Heicher: Silver linings include a booming interest in local history
The past three months of COVID-19 restrictions created plenty of downtime for people in Eagle County and elsewhere.
The Eagle County Historical Society quickly realized that a number of people were filling those idle hours by exploring local history. For the past 90 days, we have fielded a steady stream of history questions via email and phone calls. For many, this break from the normally exhausting pace of life in the valley offered a chance to follow up on questions they had set aside for another day.
This new-found interest in local history is most welcome. We gained some new members, dived into old records and enriched our archives.
We learned a lot.
A hiker’s query about the remains of an old cabin on the Piney sent us deep into the archives and revealed the story of “Piney John,” a bachelor homesteader who raised cattle and generally stayed out of the limelight — except for the time he was witness to a murder.
And speaking of murder, while researching a question about the Abrams bike trail near the south edge of Eagle, we turned up records revealing a pioneer family that sometimes used knives and guns to resolve conflicts. That made for some intriguing blog material, and more details for the biography files at the Eagle Library. Our new goal is to find those Abram pioneer graves, now most likely obscured by sagebrush on distant public land hills.
Some quarantine closet-cleaning turned up interesting artifacts that benefitted the Historical Society. We now have in our possession a beautiful top hat, possibly made of beaver fur, that belonged to Hume White, an apparently dapper lawyer who was instrumental in helping the town of Eagle yank county seat status away from Red Cliff in 1921.
Then there is the single, yellow brick discovered in a flower bed. Without context, the brick is non-descript and of questionable value. But knowing that it came from the modest little medical clinic that the community of Eagle built in the early 1960s reveals a story. Community leaders at the time were upset about the lack of a resident doctor in Eagle. Going with an “if we build it, they will come” sort of theory, the community raised money and built a medical clinic. That effort established a precedent that is carried on by the quality medical facilities that exist in the town today.
We’ve gained some new friends, too. A hiker who found a mysterious wooden skeleton voodoo-doll type object has us stumped. (What is it?) But the guy who found it is eager to go out in the hills and look for more history. An email from a gentleman who enjoyed one of our local history books revealed that he was an accomplished cowboy poet who grew up in Eagle in the 1940s and has written some charming stories and poems about the people and the town. Again, more treasures for the archives.
Learning to ‘pivot’
To be sure, COVID-19 has not been all silver lining for the Historical Society. Like every nonprofit in the valley, we’re scrambling to stay viable. Revenue has dropped drastically. We cannot safely open our history museum in Eagle this summer, nor can we offer our usual “hands on” history lessons for kids.
We are learning to “pivot” (the coronavirus bureaucratic buzzword) and are finding new ways to fulfill our mission of bringing local history to the public. We’re blogging more and increasing our Facebook presence. Some of our museum exhibits will soon be “traveling” to display spaces available in open public buildings in the valley.
Visit us at eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com to sign up for a membership, connect to research sources or to check out our “Hindsight” blog. Take a look at our Facebook page. Send a history question to ECHS@eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com. We’re interested, and we have plenty of time.
Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society, and the author of several local history books.