CARBONDALE, Colorado - When the Mt. Sopris Historical Society board received a letter from the Thompson family a while back asking if the organization would be willing to accept the classic brick Victorian house across the highway from their little museum as a donation, "our hearts almost stopped," recalled Linda Romero Criswell.
"It was more than we ever hoped for," she said of the prospect of adding one of the first significant structures built in Carbondale to the volunteer organization's collection.
Criswell is one of seven members on the historical society's board of directors, and also volunteers as caretaker of the museum that sits at the corner of Highway 133 and Weant Boulevard in one of the homesteader's cabins that also came from the former Thompson Ranch when the River Valley Ranch subdivision and golf course was built there in the mid-1990s.
Dedication of the old ranch's 122-year-old centerpiece as a public museum moved a step closer to reality last week when the Carbondale Board of Trustees gave preliminary approval for a plan to annex and develop about 10 acres surrounding the house.
As part of the deal, Thompson Park developer Frieda Wallison and the Thompson family agreed to donate the house as a public amenity.
Much is yet to be worked out between the town, the developer and the historical society as far as how that will happen. But to bring the house into the fold would mark a big step in the small organization's evolution from a volunteer-run group to a full-time professional historical society.
The original one-story house was built by homesteader Myron Thompson around 1887 and was added onto by family members over the next 32 years, including a second story and glassed-in porch.
The structure and its contents have remained essentially unaltered over the years, a reminder of the farming lifestyle that defined Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley through the early and middle 20th century.
The contents, including period furniture and decor and several items from the early 20th century that are still in working order, such as a washing machine, cream separator and Victrola, were already dedicated to the historical society and have been appraised at about $110,000, Criswell said.
It's that look into the past that the Mt. Sopris Historical Society strives to preserve, since it was begun around 1984 by the late Mary Ferguson along with friends, including Mary Lilly and her late son, Charles.
"My son was very active, and took a whole series of photos of them moving the cabin off the ranch to where it is now," Mary Lilly said.
"I'm glad someone's preserving the [Thompson house], because it's a valuable piece of property," she said. "I don't think we should lose sight of our past, and this is a wonderful way to preserve it."
The Mt. Sopris Historical Society has grown over the years from a small organization with a collection of artifacts in various locations, to one that's now poised to have two museums with the likelihood of having to hire a paid director to oversee it all.
The town's original jail building was moved to the historical park in 2000, and the cabin served as the home for the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce until 2005 when the historical society established its first official museum there.
"We had a big membership push and elected a board, and decided to approach the chamber about moving so we could start a small museum," Criswell said.
The historical society now has a membership base of about 200 and operates on an annual budget of around $10,000, she said. The museum attracts around 100 visiting tourists per year, plus another 300 local school children and their families.
"We also have a lot of genealogical researchers stop in looking for information about their families," she said. "We have a lot of great information, and oftentimes can really help them."
Taking on the Thompson House will necessitate establishing a more professional organization to maintain and operate the house for whichever of a variety of possible uses are determined for the house and surrounding park area.
"The fact that we've been an all-volunteer organization has helped us to this point," Criswell said. "But we're ready to take that next step. It's really what we've always wanted."
About 30 people took part in a candlelight vigil outside Carbondale Town Hall before last week's meeting in support of saving the house. It was that show of support, in part, that led the town's trustees to endorse the Thompson Park project.
But not without a word of caution that it will take continued support from those same people to allow the historical society to become full-time caretaker of the Thompson house.
Wallison has agreed to contribute $75,000 in seed money toward that effort. But it will take a more concerted effort from historic preservationists to ensure the success of the endeavor into the future.
"There are a lot of issues we need to iron out with the town," Criswell said, adding a preliminary meeting with town staff was planned for today to begin that process.
One consideration is whether the historical society will take ownership of the house, or manage it under lease from the town, both of which are options.
"We're confident we will be able to take it on, or we wouldn't be considering it," said Greg Forbes, vice president of the historical society board. "We really have looked at all the different aspects, and feel very comfortable proceeding."
Noted local philanthropist Jim Calaway said at last week's meeting that he would be among the first to pledge an annual contribution to the historical society in support of the project.
"I have a close friendship with the Thompson family, and was an advisor on the sale of the house [to Wallison]," he said. "I've come to really love the house, and think it will be a great asset to the community."
Another possible source of funding may be through the West Elk Historic and Scenic Byway Committee, as the house sits right along the northern end of route, which continues over McClure Pass to Hotchkiss and along the Black Canyon to Gunnison and Crested Butte, and back over Kebler Pass.
"It is possible to get national and state recognition of the house as a historic structure, and often there is funding available to help do certain things," said the byway committee's Dorothea Farris.
Criswell said she envisions tours as the main use of the house, although operating all or part of it as a bed and breakfast may be a possibility.
"I know for a fact talking to other communities that a house museum does not pay for itself just with admission," she said. "Anything we do it would have to be a situation where it's controlled."
Aside from the house, the surrounding grounds could also be used for things like special events, weddings, tea gatherings, and maybe even a filming locale for movie-makers, Criswell suggested.
A model to follow
One area forerunner in historic preservation efforts which the Mt. Sopris Historical Society may look to for advice as it grows its role is the Frontier Historical Society in Glenwood Springs, which operates a museum on Colorado Avenue and has become an integral part of Glenwood's tourism base.
In addition to generating between $8,000-$9,000 per year in memberships and another $4,000 in museum admissions, the Frontier Historical Society receives about $50,000 per year from a portion of a dedicated city sales tax approved by voters in 1998, according to Frontier Historical Museum Director Cindy Hines.
The organization operates on an annual budget of about $90,000. Hines is the only full-time employee of the museum, along with two part-time employees and a group of volunteers who also help out immensely, she said.
With the two part-timers, there's always someone at the museum during regular hours Monday through Saturday, she said.
The Frontier Historical Society also maintains the Cardiff coke ovens historical park on the south end of town.
Criswell said one of the first items of business for the Mt. Sopris Historical Society will be to start the process to have the Thompson house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which will open up the possibility of state and federal funding.
"We'll still use a lot of volunteers," she added. "That's key to any museum organization. People just love to dress up and lead tours, it's so much fun. We're just so happy this is happening."