Pilot Proud: Historians say newspaper captures ‘ephemeral’ stories of history
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — During my first year at the Steamboat Pilot in 1979, I thought I might have entered a time machine. I interviewed two people, a man and a woman, who described to me the first time they traveled to the Yampa Valley from Wolcott – on a stagecoach!
I was both stunned and fascinated. One of the Routt County pioneers, Irena Padgett, was a petite woman who lived in a historic yellow house in front of Soda Creek Elementary School and at one time taught in a one-room schoolhouse herself.
Irena knew her local history, and she did a stint as director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum. She somehow arranged to go to the Lord on her birthday in 1994.
My second stagecoach story was provided by Yampa resident Lewis Phillips, who shared the story of how his elders left their families behind in Leadville and traveled north to build a cabin and lay claim to homesteads along the upper Yampa River.
While cutting wild hay along the river bottom, the Phillips men were robbed of their equipment by two men who just happened to ride by. Worst of all, they scoundrels ran off with a pair of the Phillips’ uncle’s new boots.
The Phillips clan pursued the bad guys and shot it out with them, killing the two men and losing one of their own. At least the new boots were retrieved.
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The fact that these stories, published in the Steamboat Pilot, can still be found online in the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection is remarkable to newspaper reporters and editors. But the story isn’t as profound as if that same pair of boots was in a display at the history museum in Oak Creek.
It’s a fact that many professional historians get a bigger kick out of tangible historic objects than they do from newspaper articles.
A note of excitement comes into the voice of Tread of Pioneers Museum Executive Director Candice Bannister when she describes three small diaries that were carried by frontiersman and early Colorado banker Perry Burgess on trips with James Crawford between the Front Range and Steamboat Springs.
The trips were made during a time when the men were intent on transforming the tiny outpost of Steamboat into a full-fledged community with the ability to attract families. There was change in the air.
Local historian Arianthe Stettner said newspaper stories are “ephemeral” compared to actual historical objects. Often those objects are buildings, but there’s more. There are farm implements, saddles and notebooks packed with historical context.
Newspapers certainly capture history, but in day-to-day reporting, reporters and editors can’t know if yesterday’s big story will ultimately be part of history or fade into dusty newsprint. That’s why Stettner calls them ephemeral.
To make her point, Stettner pointed out that the Hayden Heritage Center Museum is in custody of the very grain thresher that Nathan Meeker delivered to the Ute Indians near their ancestral grounds in current Rio Blanco County. Meeker was determined to convert the nomadic hunters to farming, but it didn’t go his way. The Meeker massacre went down Sept. 29, 1879.
The old thresher embodies the actual events that took place when the Utes rebelled against Meeker, as well as the “Indian agent’s” hubris.
Newspapers described the events that led to the Utes being removed from their ancestral lands, but all these years later, the thresher is a tangible connection to the event.
An example of how ephemeral news stories can be is accounts of the unprecedented energy exploration that dominated the news in Routt County in 2012. Wildcat oil wells were being drilled all over West Routt, and the Routt County Board of Commissioners was trying to exert its influence over the terms of drilling permits issued by the state of Colorado.
Ironically, the price of oil suddenly dropped, and the controversy, along with a big stack of newspaper articles, faded away behind the veil of history. Before the dispute could go any further, the price of oil dropped far enough to put an end to the whole thing. Ultimately, the wildcat drilling turned out to be, as Stettner would say, “ephemeral.”
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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