Review by Martha Quillen
ColoradoLlore – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine
Here Lies Colorado – Fascinating Figures in Colorado History
by Richard E. Wood
published in 2005 by Farcountry Press
FOR THOSE WHO LOVE Colorado trivia, Here Lies Colorado is a great refresher course. It contains 55 short biographical articles, and some of those entires feature multiple Coloradans. There are four Tabors included in the Tabor entry. Likewise there are three Phipps and three Bonfils; and Chief Ouray and Chipeta share a section, as do John and Mary Elitch. There are also people who aren’t featured who play a substantial part in the narratives (eg. Ben Stapleton and Charles Tutt). Thus in a mere 300 pages, you can learn about 70 Coloradans — easily and painlessly.
And if you’ve just arrived from overseas or back east and know almost nothing about early Colorado, this book offers an easy way to learn a lot about Colorado history with minimal effort. The people featured in this book can introduce you to Colorado’s gold rush, what happened to its Natives, the birth of Denver, and the state’s wild west days. And the narratives continue on to highlight some of Colorado’s industrial trends, the influence of foreign immigration, the rise of the KKK, and the growing consequence of tourism and real- estate development.
Mostly, however, the author’s intent is to highlight some “fascinating” historical figures — and hes does that well. Wood has a rare talent for distilling people’s lives into short, informative biographies with zip and personality.
Biography is a perilous art form, in that it frequently falls into the celebrity-worship inanity of the popular tabloids. Of course, that’s presuming it doesn’t soar into that lofty, academic intensity so rife with excessive analysis and even more excessive prose — which generally reveals more about the trends of university research than about the subject of the biography.
The author of Here Lies Colorado is a former Rocky Mountain News reporter, who uses prose that’s clear, compact, and to-the-point. He quickly explains the essentials of his subjects’ lives, and includes just enough personal detail to make them comprehensible and human.
Though Wood doesn’t dwell on sex, scandal, or scintillating detail, he doesn’t excise it, either. You’ll find out that the Bonfils daughters were as brassy as Cher in choosing notably youthful beaus. At sixty-nine, Helen Bonfils married her twenty-eight-year-old chauffeur; whereas her sister May married a forty-six-year-old interior designer when she was seventy-three. You’ll also find out that Charles Boettcher Sr. was annoyed by his wife’s spending habits; and Temple Buell was ambitious, successful, and had three highly publicized divorces.
PRIMARILY, WOOD STICKS WITH the details that seem to have made these people who they were. You’ll find out that Buffalo Bill Cody was actually a real cowboy, scout, Pony Express rider, soldier, and buffalo hunter before he became a showman; and that Enos Mills was considered a mite difficult to get along with, which might explain his passion for solitude and wilderness.
Colorado history buffs are sure to find some errors in a book with this many subjects, and fans of some of the people featured (such as John Denver, Hunter Thompson, and Alan Berg) may feel that the author didn’t quite do their favorites justice. But my only criticism is that a few more pictures would have added to the sections about architects (and also the section about artist Vance Kirkland). Although Wood tells the readers what buildings those famous architects designed, illustrations would have been helpful.
Otherwise the book is organized around the principle of “Here Lies Colorado,” and it contains only small black and white pictures of the person and his burial place. For the most part, that’s plenty, however, and a few of the pictures are exceptional. For example, Jesse Shwayder, the founder of Samsonite, is pictured in a promotional advertisement which promotes the strength and endurance of his products by showing Jesse and his four brothers, all of them full-grown and well-fed, all balanced on a board laid across a small suitcase. And some of the other pictures included in Here Lies Colorado are sure to make you marvel about the square footage devoted to Denver crypts.
Here Lies Colorado is an easy book to recommend. It’s clear, informative, entertaining — and bound to encourage further interest in regional history.
In fact, the only reason I mention any criticism is because Wood says he hopes to do more of these books, and I hope he does, because I’d enjoy seeing more of the same (but with a few more illustrations and just a little more information with the pictures, please!).