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3Wired: Breathing digital life into rich trove of local history

Photo of a three wire winter.
Joel Reichenberger

— As a girl of just 9 years old, Hazie Ralston Werner, who would grow up to raise three legendary Olympic skiers from Steamboat Springs, helped her mother Neva give birth to one of Hazie’s own siblings. The fact is, she was the only choice.

“Well, I just happened to get caught when there was no one around,” Hazie said in a decades-old interview with a team of high school journalists. “I brought my little sister Benita into the world, just mother and I there. She told me what to do, and I did it.”

The tale of how the mother of Olympic skiers Wallace “Buddy” Werner, Gladys “Skeeter” Werner and Loris “Bugs” Werner gained her first experience as a midwife on a little ranch at the foot of Yellowjacket Pass has been virtually lost to obscurity for three decades, along with many other fascinating tales of pioneer days in Northwest Colorado.

But beginning this month, the treasure trove of firsthand accounts contained in the local high school publication Three Wire Winter, including audio recordings of the interviews, will be shared globally.

As of March 21, library staff had posted seven of the first 24 articles. You can find them at the project home page.

That’s thanks to the determination of two, now-retired Steamboat Springs High School teachers, Bill McKelvie and Tanna Brock, who launched Three Wire Winter at Steamboat Springs High School in 1976 for a 12-year run.

It’s also attributable to the foresight of the staff at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, who digitized the original audio cassette tapes that contained the interviews, and to the vision of the staff at the Bud Werner Memorial Library. It is the library that has the technical resources to place all of the “digital artifacts” associated with the collection onto a highly searchable web page with global reach.

Hazie Werner’s father, H.K. Ralston, who emigrated from Nova Scotia, drove the stagecoach from Hahn’s Peak to State Bridge. He was away from the little dry-land ranch they worked at the foot of Yellowjacket Pass when Hazie’s mother went into labor. And the doctor in Steamboat Springs couldn’t make it through the drifted snowbanks to attend the birth.

Hazie gave an eye-opening account of her first experience with the human birthing process — we can assume she knew how calves were born — to the student journalists at Three Wire Winter

“You just kinda take it in stride, nothing you can do. Mother told me what to do when Benita was born, and I just did it step by step and took care of her and the baby,” Hazie said. “I did everything, and we had an old coal stove, one in the kitchen and one in the front room. I just put the baby by the stove and built a fire and took care of mother and kept her in bed a couple of weeks … the doctor never did get there.”

Hazie’s story provides great insight into the life that pioneers of the 1920s lived in the Yampa Valley, and today, is on the verge of going “viral.” Hazie died on Feb. 16, 1993, seven days short of her 82nd birthday, and coincidentally, during the infancy of the internet.

Beginning this month, transcriptions of the entire original interviews, facsimiles of the Three Wire Winter magazine pages and searchable versions of the oral interviews themselves will be published online through the library’s website, which is part of the much larger Marmot Library Network.

The Steamboat library, having commissioned professional transcripts of the interview tapes, is in the midst of the laborious job of posting them on the 22-library system, which includes the libraries at Fort Lewis College in Durango and the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The resulting collection will be highly searchable and packed with meta-data that will make it pop up in a wider range of user searchers on the web, Bud Werner digital services librarian Alysa Selby said.

In the beginning

In 1974, McKelvie, a first-year history teacher at the high school, accepted the challenge from a community committee in Steamboat to help commemorate the 1976 Bicentennial of the United States. They asked him to launch a student-produced magazine of local history. McKelvie and a small group of students, who were chosen because they were members of longtime local families, struggled that first year. Completed manuscripts were’t turned in, and the magazine wasn’t ready to publish.

But in its second year, with the addition of then Tanna Eck, an English teacher, the magazine began to hit its stride.

McKelvie said a grant that enabled a working visit from the faculty and student staff of the acclaimed Foxfire magazine, published by students at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia, played a significant role in getting his students on track. The Foxfire staff began writing about and preserving Appalachian culture in 1966.

McKelvie said the experience of hearing the firsthand accounts of Yampa Valley pioneers was profound.

“What an amazing experience for Tanna and I, as teachers, to be in someone’s living room, when this incredible history just comes out of the mouth of someone (like Josephine Yost, 95) coming here with their family in a covered wagon,” McKelvie said. “She could recall every ranch they stopped at along the way. Think of it, we were in the 1970s with a man (already landed) on the moon.”

Thelma West lived and worked on a railroad car with a kitchen on board so she could cook for the 15 men on a work train. She was once held up at gunpoint, but managed to keep the $1,000 payroll hidden in a baking powder can. It was West who famously said, “When I get to hell I’ll have seniority over everybody, because nobody has ever shoveled as much coal as I have.”

Brock will never forget the time she and some of her students braved a blizzard to drive to South Routt to interview someone who was no longer among the living.

“One time Elise McGill and Tara Grillo and I had to go to Yampa to interview a ghost named Rufus,” who haunted the Royal Hotel,” Brock said. “It was a snowstorm, and I had a VW Bug. We stopped every few miles and scraped the windshield. We’d look at each other and ask ‘what are we doing?’ It was actually one of the best stories we did.”

As it turned out, Rufus didn’t have a lot to say, but the legend of the ghost proved to be entertaining.

“We talked to Jill and Daryl Hansen who owned the store (in the hotel) and had (seen) evidence of Rufus,” Brock said. “When we went upstairs to find where he (Rufus) was, Daryl sneaked around, knocked on the door, and the girls screamed and ran.”

Layers of serendipity

Bud Werner digital services librarian Alysa Selby said her library was looking for a small project to tackle and landed on Three Wire Winter, in part, because it captured Steamboat in an era when the destination ski industry was beginning to transform the community.

Longtime local weather watcher Wayne Light was featured in the first edition of Three Wire Winter. He described how early automobile owners put their cars away for the winter: “Up until 1930, they hadn’t cleaned any of the streets or highways around the country. Fall and winter would come, and everyone would raise their cars up on the blocks of wood so the tires would not touch the ground. It was hard on the tires to set on the same spot for six months or so. … Before they started plowing the street, they used one or two teams of horses to pull a V-shaped plank to plow the sidewalks for the people to walk on.”

“I personally, desperately, wanted Three Wire because it’s this gem of a collection, but unless you know it exists, it never sees the light of day,” she said. “You have to be an old-timer or museum curator to know it exists.”

Not coincidentally, Tread of Pioneers Executive Director Candice Bannister and curator Katie Adams already knew how precious the Three Wire trove was. They had been in the midst of digitizing photographs and video interviews they had collected for years. After Three Wire had run its course, Brock and McKelvie delivered their historical resources to the museum, and the cassette tapes were an obvious candidate for digitizing.

“We had been working since 2007 to digitize it all and incorporate it into our research center,” Bannister said. “We knew we were doing the right thing as far as digitizing and preserving the oral historic collections, but we didn’t have the capability to provide its fullest potential and access. And the partnership with the library and the capability of Marmot has provided full public access and searchability.”

Adams agreed that the digitized tapes alone were not enough to make them meaningful. The fact that the online versions of the oral interviews are searchable by keyword will increase their significance, she said.

Tapping into the power of the internet

Selby said the fact that Steamboat’s library is a member of the 22-library Marmot consortium, sharing their public online resource catalogue among all their patrons, greatly elevates the exposure the Three Wire Winter collection will gain.

The library is poised to publish the first seven of the Three Wire Winter issues through the Marmot system, with many more to follow. As a result of being part of Marmot, the local library has access to resources that would have been cost prohibitive for a single library to support, including web developers and system managers to maintain servers.

But at the same time, the assistant reference librarians and volunteers like Annabeth Light Lockhart at the Bud Werner Memorial Library represent the labor force that has been needed to perform the drudgery of coding the articles for the internet.

Each article will be packaged with a wealth of online links to related material, and thanks to the robustness of the Marmot system, the likelihood that historical researchers, genealogy enthusiasts and academics will discover Three Wire Winter increases dramatically.

Associate reference librarian John Major said the searchability of Three Wire Winter collection won’t be “silo-ed” like so many standalone web pages.

Selby said the library has chosen to embrace where the web is going by linking to data related to the topic of the magazine features. By doing so, they anticipate “what else” people might be interested in.

She cited one of McKelvie’s favorite interviews in which Routt County renaissance cowboy Farrington Carpenter, who was a Princeton graduate, casually mentioned he had ridden with the legendary cattleman Charlie Goodnight. Goodnight, with Oliver Loving, was the namesake of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, used in the 1860s to move Texas Longhorns north to Denver.

McKelvie recalls being awestruck at the time. Fast forward to the 21st century, and people browsing the web will be able to leapfrog from the Three Wire Winter article to a wealth of information on Goodnight.

“We go beyond the Three Wire project,” Selby said. “Hey, if you’re interested in Charlie Goodnight, don’t overlook this.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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