For most of its existence, Aspen has been a mining town, not a playground for the extremely well off. This town is beginning to realize its true past and is emphasizing its roots with 3 attractions: 2 ghost towns named Ashcroft and Independence, the Holden-Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum, and the current exhibit at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum.
The Wheeler/Stallard is situated on West Bleeker Street in town. It’s a late 18th century brick home in typical Aspen style that has been redone twice in this century. In fact, I have never gone into it without the staff pointing out something new. This time it was the wallpaper in the front room. Jerome Wheeler, a New York State investor, built this home for his family in 1888, and this one family owned it for 40 years. Wheeler was also a builder. Two of the Aspen properties he erected were the opera house and the Jerome Hotel, both of which still stand. Much of its 19th century infrastructure remains.
The Wheeler house didn’t change hands until 1945 when Aspen was in a huge downturn. It is now owned by the Aspen Historical Society and has been turned into the town museum. I have been through it often, and it always features a lengthy exhibit about Aspen’s true history. They have all been exceptional. The artifacts shown and the information presented are always historically accurate. The Society stores most of its artifacts in a separate building on the premises.
The staff of the Wheeler/Stallard assured me that “Aspen Revealed” did not open until the COVID pandemic was no longer affecting visitations and that its run will be extended beyond a year. “Decade by Decade” begins in 1869 with a new railroad and ends in the late 1970s. I learned a lot about this unusual town by seeing it. First, I learned that its original name was Ute City according to its incorporation in 1880. At that time the Ute Native American tribe was in control, and its territory included most of Colorado and a large portion of Utah. Aspen began the 1880s as a small camp of prospectors and builders. When the decade ended it was a famous mining town known all over the world. It was a growing city with a 3 story opera house, a roller skating rink, street cars and a population nearing 5,000. Despite numerous lawsuits it produced $11million worth of silver over a 5 year period, but then banks failed and Aspen came to a standstill. The population dropped by 36% and those who stayed turned to farming and sheep herding. Through the 1940s high quality potatoes and livestock were far more common than billionaires. The Isis Theater showed movies by 1915 and locals attended barn dances. This movie house is still operating. By the end of the 1920s, the entire local county called Pitkin had a population of only 1,770. By 1940 the sheep population in Aspen Valley was more than 17,000, but the first ski resort had opened and a turnaround was beginning. The population hit a low point in 1950 but during this decade movie stars like Gary Cooper became interested in building houses in Aspen, the music festival was getting underway, the Aspen Institute was taking shape and this town was on its way to becoming an international ski resort and culture center with a rising population and soaring property values. By the 1960s Aspen was on its way to becoming a magnet for artists, athletes, and intellectuals with an astonishing growth rate. See this exhibit to be amazed by this singular town in the Rockies. Mining had only a brief recovery, and now its silver production is part of Aspen’s distant past.
Hank says see this town and this exhibit at the Wheeler/Stallard before it fades away like old wallpaper.