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Oral History of a Colorado Mountain Town

  • Stephen Raher

History is more than just what you read in books. In fact, a lot of the most interesting details get left out of the books. For that kind of information, you need to seek out the old timers and get them to spin you a yarn. That's what folks in the Colorado mountain town of Salida are doing, and they're getting as much of it on tape as they can, before it disappears.

Salida's local history archive is housed in the basement of the public library. Like many small town archives, there are high school yearbooks, newspapers, even old telephone directories.

But the library is also capturing history in a different format. A small army of volunteers has been visiting nursing homes, the Senior Center and living rooms around town, to interview longtime Salidans about the region's history, and record what they have to say.

Librarian Kathy Berg, who oversees the Salida Oral History Project, says it's not always easy to get people to talk. "There is a fear that the older people have about telling their stories," she says. "You know, even though that recorder is so small, it's very intimidating, the whole idea of it."

But through the network of small town social life, more than 60 interviews have been conducted so far, yielding some fascinating stories. The project has released a CD of some favorites, including this remembrance of summertime swimming by Ted Argys.

"We all learned to swim in the Arkansas River, down here," he tells the interviewer. "The funny part of the story is where we learned to swim was behind the hospital. And in them days, when they did surgery there, everything came into the sewer and went in right behind the hospital. A lot of times someone would dive in there and come up with an arm or something they'd discarded. It was interesting."

The interviews on the CD also give a picture of Salida's agricultural past and the practical logistics of everyday life in an early 20th century mountain town. Helen Campbell Drake recalls that her mother had a big kettle she would use to make the soap in. "And it would be made outdoors. She would save the fat, and what else would she use? The lye. She usually made enough to last a year." Drake says she would help cut them up into cakes. "Little square cakes, and then making the slivers so you could boil it and it would be nice and soft to put in your washing machine." Kathy Berg, conducting that interview, prompts her, "Washing machine?" "Yeah," Drake responds, "we used this soap in the washing machine."

Berg says these kinds of details are the most revealing for modern-day Salidans, showing them the vast changes that have taken place over the past century. "Their mother did everything," she marvels. "And in the interview, it says, does the soap making, and did the gardening, and after they slaughtered the cattle she cut it up. I mean, it just amazes me. And I'm a history major and I've done a lot of reading and it's something I've been interested in for a long time, but then to actually hear them go through this process. And as kids they even remember how she did it."

Other interviewees remember local legends. Retired veterinarian Wendell Hutchinson tells the story of the Espinosa brothers. They were two outlaws, angry that their family had lost land in the area during the Mexican-American War. According to Hutchinson, one of their first victims was Henry Harkins, a local man who had crossed the plains with Hutchinson's own great-great-grandparents in 1860.

"They found him murdered," Hutchinson says. "And they thought it was Indians. But it was not the Indians, it was the Espinosas. They cut his head open with an axe and shot him four or five times."

The pair continued their killing spree, until local miners organized a posse that killed one of the brothers. Eventually the U.S. Army hired Tom Tobin, an experienced trapper, who led a group of soldiers to the mountain hideout where the remaining Espinosa brother and his cousin were holed up. Hutchinson says, Tobin let the Army have the first shot. "They missed. And he said, Give me the gun. And he shot both of them. He was an old frontiersman," he explains with a laugh, "he didn't waste his bullets! Anyway, he chopped their heads off, this is the way the story goes. He chopped their heads off and then he went back to Fort Garland, where they were having kind of a ball that night, and he had these heads in a gunnysack. And he grabbed the end of this sack and rolled the heads out on the floor, he said, Here's your Espinosas!"

The Salida Oral History project is still going strong, and Berg expects it to be an ongoing effort. Even though they're playing catch up now with the town's oldest residents, the volunteers are looking to future generations as well. Berg says her next priority will be to get audio of current high school students to document history as it's happening.

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