Willoughby: Read all about it
December 3, 2016
Would you like to know when skiers could first buy a Nordica boot? Do you feel curious about how people felt when the U.S. entered World War I? Perhaps you would like to know what a pound of Palisade peaches cost in 1920? Just a few keyboard strokes call the answers to your monitor.
Few would know Aspen's fascinating history if the Aspen Historical Society had not preserved facts and artifacts of our past. During its early years, the society acquired back issues of The Aspen Times. Individuals could sit in the society's basement and scan copies of papers that residents received years before. Each week, the society compiled a list of historical tidbits from the papers for The Aspen Times, which invited readers to revisit events from a quarter-, half- and a full century ago.
John Herron, my uncle, passed copies of the Aspen Democrat Times to me. That daily paper covered much of the first two decades of the 1900s. It revealed that the years after the demonetization of silver were as thriving as the 1880s and 1890s. The advertisements interested me as much as the stories.
For a history buff like me, there was one major drawback. Whenever I looked for something specific, I had to read through hundreds of pages.
The society worked with Pitkin County Library and paid to digitize newspapers of the Aspen area from 1881 through 1963. Eleven digitized papers include the Ashcroft Herald and short-lived papers such as the Aspen Morning Sun and the Aspen Union Era. The public can access and search these online at the Colorado State Library website: http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org.
Examples from my research suggest the potential for exploration and entertainment as well as the limitations.
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Jack Atkinson, one of Aspen's early pioneers, built the Sardy House and rose as a community leader. As he spun tales of Aspen history at the Little Annie Mine boarding house, Atkinson captivated my father, who was a teen at the time. When my father told those stories to me, I wanted to know more about Atkinson.
I searched online and found frequent references to Atkinson. He partnered in the Little Annie Mine with B. Clark Wheeler, who owned The Aspen Times. The references confused me until I realized that the paper referred to Atkinson sometimes as "Jack" and other times as "John." In addition, his brother and father — each of whom played a part in Aspen's past — shared those names.
I spent hours trying to discover the name of Wheeler's first wife. Although — or perhaps because — Wheeler edited the paper, his personal life remains hidden.
The old papers focused on men, so it was difficult to find out much about any woman other than her name, and that was hard enough. In some cases, I traced female first names back to when they were school students, or before they married. Wedding announcements seldom mentioned a woman's first name. Writers referred to married women as Mrs. (husband's last name).
Aspen's papers are not the only ones at the State Library website. The rich history of Leadville, our mining sister city, resides in the digital files. Stories about the same events and people in both papers afford slightly different perspectives.
Rather than track tidbits of Hollywood gossip on Twitter, try a search of the digitized newspaper collection. I warn you, it is addictive. And after you come to treasure Aspen's old newspapers, be sure to visit the Historical Society. Browse something solid, such as their displays and archives, and thank them for saving our past.
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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