to move carriages and buggies about the town, to skid logs into town for firewood, and well, you get the picture.
Those animals ate tons and tons, and more tons of hay. The primary agricultural product produced in the beginning was hay for the working animals in and around town. And, naturally, once the population of those animals ate off the available pasturage, hay became a year-round need.
It wasn’t easy, starting a homestead that close to town, and Grandpa Tim had more than his share of trouble with trespassers and other crooks. He owned land down in the neighborhood of today’s sewer plant and around 1884 a man tried to claim that land as a placer claim. Tim won, finally, but it took a couple of years in court to vindicate him, including the squatters claim that Tim and one of his sons had accosted him with a rifle and threatened to kill him if he didn’t move on.
On another occasion, a man to the south of Tim’s spread used questionable survey markers to attempt to encroach on Tim’s existing corner markers. Tim and a couple of his sons weren’t afraid to use their firearms once again to impress upon the man that perhaps he should own up to his dishonest behavior and pay Tim damages for the injury he had caused the Stapleton ranch. Again, the courts were very slow as these were not issues they liked to deal with, but were rampant across the West. Once again, the case was dismissed in Tim’s favor.
The lesson, perhaps, is that to be a pioneer rancher in those days, around a growing mining camp such as Aspen, a man had to be tougher than hell and not afraid to protect that which he knew to be rightfully his, up to and including with the use of firearms.
Tim died in 1903 in Denver from what was assumed to be a heart attack at 78 years old (and never having killed anyone). To say he was crusty might be an understatement, and his sons and daughters, tough themselves, bought up additional ranchland and continued to operate the original ranch until 1945.
Tonight is the last night at Valley Fine Art to catch a talk on mining history in Aspen. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Aspen Historical Society. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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