Willoughby: When Aspen bears had more food than entertainment value
Legends & Legacies
Black bears lumber along city streets in a wildlife display framed by Aspen’s living-room windows. Some viewers feel intrigued. Others foresee bungled burglaries.
Aspen Skiing Co.’s new purchase, Mammoth Resorts, participates in a project that makes mountain life more “bearable.” The town of Mammoth Lakes has battled bears for decades. But the summer of 2017 passed as the first in memory with few bear incidents. Well schooled in bear tactics, neighbors report neighbors who lack bear-proof garbage containers. Every year stories spread through town about bears that develop a taste for open garbage and then proceed to barge into homes. Some homeowners catch a bungling burglar in the act as it raids the refrigerator, unleashes its appetite, and leaves a trail of Goldilocks tales.
In Aspen, hunting during previous times eliminated the perpetrators and the engaging stories that accompanied them. I was about 10 years old before I saw my first memorable bear. Frank Willoughby, my uncle, had been engineering the road to the iron mine at the end of the Castle Creek Valley. That summer he and my aunt lived in a small travel trailer, at the point where the road to Montezuma begins its steep grade. A mother bear and two cubs explored the area between their den and the creek each evening for a few weeks. What a rare and treasured sight!
When I was little, we called the bindings that locked us onto our skis “bear traps.” But during Aspen’s mining era, bear traps were for catching the animals. Bagging a bear put meat on the table and, occasionally, into local markets. Most hunters found tracks near streams and followed them to the bears. According to newspaper stories, hunters found bears below Aspen in the Sopris and Frying Pan areas, and in habitat such as Woody Creek. The prevalence of hunting parties outnumbered the bears, and so they targeted other, less-interesting game. But when a party killed a bear, the papers followed up with the news. Whether the bears were colored black, cinnamon or silvertip, soon hunters killed them all.
The mining years marked no accounts of bears that wandered onto Aspen’s streets. But two famous bears put in an appearance on Cooper Avenue at a time when residents acknowledged B. Clark Wheeler as Aspen’s spokesperson and most aggressive salesman. In addition to his pronouncements as editor of The Aspen Times, Wheeler promoted Aspen’s mines. And he traveled the country to hype Aspen’s mining stocks.
In 1891, Wheeler decided Aspen needed what Pueblo had built: a mineral palace where visitors could see the town’s most famous product. He put up his own money, raised funds from others and then opened the Aspen Mineral Palace on Cooper Avenue. The palace’s 18,000 square feet harbored minerals in glass cases, displayed taxidermied animals and exhibited local museum-type items. The space hosted meetings and lectures and housed a reading library. Located a couple blocks from the Midland Railroad Depot, the palace afforded quick entertainment to those who had just arrived or waited to depart.
Who wouldn’t want to gaze at sparkling silver specimens? But first, visitors would have to stop and notice where they are. So, Wheeler concocted a display of two bears. Not two stuffed ones, these were two living bears. He tethered Nellie and Jim, silvertip bears he had raised from cubs, near the entrance each day.
I do not know whether the bears scared off more customers than they attracted. But within a year Wheeler ended the bear exhibit in his own salesman’s fashion and in the most public manner. The town hosted the Western Colorado Congress, an alliance for community action, with events at the Mineral Palace and dinners at the Jerome. To raise money for the outsized undertaking, Wheeler staged a public execution of his bears in front of the Palace. And then he auctioned off the meat and hides. Two more bears bit the dust and indirectly increased public appetite today to see wild ones roam Aspen’s streets and creeks.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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