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Salida’s history seems to be slipping away

Essay by Martha Quillen

Salida – April 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Lately, I’ve been sitting up reading Under the Angel of Shavano by George G. Everett and Dr. Wendell F. Hutchinson. It’s a history of the Salida area with information on ranching, railroading, stagecoaches, murders, business, and Indians, plus many first-person pioneer narratives.

A dense-packed compendium of Salida’s past, Under the Angel even includes brands, county stats, and pages from account books. Thus, it isn’t the kind of book I just breeze through, which has made reading Under the Angel a fairly bittersweet exercise — since this history is no longer readily available. It’s sad.

The biographical material about Dr. Hutchinson on the book’s cover says:

“Dr. Hutchinson became interested in the history of the area from his great-uncle Arthur whose stories made lasting impressions on him. As his veterinary calls took him to all parts of the county and adjacent counties, he began collecting pictures, stories and facts about the colorful past. The need for documenting these stories became apparent as he saw one after another of these old pioneers pass on and with them an integral part of the Old West. Fortunately, men like the late attorney Thomas Nevens had collected many of these stories also, and had them in their files.

“In discussions with George G. Everett, Dr. Hutchinson recognized a man of the Old West and the two men conceived the idea of this book.”

And yet Salida’s history seems to be slipping away, regardless. Under the Angel of Shavano is still available at the Salida Library, but it’s not in print.

I’m not sure why Salida’s history seems to be fading faster than its neighbors’ history, but it does seem that way.

Leadville is a veritable history machine, generating books, pamphlets, celebrations, dramatic reenactments, museums, and post cards. History thrives in Fairplay and Saguache, with their fine museums, and it survives in Westcliffe and Buena Vista, but it doesn’t seem to fare as well in Salida.

Ed and I have mused on that phenomenon now and again, and come up with numerous theories, including the following.

Maybe Salida is too big.

But that doesn’t seem to make history languish in Dodge City, Kansas, or San Antonio, Texas.

Maybe Salida has been too stable and prosperous.

In Colorado, history is what towns sell when their mines close or their farms dry up. Salida has certainly had setbacks, but its population has been remarkably stable, and it’s always been a big enough market center to weather upsets.

Maybe it’s because Salida doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all history.

Salida has been a ranching, railroading, farming, and mining supply center. That kind of history doesn’t fit in a pamphlet easily. Nor is it as easy to get on film as raucous boom towns and milling cattle.

Maybe Salida’s history is just more boring than most.

Actually, I don’t accept this theory. As evidence I put forward a recent PBS program which featured Laura Evans, Salida’s famous madame. Unfortunately, although the show starring Cloris Leachman was well-done and mentioned Salida, it showed some town in Montana with the train right outside the swinging saloon doors. The place was built of clapboard with wooden sidewalks, and looked more like St. Elmo than Salida.

That show made me wonder if Salida, with its big brick houses and elaborate Victorian homes, doesn’t look too solid and midwestern than is good for it. People can move in and pretend they’re back in Iowa or Ohio — until the prevalence of water restrictions, parched trees, teenagers in pickups, chewing tobacco, anti-growth sentiments, and card-carrying NRA supporters begins to spook them. Salida just doesn’t look like Disney’s model frontier town.

Yet all in all, I’d bet Salida has produced as many fascinating characters and captivating tales as any place in the west. The town, however, has never really had the lurid image to project its citizens into western lore.

Maybe Salida’s population has been too transient.

Thanks to railroading and mining, a lot of citizens moved in and then right back out without developing a long-term interest in the area. Yet even so mining towns tend to commemorate their history. On the other hand, Salida may have harbored a larger-than-average population that didn’t interact with the families of settlers, ranchers, and businessmen.

Maybe art, tourism, and recreation naturally vie with history.

It takes a lot of communal energy to stage artwalks and plan boat ramps. Maybe Salida divided its social resources more than neighboring towns.

Maybe, as a whole, Salidans don’t have quite as much reverence for history as some of their neighbors.

In Salida, we mix old and new. We don’t have a Healy House and Dexter Cabin. We have a lot of old buildings full of new merchandise. Even our “historical” Steam Plant houses a theater and gallery.

So maybe we’re too thrifty to preserve our local history. Or maybe our history is fading because Salida’s premier festival is FIBArk, rather than an historical celebration.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter why Salida’s history isn’t as well-remembered as some. The question is — Should we do more to preserve it?

Personally, I hate to see our local history fade. There’s a lot of talk about how history glorifies dead white guys, but that isn’t true when it comes to local history. Regional history is about families — wives, husbands, women, and children. It’s about ordinary people — and oddballs. But mostly it’s about individuals.

Because societies tend to break down into smaller groups (like young, old, middle-aged, teens, cowboys, Chamber members, artists, sportsmen, newcomers, old-timers, Democrats, Republicans, and church congregations), a community needs something to hold it together.

And whether we recognize or not, we’re all a part of the history of the place we live in. Some of the people cited in Under the Angel didn’t stick around to see the snow fall twice, but they left behind a ditch or cabin or business that landed their names in a Salida history book.

Today, there’s a lot of talk about community, and building a community. And there’s a lot of argument about trails, low-income housing, zoning, open space, and mobile homes.

But the archetypal small town that everyone seems to long for doesn’t rely on any of those things; it’s made up of people. Mayberry was Andy, Barney Fife, Aunt Bea, and Opie. And River City was the Music Man, Marian the Librarian, and the not-so-talented youngsters. The idyllic image of those places must have come from those people — because what else do we know about those imaginary towns?

Under the Angel of Shavano has a seven-and-a-half-page glossary of names. When you read the book, it’s obvious that the authors were interested in their neighbors, and that their interest even extended to their neighbors’ histories and genealogies. Yet in this age of covenanted neighborhoods, thirty-five acre ranchettes, television, Internet, and gated subdivisions, a lot of people don’t even know their neighbors (which may be another reason why Salida’s history seems to be fading away).

In the end, a stronger sense of history won’t resolve our differences. But it might give us something less volatile to argue about here.

–Martha Quillen