The Crestone Eagle, January 2003:

Winter pastimes in old-time mining camps kept the blues away

by Mary Lowers
photos from Places & Postmarks by George Harlan

Some things remain a common thread of human condition. The cold, long and often financially stressful months of January through March have always challenged the dwellers of isolated mountain communities to remain warm and sane, until the inevitable coming of spring.

The Crestone Mining District, like other districts throughout the west, was a hard place to live. Much time was spent getting food, water and fuel to see families through the winter. Fun and celebration were necessary for the health of the human spirit. In the mining days, residents of Crestone and other mountain towns used various amusements to stimulate the imagination and pass the time.

With poorly insulated houses and no forced air heat, someone had to stay home most of the time just to keep the house warm. Reading books was a popular way to pass time. A single volume was often passed from hand to hand throughout a mining camp or district. Families would spend cold evenings reading aloud around the fire. There’s a story about John Duncan, a well known local figure in the mining days, who founded the town of Duncan. Evidently Mr. Duncan a voracious reader, had received a copy of Webster’s Dictionary. When a friend asked if he could borrow the dictionary, John Duncan replied, “Yes, keep it. I have already read it.”

It seemed as though every little town in the Valley had at least one newspaper. Mosca had three newspapers between 1890 to 1903. Even the little town of Duncan had a weekly paper, The Duncan Eagle. Local and national events were discussed at length, and citizens in general were interested in what went on in the community.

Schoolhouses were gathering places for the community; box socials, lectures and dances took place at the school house. In Liberty, Creede and other mining towns that had no churches, worship, Sunday school and group meetings were often held in the school building. At the turn of the century in Liberty, Reverends John Norveil of Liberty and John Dunlap of Crestone shared the pulpit, with the school teacher playing hymns on the piano.

Most school houses had pianos, and many planned and unplanned dances and musical evenings took place there. Sociability rather than musical expertise were the main reason for these musical evenings. Popular instruments included: piano, fiddle, accordion, jews harp and the harmonica. Sheet music was a big seller, and folks waited with anticipation for new tunes to be printed for sale so they could recreate popular hits at home.

Early Crestone pioneer Howard Hopkins, who built the first house in town, was a well known fiddle player. He taught a local woman, Clara Farnham, how to chord on the piano, and the duo was in great demand for local dances.

My grandfather, Thomas Huston Lowers, who worked as mining engineer in the Cripple Creek District, played the fiddle and had a good memory for popular songs. He played well and was in demand at lodge and family events. The amazing thing was, he still played after having lost most of three fingers in a mining accident!

Ice skating, sledding and making snow sculptures were popular wintertime activities. Winters in the Rockies were much wetter then, and there was plenty of snow.

The winter of 1897-98 came early and was very hard. Huge drifts and bitterly cold temperatures made travel difficult. The town of Lanark along Cottonwood Creek had a very hard time keeping its store supplied. Jack rabbits became the primary source of meat for residents. That Christmas, as a practical joke, two cousins, Walter Parker and Ed Rice, hung their stockings on the mantle, only to find them filled with rabbit skins and feet. For years afterwards, whenever the two men met, they got down on all fours and hopped like jack rabbits.

In some strange way I find it comforting to think that the people who lived here before us looked to amusements similar to ours to get them through the dark and cold. I can almost see the ghosts of old Crestone stopping by to enjoy a Cabin Fever show, a drama production, or one of our other home grown activities that keep modern winter blues at bay.

The Leadville Ice Palace

“On a massive range, where towering peaks
hold while the font of river’s flow.
We have builded the Frost King’s freaks,
and invite all the world to play in the snow”

In Leadville, Colorado west of Denver, a mammoth ice palace was erected in 1895. It took 5000 tons of ice blocks to build the palace. The structure enclosed five acres of ground and boasted towers ninety feet tall. The inside of the palace contained a restaurant, ice rink and dance floor. Electric lights illuminated the palace inside, and colorful searchlights painted prismatic pictures on the ice walls. Visitors came to Leadville from all over to see the magnificent ice palace. The early thaw of March 1896 melted the Leadville Ice Palace, but it remained clear in the memory of all who saw it!