Tony Vagneur: Maintaining Aspen’s history is rooted in community’s heart

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

6:15 a.m. last Saturday in Woody Creek. The dawn’s early light is muffled by a low-hanging cloud cover and as I ponder the day, rain funnels off the roof, splattering to the grass below and I wonder if we’ll make it or get canceled out.

Once a year, the Aspen Historical Society guides a tour through the Mount Hope/Green Mountain mining community, and although Margaret and I have been to the high reaches of Green Mountain and its few remaining structures, we’ve never heard the history as only the incomparable and indomitable Nina Gabianelli can interpret it.

Twenty-two people had signed up for the hike, and because of the weather, it seemed questionable, at least to me, if anyone other than Margaret and I would show up. Such a doubter. Twenty-eight people met at the parking lot just west of the remaining town of Independence for the orientation, including one couple, older than me no less, who were on their first mountain hike. Ever. Admirable. It’s not an easy hike.

Unknown to many is the amount of hard work and research that goes into interpreting the history of such sites, and I’m not going to steal Nina’s thunder by giving you a short synopsis here. No way, you’ll have to find the hidden cabins and adit tunnels on your own.

Was that a horse stable or a lunch cabin for the upper crew? Let me just say that the brilliant emerald color of Green Mountain does not betray the mountain itself.

At the conclusion of the tour, Margaret and I had planned to hike southeast, up Independence Peak as we did a few years ago. A couple from the tour asked if they could join us, as did a single woman from the group.

From the heart of the top Green Mountain cabin cluster, the trail takes off across a bog (fen?) and goes fairly well straight up a very steep incline. It’s above timberline and the air gets a little thinner with each step, something we were looking for, on purpose. Go figure.

Over lunch with Joan Gurrentz, while her husband, Rodger, was busy exploring the rest of the peak, we learned of a beautiful and heart-warming story. Joan first came to the Aspen area with her future husband Rodger Gurrentz. One of their stops was the mining town of Independence.

(If the name Gurrentz seems familiar, it was Rodger’s dad, Mort, who, with a partner, founded Deep Powder, Inc., which eventually became the Aspen Skiing Co.’s back-country powder skiing operation.)

A few years later they came back with their children and in exploring Independence, took a photo of the kids standing in one of the abandoned cabins. It’s an incredible photo, a young boy and girl standing in the doorway, with the bright reflection of a back door included in the photo. To get both doors in the shot, however, the back door had to be visible through a third doorway, the middle door. Amazing photo, expertly lined up.

They hung the photo in the entry of their Pittsburgh home and were often surprised when visitors remarked that the photo must have been taken in a studio, the cabin backdrop being a striking, but standard studio embellishment. The Gurrentz’s enjoyed explaining the story and in some ways, it became a centerpiece of their many family travels to Aspen.

This summer they trekked once again up to Independence, ’cause they like the place, and noticed with some concern that the doorway framing the prized photograph of their children was more than a little askance. It appeared it wouldn’t be long before the entire structure collapsed, returning flat to the earth, and an important part in the thread of their family life would be lost.

That prompted a compassionate donation to the Aspen Historical Society to get the remains of the structure put back upright and strengthened. It will never be T-square exact again, but it will be standing there for future generations to enjoy and capture poses of each other. That one doorway is perhaps the most photographed location in the town of Independence. The Gurrentz’s also are having one other Independence cabin refurbished.

The Aspen Historical Society is the keeper of our past, and it’s people like Rodger and Joan Gurrentz who make it all possible by taking an active role, coming from the heart and from their desire to preserve local history, not only for themselves and their family, but for everyone.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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