by amiee white beazley | July 6, 2013 | Lifestyle
The automobile entrance to the Old Colorado Midland Railway tunnel in 1934.
As part of “Journey Stories,” a photo shows a girl and her family who migrated from Florida to New Jersey in 1940.
Polish and Russian immigrants aboard a ship coming to America in 1905.
An Aspen Historical Society image depicts a motorcycle and sidecar along Independence Pass.
From the “Journey Stories” exhibit: a photo of families saying goodbye to a trainful of departing soldiers in Decatur, Illinois, in June 1944.
It seems curious that Aspen had already formed a historical society in 1963, well before the skibum culture of the 1970s, the excess of the ’80s, the boom of the real estate–fueled economy, and the town’s inevitable growth issues. Back then, so much of Aspen’s story had yet to unfold.
Now, at 50 and no worse for wear, the Aspen Historical Society reflects on itself as if to say, “You’re all grown up, Aspen. But who are you really?”
“Fifty is a stupid number,” says Georgia Hanson with a laugh. She’s president and CEO of the Aspen Historical Society. “Yes, it’s historic, and 50 is a nice round number, but what does it mean? I guess it means we get to recognize that people here kept a record of this place. Albeit tiny, Aspen was important enough to pay attention to its story. We are most grateful they were prescient enough to start a society and start collecting and keeping the stories that often get lost. Stories are the absolute foundation of civilization and provide a cultural base that allows a community to flourish.”
The Society was founded by Aspenites such as Ramona Markalunas and Herbert Bayer, who felt the town’s early history passing with each old timer who passed with it. Today, the nonprofit is not just in charge of capturing the stories of those who have come before us, but of the physical places that teach us about our past—the Independence and Ashcroft ghost towns, the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, the Wheeler/Stallard Museum (the Society’s West End home) and its archives, which hold more than 27,000 photos, 7,000 objects, and 6,000 documents pertaining to Aspen.
Telling the story of Aspen seems to be a fitting theme for the yearlong 50th anniversary celebrations organized by the Society.
“We thought nostalgia would be important, and we wanted everything to be compelling to the current residents of the Roaring Fork Valley as well,” says Hanson. “We ended up with quarterly events, beginning with Wintersköl and the Mad Hatter’s Ball, which was a great hit.”
Building on those successes, the Society will offer two special events this summer aimed at helping our community celebrate where we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re going.
The first is a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, hosted by the Society, called “Journey Stories,” held at the Aspen Fire Department’s downtown location from June 4–July 10. The exhibit explores the history of American travel from coast to coast, and how transportation and migration helped form a nation.
Visitors to “Journey Stories” will explore four centuries of US history—including our own—along with the tales of Aspenites and how they arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley. This spring the Society began putting together the exhibit’s local component by creating four-minute video recordings of people’s stories, which play in a loop.
“The Smithsonian exhibit just fell into our lap in terms of timing, and we couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Hanson. “Having an exhibit downtown that draws attention to how we all got here is a stupendous way to lure everyone into exploring our remarkable story.”
The second celebration is Chautauqua, a reimagination of the popular late-19th- and early-20th-century adult-education movement that emphasized arts and culture. It’s set for July 8–12 on the grounds of the Wheeler/Stallard Museum. In that era, circuit Chautauquas often visited small communities throughout the West that had little access to culture. Traversing the country, they delivered the message of education and cultural enlightenment to large crowds under humped tents.
Although it’s not known for certain, Hanson is convinced that Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke— hailed as the founders of modern day Aspen—visited Chautauqua, New York, where the movement originated, and that it served as a model when they envisioned the “Aspen idea.”
Following the theme of “Engage, Inspire, Entertain,” our own Chautauqua will encompass four days of eclectic activities and interactive seminars for children and adults that “all relate to what makes this community” Aspen, says Hanson. There will be yoga in the mornings, meditation, coffee conversations, character performances, and brown-bag lunches with featured speakers, as well as the Young Chautauqua Camp, teaching kids about Aspen figures of the past.
Nighttime will see a variety of films with local relevance, like Aspen Extreme and Downhill Racer. The week will culminate with a festive block party celebrating As pen residents old and new.
“We want to celebrate our community,” says Hanson. “We want Chautauqua, as a concept, to bring people together to be exposed to culture. Aspen is so full of culture, and we want to celebrate that in this small community.”
Following this year of celebration, the Aspen Historical Society will look to its future. Character presentations and community conversations will continue, as will an annual event in collaboration with local nonprofits to “encourage civic engagement, perhaps on a single topic that can be explored in depth,” Hanson says. And finally, in November, the Wheeler/Stallard Museum will host a family-style dinner and party at the Hotel Jerome—an Aspen tradition for decades.
As the history of Aspen continues to unfold, it is we who will be characters in her story one day. One wonders how Aspen history will view us in another 50 years. “Journeys Stories,” June 4 through July 10, Aspen Fire Station, 420 E Hopkins Ave., 970- 925-5532
photography courtesy of the Herald & Review, Decatur, Illinois; aspen historical society (independence pass, hagerman pass); library of congress/courtesy of aspen historical society/smithsonian institution (russians); LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/COURTESY OF ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION (MIGRANTS)