Willoughby: Kobey family supported community
Legends & Legacies
Notable for community involvement, the Kobey family ran a business in a prominent location on Hyman Avenue for more than 50 years. Two generations made their mark in local mining, retail business, politics, music and baseball.
Dave Kobey moved to Aspen from Central City in 1888 and founded Rachofsky and Kobey, a men’s clothing store. The partners opened the original store in the Aspen Block, but after Kobey bought out his partners, he moved the store across the street. It remained there until the business closed.
In 1893, Dave moved to Denver, where his extended family lived. He turned the store over to Ben, his son, who graduated in one of the early classes of the University of Colorado. Ben opened his law offices on the second floor and supervised the store. He married Hattie Reice of Denver in 1904, and Nathan, his first son, was born in 1906. Hattie, often praised for her excellent voice, sang in many of Aspen’s musical events. She sang with a group known as the Lady Minstrels and in the Presbyterian Church choir.
Ben’s youthful love of baseball grew, and he continued to play into the 1930s. When he didn’t play, he organized and funded local teams.
Ben adapted the store to the times. During the 1920s he added radios to the merchandise. The business kept him busy and required frequent travel to find and purchase fashionable products. Almost every year he visited New York and Chicago.
In addition, he invested in mines, as did most Aspen merchants. He served as president of the Hope Mine during the 1920s. During the first few years, the company was entangled in a lawsuit over claim ownership. Impatient and disgruntled stockholders, some of whom thought they had been swindled, plagued the mine. Eventually, Hope managers took over B. Clark Wheeler’s Famous Tunnel. They intended to undercut the ore body of the Little Annie Mine 1,000 feet below.
Ben also invested in the Enterprise Mine in Taylor Park. The associated Milling and Power Co. demanded in-person attention during the same period he practiced law in Denver.
Ben Kobey played an important role in the local Democratic Party. In 1906 he became a regent of CU. In 1912 he ran for Congress, but he lost the election. Locally, he and fellow Democrat Doc Twinning championed construction of roads and highways to support Aspen’s nascent tourist business.
Over time, the store and mines slowly lost revenue. Ben spent increasingly more time on his law practice in Denver and the family business there. Yet he maintained a presence in Aspen through most of the 1930s.
My mother went to work for Ben Kobey in 1928, a time when few jobs existed anywhere. The clothing store was not particularly busy, but plenty of work came her way. She was a seamstress, and many clothing items in those days required alterations.
The public store was at street level, over a basement full of stock. Mother felt surprised to discover so much unsold clothing below, bought in better times. Although men’s fashion does not change as drastically as women’s, few of the items appeared likely to sell ever again. For instance, the fedora — a rage of the 1930s — had long outdated the cellar’s abundant Stetsons.
Mother felt grateful for that job. The business barely broke even and would have operated at a loss had Kobey not owned the building. Like a few other merchants, he kept up business during the Depression. They did so not only because they hoped for a change in the economy, but also to serve the Aspen community.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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