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The Estes Park Museum
“History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember, ” observed Messrs. Sellers and Yeatman in 1066 and All That. “All other history defeats itself.”
Richard Shenkman in his new book, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of World History notes that “…in many cases history is written by the victors and is filtered through the prism of their prejudices.” So it is that we still believe the Spanish Inquisition, for example, was one of the lowest, meanest, most reprehensible forms of injustice in human history because, says Shenkman, English Protestants wrote the history books. The Inquisition did kill quite a few folks: some 25,000 in a little more than three centuries. But during the same period the Protestants killed several hundred thousand as witches. We don’t hear much about that.
I have been thinking about history lately, not only because I’ve been to a couple of board meetings at the Estes Park Area Historical Museum, but because in January I spent two weeks prowling the museums, galleries, archives, monuments and historic sites in and around Washington, D.C.
As a result, I have a new respect for accurate recording and preservation, and the keeping of what some people might call junk. You have some of it around: things that belonged to parents or grandparents that reflect life in the mountains many years ago. Others might call it junk, but you correctly regard it as a link to the past and a lesson for the future you hope to pass on to someone who will care. I saw quite a bit of that sort of thing in Washington.
The Estes Park Museum has, in its newly renovated museum, a theme illustrated by a picture you’ll see as soon as you enter the building. It’s a picture of a family having a picnic beside what appears to be a 1915 Buick, next to a river presumed to be the Big Thompson. The part I like best is the straw hat, a skimmer, perched on one post of the windshield. That speaks to me of the spirit of that time and the connections between the leisure and the mobility that made Estes Park and Allenspark, and many other distant and difficult destinations, possible.
Some of my earliest memories of this area are connected to picnics and the cars that made them possible: the ‘47 Dodge, the ‘51 Buick Special. We often went to Wild Basin. About a mile upstream from Copeland Lake there is a big rock sticking into the stream that was ideal. About halfway up the Fall River Road there’s a rock outcropping some twenty feet above the stream, perfect for a picnic.
For many years we went to Bear Lake, until it became so crowded and noisy we had to move on. In the late ‘40s and ‘50s we went once a year with Joe and Ann Mann to a picnic spot about two miles above timberline on Trail Ridge Road. Joe and my father put together some rocks to form a platform for a grill we took along, and we hiked about a quarter mile up in the tundra, hauling food and wine and wood for a fire, and stayed until we ran out of wood, telling stories and singing until the chill drove us away. Dad lost a nice Ronson cigarette lighter up there. He looked for it for years. It’s probably still there. A picnic like that is against the law now, probably rightly so. We were careful about the tundra, but many weren’t.
For about ten years in the ‘50s and ‘60s we went to Central City to the opera. We found an old mine about a mile above the Glory Hole mine and we ate fried chicken and curried deviled eggs (we didn’t worry about cholesterol in those days), drank whiskey sours and threw our chicken bones down the mine shaft. We left the place as we found it, and returned year after year. A few years ago we went back, to find the whole area trashed, garbage everywhere, the buildings vandalized.
We still go to Fall River every year, but now we often have to share the picnic spot and last year there was a couple in a tent nearby. Still, to us it’s an important ritual, and we honor it.
I look at the picture of the family having a picnic, able to drink the water from the stream, not in a picnic area, but at just a spot by the side of the road, and I think I begin to understand; even though we can never live that bucolic scene again, it’s still important to make it memorable, because that’s what history is, and it is what museums can do.
To do that, our museum needs our help, not just in preserving artifacts, but by supporting what it does, with our time and our money. It won’t take much of either to make sure that our children and their children can make those important connections between the past and the future.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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