Vagneur: The epitome of consistency in a town full of change
October 31, 2015
There's probably a secret handshake, but unless you belong to the troupe, how would you know? It's an all-woman club, an under-the-radar group that has existed in Aspen since 1920, and they don't suffer fools, period. To wit, I am perhaps the only male in Aspen's history to be forever blacklisted by them, and rightly so for failing to honor a luncheon invitation issued to me this past summer. There is no excuse other than to say a broken hay baler and a threatening storm cloud overhead diverted my attention from what was truly important.
Mary Eshbaugh Hayes wrote about these women over the years, giving them coveted headline space in her "Around Aspen" column, and they are frequently mentioned in various literary tomes detailing the history of Aspen, particularly that period after the infamous silver crash of 1893.
Consistency in Aspen is a difficult concept to define as the changes here have been so varied and, in many cases, rapid, but the group of ladies I'm talking about can only be described as the epitome of consistency in a town full of change.
Meeting June 24, 1920, at the home of Sarah Blackburn, The Woman's Literary Club of Aspen was born to bring cultural and educational opportunities to women here. If you think about it, such opportunities in the isolated and shrinking town of Aspen were very limited at the time, and putting together such a club likely required little arm twisting on the part of the founders. Keep in mind, however, that this was not the only group of women formed for similar purposes — there also was the Ladies Aid Society, of which my mother became a member in later years, and the St. Mary's Guild. Both of these groups of women designed to not only provide funds for charities and provide educational opportunities, but they had a general basis in fighting the doldrums of living in a mostly deserted, dwindling mining town.
Without a doubt, Sarah Blackburn's finest linen and china were laid out for afternoon tea, and by the end of the meeting, the club had elected officers, laid out a second and fourth Thursday of each month as a meeting schedule, determined that dues would be 10 cents per meeting and that membership would be limited to 15 women living in Aspen. According to notes provided by Irene Johnson Conner, historian and member of The Woman's Literary Club, the object of the organization would be "the intellectual improvement of its members by some course of study."
In a town where the woman at the bar next to you claims to be a "local," but come to find out she lives in Palm Beach or Miami eight months of the year, it is inspirational to know that a club like The Woman's Literary Club has continually existed for so many years.
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Some of today's members go directly back to the group's original founders, and many of the women have ties to pioneer settlers in the Aspen area. In some ways, it is a glimpse into my own family, for several members of both the Vagneur and Stapleton clans have claimed membership, including one even younger than me.
The years have rolled on, and as the membership decreases due to visits from the grim reaper, younger women have replaced those who have passed on, sometimes from the same family. For each deceased member, a book is given to the local library in that person's honor, and over the years that has made for a rather large gift of books. They also contribute heavily to the Aspen Senior Center.
In today's lingo, it is a closed group — one has to be invited to join, but the qualifications are simple – one must have "enduring ties to Aspen."
These are strong and powerful women; women who have helped Aspen through tough and good times both, women who still care what happens in this little mountain town. One was the proprietor, with her husband, of one of Aspen's most popular restaurants for well over 40 years; another owned a still-active excavation company with her family, also for over four decades; several have been owners of some of the largest ranches in Pitkin County; others have deep ties to skiing and Aspen and Snowmass mountains, and others have owned successful small businesses in Aspen over the years. Some are members of the Aspen Hall of Fame. These women know their stuff.
To talk to these women is to touch history, for their stories come not only from the experience of a lifetime of living here, but they also come from the heart, deep down in the heart, about a place they have loved for as long as they can remember.
Thanks to Marlene Maddalone and Carolyn Cerise Barabe for contributing notes and stories for this column. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.