Minturn native writes town history book | VailDaily.com
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Minturn native writes town history book

Tamara Miller

They called it Smoky Town because the trains that traveled by there put out so much soot that the residue would permeate the air surrounding the housing complex.Minturn was a railroad town in those days. The community got so used to the incoming trains that women would plan their laundry line-drying days around the train schedule. “It was different back then,” Bill Burnett said. He should know. The 83-year-old resident has lived in Minturn nearly all his life.Burnett could tell you stories about Minturn’s old days for hours. He could tell you about the bar brawls at the Saloon; how kids would host booze parties during the Prohibition Days and the sheriff would agree to look the other way. Did you know that Minturn was such a thriving agricultural town that it at one time was nicknamed the Lettuce Capital of the World, Burnett asks.”Now all we raise is kids,” he said. Yes, things have changed. Hoping to pay homage to the town’s roots, Burnett sat down and chronicled the town’s history, from its beginnings as a homestead during the expansion to the West to the town’s fight against ski development on Meadow Mountain. The result is a 352-page, handwritten account of all things Minturn. No other history book about the town exists and unless the town can get Burnett’s book published, there may never be a history book on Minturn, said Nicole Magistro, the town’s clerk.”(The book) is a testament, at least, to the culture of what the valley was, what drove people to be here before modern conveniences – the land before second homes,” Magistro said. Town celebrating centennialBurnett’s held several positions in the community: fire chief, justice of the peace, miner, plumber, and most recently, councilman. His role as historian isn’t as well known, but Burnett has authored a few manuscripts – one about the building of Camp Hale, another about the Eagle River Mine in Gilman. None of his books have been published, but there have been other books written about Camp Hale and the Gilman mine. There are none about Minturn, the second oldest town in the upper Eagle Valley after Red Cliff. Burnett started his history of Minturn while recovering from leg surgery. “I didn’t have anything to do, so I wrote a book,” he said. “It took about a year to complete.”He decided to write the book simply to fill in the blanks that no other historian had done. Much of the book is written from memory. The tales center around the buildings that once stood in town, those that remain standing, the people who lived in them and their stories.”There are a lot of stories in Minturn,” Burnett said. There’s the story of Mary McConnell, who was the town’s postmaster in the late 1950s. McConnell had just retired and was in the process of building a new home on Minturn’s east side and was having some difficulty grappling with modern conveniences – like indoor bathrooms. “When the house was being built, we were in the plumbing business by then and Mary couldn’t make up her mind,” Burnett wrote, “And Mary couldn’t make up her mind where she wanted the bathroom in the new house, as she never had a bathroom in the old house.”Mary finally made the decision she would have a bathroom with tub and lavatory, and make room for the toilet, but for now she wanted the toilet installed right next to the kitchen stove.”Mary said she could cover the toilet with an old coat when she wasn’t using it, but she said she froze her tail off all her life and now that she had an inside toilet she wanted it by the stove where it was warm, not in an old, cold bathroom.”But not all the stories are simply funny. Others tell of the history’s biggest impacts on the town.”It wasn’t until the 1950s that women had equal opportunity legislation passed,” Burnett recalled in his book. “Phyllis Rider is the only woman I remember that (was) hired out on the railroad and took her student trips here in Minturn and eventually became an engineer for a diesel locomotive. “It turned out Phyllis didn’t like the job and she quit,” he said. “In the 1950s under this same legislation, there were five or six women hired out of the New Jersey Zinc Co. mine in Gilman.”Getting it publishedPublishing books costs money, Burnett said. The town applied for a $17,000 grant from the state’s historical society. The money would have been used to cover editing and printing costs, but the application was denied, Magistro said. While it’s not required, grant applicants are encouraged to gather enough private donations to match the state’s grants. Minturn has raised money but only about $1,500, she said. She estimates publishing costs for 2,000 books – enough for historical societies, library copies, school copies and for purchase by individuals over the years – would run between $18,000 and $20,000.Burnett seems modest about the book’s purpose. “Probably a handful would read it,” he said.”It would be nice (to have it published),” Burnett added. “It isn’t so much what I want but different people want to read what I wrote about them.”For now, most of Minturn’s past is contained in an oral history. Few residents are old enough or have lived there long enough to remember what the town was like decades ago.Frank Doll, longtime Avon resident and Burnett’s old track rival in school, has read the manuscript.”I really enjoyed it because I could relate to the people he talks about,” he said. “I think it’s important that people know about the history of everything,” he added. “People nowadays have no idea what Minturn was like.”Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: tmiller@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.


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