Vagneur: Sweet tradition with a pioneer spirit
“A half a pound of two-penny rice,
A half a pound of treacle,
Mix ’em up and make ’em nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.”
What else could you expect from Armory Hall, the venerable old building completed in 1892 that now houses Aspen City Hall? My first memory of the Hall is while as a 3- or 4-year-old, my parents took me there for some community event, its purpose long forgotten and on the way out, there was an attraction for children, one that involved sticking one’s arm into a big wooden box through a small opening covered by a black, velvet cloth. No one could see into the box, but each kid, by sticking his arm into the scary void, was rewarded with a handful of candy, a trinket of some kind or, as happened in my case, a rendition of the song, “Pop Goes the Weasel.” How could a kid forget that?
Built by Company C, First Battalion of the Colorado National Guard, the Armory was originally used for housing the company’s uniforms and equipment and had a large area on the ground floor for practicing drills. The famous — or perhaps now infamous — Silver Queen (destined for the 1893 World’s Fair) was first unveiled at the Armory Hall. Taken over by the Fraternal Hall Association during Aspen’s quiet years, the Armory became the center of community activities, the large ground floor having been converted to a gymnasium and/or large auditorium. My paternal grandmother’s sister, Bernice “Babe” Prindle, was a member of Aspen’s 1917 league champion girls’ basketball team.
If you talk to Tom Moore, Aspen native and McLain Flats rancher, he’ll tell you about the roller-skating rink that was reintroduced there in the 1950s, or all the other activities he participated in as a young elementary school student. The high school kids played their basketball games there and it served as the only gymnasium in town. Maybe Tom will take you on an adventure with him and guys such as Don Stapleton, Billy Marolt and Dudley Glidden, sneaking into the upstairs rooms of such groups as the I.O.O.F and Masons, gazing at the accoutrement of the “top secret” organizations, looking over their shoulders and hoping to get out of there alive before dire consequences befell them for such transgressions.
Being a kid around Aspen, it was not unusual to hear stories about the Armory Hall dances during the quiet years, music provided most of the time by Sis McHugh and her orchestra, a group well-known on the Western Slope. My granddad would sometimes ride his horse to town from Woody Creek, cutting through the Trentaz Ranch (today’s Starwood) and coming across Red Mountain to town.
It was the era of Prohibition (whatever that was with all the Italian wine and brandy makers in the valley), and the men would bring a bottle or two of their finest homemade with them, keeping it in the trunk of a car, under the robes lying on the seat of a buggy or sleigh or in the saddle bags on a horse. During breaks in the music, it was the tradition of many couples to file outside for a quick nip or a long slug in the cold air of winter or warm atmosphere of summer. It was not uncommon for the dances to continue until the early morning hours, daylight coming over the mountains, simply because such Saturday night extravaganzas were a big deal and people weren’t in any big hurry to get home once they got there.
There’s a photo of a ferris wheel and carnival set up across Durant from the Amory, and my grandmother Grace Prindle Vagneur’s collection contains a picture of a skating rink in the same location, exactly where the thrift shop and the Fire Department are now located.
One of the organizations operating out of the Aspen Fraternal Hall, if one can include women’s groups in the word “fraternal,” was the PEO, a group of women still active in the Aspen community today. If you don’t know, PEO stands for “Philanthropic Educational Association.” It was started by Fleeta Lamb, mother of Peggy Rowland, and many years ago began the tradition of planting sweet peas in Aspen yards and gardens to help beautify the town. The Aspen Historical Society continues that “sweet” tradition today in the same pioneer spirit.
There are a million stories about the Armory Hall, simply because it was a community center, a centrally located, ideal building for Aspen’s fun-loving populace. If you’d like to participate in a public discussion about the future of the Amory Hall, go to the City Council meeting Tuesday and make your voice heard. Moore and I think it’d make a great community center once again.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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