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Salida Museum has a little bit of everything

Article by Martha Quillen

Museums – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

History can’t be toted on a cash register, nor added up like so many numbers and presented with unfailing accuracy — for history is a living thing, wholly reliant on those who feed and nurture it. South Park City has breathed life into the history of South Park by resurrecting its boom town buildings. Down Highway 285, in Salida, one finds an entirely different approach to history.

Today, Salida is the only town in central Colorado housing its single museum in a thoroughly modern building. There, one finds the collections of dozens of individuals. The Salida museum features a bit of everything: body baskets from a local mortuary, schoolroom accessories, family pictures, hardware, saddles, and even church windows.

Displays include clothing, china, silver, kitchen utensils, flat irons, typewriters, rifles, swords, rock collections, arrowheads, Indian artifacts, furniture, pictures, books, bottles and lanterns — all lovingly saved and tended.

But many of the collectibles have little to do with Salida. There is Acoma pottery, pictures of famous Indians, Navaho rugs, war souvenirs, furs, animal heads, and musical instruments.

Salida’s museum doesn’t say much about the history of Salida’s rail lines, quarries, or ranches. Instead, it offers a compilation of whatever the donators were interested in. Curiously enough, that gives Salida’s museum a certain all-American, small-town essence one doesn’t find in most museums.

Here are the treasures from a hundred attics, from the parlors of a dozen grandmothers, from mom’s closet, dad’s workroom, and uncle Jack’s den.

Most of them are in remarkable condition. Whether they’re 50 or 150 years old, many of these items were once cherished belongings — and they still are. Wedding gowns, christening gowns, baby pictures, important souvenirs, and beloved collections are all treated like family heirlooms. The silver shines. The china glistens. And dust is not a noticeable intruder.

Walking through the Salida museum is a bit like looking at an old Sears-Roebuck catalog. One sees all of the things Salidans cared about. One sees what objects they collected, what items they saved, and what tools they used. All in all, the Salida museum offers an awesome array of American memorabilia, all of it immaculate, well-organized and carefully labeled.

The hometown essence of Salida’s museum probably owes a lot to Salida’s multiple identities. Founded in 1880 as a railroad center, by 1910 Salida was home to more than 4,000 residents, and its population has been stable ever since.

Although Salida has had its share of triumphs and reverses, the town never really experienced a major boom or bust — or at least not on the scale of the old mining camps where populations often soared into the thousands, then dropped back to nearly nothing in a matter of months.

Salida’s freight yards and roundhouses were located to serve the mining camps, however. So the railroads cut back when the mining camps waned. Yet Salida always managed to find new occupations to replace the old ones.

Over the years, Salida has served as a railroad center, industrial hub, ranching community, resort, mining town, marketplace, hunting and outfitting post, outdoor recreation area, and skiers’ stop-over.

Salida’s versatility meant there was never any need to build the town’s legends into a revenue-generating resource. The lack of significant booms meant there was probably never enough extra money to prompt a major civic project.

On top of all that, the towns’ varied industries almost certainly meant no one was ever too sure what Salida should commemorate. The opera house? A homestead? A parlor house? Mines? Railroads? Smelters?

Significantly enough, Salida’s interest in preserving history didn’t peak until the 1980s. After the Monarch tracks were torn out and the depot was demolished, after the Wenz building was gone, and the old Key Pond Park became the site of a modern building, talk began.

Then the closure of Climax, the loss of Homestake, and the gradual diminishing of mining and quarrying throughout the region brought serious economic reversals, and Salida’s new historic district became a reality.

Now, Salida’s Downtown Improvement District takes historic preservation seriously, and a recent mini-boom has yielded the prosperity necessary to invest in sidewalks, parks, pools, and Christmas lights. With grants, donations, fund-raisers, and a community better able to support such a facility, Salida is currently turning the old Steam Plant into a theater.

But the town already has a museum — an archive housed in a plain, brick building behind the Chamber of Commerce. It isn’t as extensive as Fairplay’s South Park City, or as venerable as Leadville’s Healy House-Dexter Cabin, or as clearly representative of history as the Westcliffe and Saguache school houses.

But it is uniquely Salidan.

It’s odd to reflect that Salida could have justified any history it chose — because the place does have a past.

Before Salida was founded, Pike and Fremont came through. Utes camped nearby, and ranchers brought cattle in.

In the 1870s, area ranchers jumped into the Lake County War, a bitter feud between vigilante groups bent on justice, but dealing out death.

Denver papers once declared Salida a murder capital. A local sheriff got gunned down — on more than one occasion before a final bullet did him in. Salida’s red light district roared. Rustlers got caught.

The town served as a supply center for many mining camps, including Whitehorn, Turret, Calumet, Bonanza, Monarch and Shavano. Immigrants arrived to work for the railroad. Vaudeville companies trooped through.

Salida built hospitals for train crews, ranchers, and miners. Trains wrecked. Accidents happened. Epidemics swept through. An avalanche buried Tomichi, and Salidans rushed in to dig the town out.

But Salida’s museum ignores most of that.

In the Salida museum, Laura Evans, Salida’s most famous madam, is represented by a lamp that stands between two beautiful old hutches and a dining room table. And that’s the way Salida really is.

First and foremost, Salida has always been a small town, a traditional, old-fashioned, quiet, comfortable place where births, deaths, weddings, funerals, parlor furniture, schools, churches, hobbies, and vacation souvenirs really do predominate.