Vagneur: Six degrees of separation |

Vagneur: Six degrees of separation

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“Six degrees of separation,” you knowingly say, as though that is a concept new to this millennium, introduced to the modern world by a 1990 play of the same name.

Well, hardly. We’re only six introductions from every other person in the world? It’s a stretch, but maybe possible. However, since we’re on the subject, think about this: Using the same concept, relatively speaking, traveling back in time may be possible. You think I’m crazy, don’t you?

Think Willits, El Jebel and Emma (and Whole Foods, if you must), and come with me on a journey of complicity and completeness seldom mentioned in the annals of Roaring Fork Valley history. (By the way, the next time you go out your front door, pay your respects to the Utes, natives who owned this territory until 1881, when the whites appropriated their land and pushed them to the reservation in Utah.)

Henry Bramblet Gillespie was one of the first 13 prospectors to arrive in Aspen in 1879. He had a sizable grubstake of his own making, was a leader of men and likely would have been considered the father of Ute City had not B. Clark Wheeler and Charles Hallam (as agents for David Hyman) come to Ute City and nefariously stole it out from under Gillespie and the original settlers. They did this while Gillespie was in Washington, D.C., attempting to gain a patent for the Ute City post office. B. Clark and the boys changed the name of the fledgling town to Aspen.

Thinking forward, Gillespie signed on to the new pecking order, casting his future with silver mining, not politics, which made him a ton of money. His wife, Melissa, more commonly called Liss, was a force in the town, helping create a literary society, a Sunday school and, true to her busybody nature, decried the drinking of alcohol at every opportunity.

But herein lies the clue to time travel: Liss (Mrs. Gillespie) was a Robinson, daughter of a Kentucky man (Elhinen Winchester Robinson), who had three daughters (Liss, wife of H.B. Gillespie; Cornelia, wife of Lee Willits; and Emma — think Emma Store — wife of Dan Shehi.) Are these names starting to ring a bell? E.W. Robinson settled on land that would later become the El Jebel Ranch.

Yeah, I know, it’s getting a little deep, but bear with me. Gillespie, no doubt in concert with his in-laws, especially Willits, bought a large ranch downvalley from Aspen and named it El Jebel, simply because he was a dedicated Mason of high rank. He built a suitable ranch mansion, which still stands today and turned the place into a thriving agricultural operation with the help of Lee Willits, who had married Liss Gillespie’s sister, Cornelia. Willits, a Texan, ran the ranch for several years, finally buying 160 acres of his own across the road from El Jebel.

Now to bring it down to today — I’ve spent the better part of my life in Woody Creek, either living or ranching there, but there’s a connection with the midvalley that has a comforting feel to it; a blanket of warmth brought on by the above individuals. For the past 20-some years, I’ve owned property on what was the original Lee Willits family homestead, land he bought in 1892. His grandson, also Lee, was my neighbor and a friend, a finer man you’d never meet and who worked at Tom Sardy’s Aspen Hardware store for umpteen years. Some of my irrigation water comes out of the Robinson Ditch.

El Jebel, across the highway from me, the emerald landmark of the Roaring Fork Valley, has an importance that can’t be denied — many of Aspen’s hardworking folks live in the trailer park or in nearby subdivisions.

My horses spend a good part of their summer grazing on Emma grass; maternally, my grandmother Nellie Stapleton Sloss taught at the Emma school, as did her sister, Julia Stapleton. My great-great uncle James F. Sloss owned the Emma store for several years, and my great-grandfather John W. Sloss and his brother owned what is now the Sopris Mountain Ranch.

There’s little doubt H.B. Gillespie started it all, enticing all those in-laws and others to move here, but for him, it ended poorly. He’s probably the hero of the story, but the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 tolled the end of Gillespie’s fortune, with the eventual sale of his El Jebel ranch. He died while on a prospecting mission in Dutch Guiana in 1903.

According to Caroline Bancroft in her book “Famous Aspen,” Gillespie was “buried in New York after being brought back from Paramaraibo, a debt-ridden failure.” Too harsh, in my opinion. Gillespie, his family and his vision still live on in El Jebel, Willits and Emma. We’re all beneficiaries in some way.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at