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Salida: The early years, by Eleanor Fry

Review by Abby Quillen

Local History – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Salida: The Early Years
by Eleanor Fry
Edited by Dick Dixon
Published in 2001 by Arkansas Valley Publishing Co.

DESPITE ITS DESIGNATION as a historic district, Salida can seem like a town without much interest in history. Visitors today could easily miss that Salida was once a hub for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad — since the railroad depot, roundhouses, and outbuildings that were once such a focal point of the town are gone. Moreover, some of our most prominent downtown buildings — the four-story Hotel Denton, the First Presbyterian Church, the famous Monte Cristo Hotel — have been torn down. Twenty years ago, a majestic two-story building on F Street was ripped out to make room for a bank parking lot.

But fortunately, some of what’s been lost has been recounted in Salida: the Early Years, a new volume of local lore.

Salida: the Early Years is an updated collection of historical articles that were written fifty years ago by Eleanor Fry, who was then the city editor of the Salida Daily Mail-Record. Fry originally published the work in three historical editions that came out in the mid-1950s as the city celebrated its 75th birthday.

Most of Fry’s information came from Salida’s early newspapers, principally those published before the turn of the century, and sometimes she actually reprinted entire articles from old papers. She also summarized articles and created her own features from old newspapers and other sources. For this modern publication of Salida: The Early Years, editor Dick Dixon updated Fry’s work to include more recent information.

The result of their combined efforts is a volume that can be hard to read in places, but that contains absolute treasures of Salida’s past. Parts of the book are riveting. Because so much of it was taken from small-town newspapers — which are personal and even gossipy — the book reveals bits of social history that many history books overlook.

Plus, the real-life adventure stories in this volume can rival any Western novel, and the book also exposes a dark side to Salida’s history that few modern residents would guess at.

Often, the everyday lives of regular people are overshadowed in history books by national politics and accounts of famous people, but not in Salida: the Early Years. This book brings forth tidbits of our past that could easily have been buried, like why men didn’t wear shirt collars in the late nineteenth century. Apparently, most people only washed their clothes and themselves once a week and attached shirt collars accumulated too much dirt; so styles called for detachable collars and cuffs that were cheaper to buy and launder than whole shirts. Likewise, the habit of smoking aromatic cigars and pipes helped cover up the smell of not bathing.

The book also reveals what women’s lives were like in nineteenth century Salida. Women played a large role in Salida’s early schools, a few women served as newspaper publishers, some were avid bicyclists, and — although the early newspapers tried to avoid the topic — many of Salida’s earliest residents were prostitutes.

IN THOSE YEARS, Salida women also struggled for equality. Despite a city ordinance banning women from wearing bloomers, one Sunday afternoon women appeared downtown en-masse wearing the risqué attire and refusing to go home and change. The very next day, the city council quietly scrapped the anti-bloomer ordinance. And, when women got the vote in Colorado in 1893, the women of Salida gathered in a non-partisan women’s suffrage league so that they could learn to vote intelligently.

In Salida: the Early Years, bits of social history are mixed with wild West adventure stories that read like scenes from a Louis L’Amour novel. This book is full of gunfights, train robberies, and cattle rustling. The murder of Baxter Stingley, a beloved Salida marshal in the 1880s, stands out from the rest. Stingley had just recovered from a gunshot wound when he heard that Frank Reed, an outlaw, was in town. Stingley, a courageous but mild-mannered lawman, never backed away from a fight, and when he found the outlaw in a saloon, a gunfight ensued. Sadly, Stingley was shot, and the whole town came out to mourn him.

Local tales of pioneer-Indian relations also come right out of Western folklore. Late in 1879, the new inhabitants of the Upper Arkansas Valley banded together and organized volunteer citizen armies because they feared a wide-scale Ute uprising in response to the White River massacre.

Indeed, the most surprising part of the book is the dark side of Salida’s past. Lynchings were not uncommon in Central Colorado in the late nineteenth century, and one such lynching put Salida on the national map as an intolerant place. When the train rumbled through Salida on February 22, 1891, the two hundred passengers aboard witnessed quite a sight. The corpse of Oliver Briley was hanging from a railroad crossing in town and his lynch mob, a huge group of angry, drunk men, were still standing around shouting and firing shots. Papers as far away as the New York Sun carried accounts of the event.

It seems that violence — gunfights, bar brawls, and even murders — were a common occurrence in the early days of the town, and prostitution also played quite a role in Salida’s history. Revenue from the red light district of Salida, which once spread from the railroad yards well into the residential neighborhoods, paid the city’s bills for a long time. In the early years, “scantily clad women were blatantly advertised on public streets and from the windows of parlor houses.” As time went by, though, Salida’s “soiled doves” were relegated to one section of town and restricted from certain behaviors. But prostitution thrived much longer in Salida than in most of Colorado, with the city’s last parlor house closing in 1950.

Despite all of its strong points, Salida: the Early Years has its flaws. This publication includes an impressive assortment of photographs, and according to the back of the book, some of them have never before been published. But some of the book’s photographs have been reproduced so badly and are so faded that they are hard to make out.

Furthermore, the book doesn’t tell a cohesive story of Salida’s first twenty years, but instead gives the reader a rather fragmented view of the past. It can give the reader the same feeling one might get sitting at a microfilm reader, watching newspaper pages flip by — and occasionally stopping to read a bit here, then a bit there.

Although many of the stories are fascinating, there are parts of Salida: the Early Years that provide for some pretty slow, tedious reading. The organization of the material in this book can be frustrating. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated clips from completely different years are put together with no breaks in the text. But in other places, information about one topic is split up. For instance, page twenty of the book mentions that the owner of the Monte Christo Hotel in 1885 owned a pet bear, a compelling bit of lore, but the reader has to wait until page 127 to read anything else about it.

Also, because of the fragmented nature of the book, it is left to the reader to amass the bits and pieces of Salida’s past into a bigger picture. The reader is left to reflect upon what kind of a town Salida was, and how it compared to others and fit into our state’s history — because the authors seldom do. Fortunately, however, the book has a superb index, which can help the reader pull some of the pieces together.

BUT SINCE THIS BOOK was originally written in the 1950s to include articles that were already decades old, and was recently updated by Dixon, it’s often hard to tell who wrote what, when. The parts written by Dick Dixon blend right into those written by Fry, and the book is not annotated. In some places this compilation of text is confusing for the reader, leaving dates and authorship of some material unclear.

Moreover, as Eleanor Fry states again and again, old newspapers were not necessarily accurate. Of early Salida newspaperman Cy Warman, Fry wrote that his “colorful writing style sometimes compromised factual information.” Fry also makes it clear that Salida’s early newspapers were written at a time when libel laws were nonexistent, and opinionated, sharp-witted editors took far more liberty with the truth than their modern counterparts would dare. In addition, newspapers often served as chambers of commerce then, and therefore they sometimes ignored evil-doings and unpleasantness.

All of these things would make it difficult to use this book for serious research. But Salida: The Early Years is a wonderful place to start exploring the history of the area, and it’s a compelling read for anyone with an interest in the history of the Upper Arkansas Valley.

–Abby Quillen