Crestone Eagle, January 2003:
Winter pastimes in old-time mining
camps kept the blues away
by Mary Lowers
photos from Places & Postmarks by George Harlan
things remain a common thread of human condition. The cold,
long and often financially stressful months of January through
March have always challenged the dwellers of isolated mountain
communities to remain warm and sane, until the inevitable
coming of spring.
The Crestone Mining District, like other districts throughout
the west, was a hard place to live. Much time was spent getting
food, water and fuel to see families through the winter. Fun
and celebration were necessary for the health of the human
spirit. In the mining days, residents of Crestone and other
mountain towns used various amusements to stimulate the imagination
and pass the time.
With poorly insulated houses and no forced air heat, someone
had to stay home most of the time just to keep the house warm.
Reading books was a popular way to pass time. A single volume
was often passed from hand to hand throughout a mining camp
or district. Families would spend cold evenings reading aloud
around the fire. There’s a story about John Duncan,
a well known local figure in the mining days, who founded
the town of Duncan. Evidently Mr. Duncan a voracious reader,
had received a copy of Webster’s Dictionary. When a
friend asked if he could borrow the dictionary, John Duncan
replied, “Yes, keep it. I have already read it.”
It seemed as though every little town in the Valley had at
least one newspaper. Mosca had three newspapers between 1890
to 1903. Even the little town of Duncan had a weekly paper,
The Duncan Eagle. Local and national events were
discussed at length, and citizens in general were interested
in what went on in the community.
Schoolhouses were gathering places for the community; box
socials, lectures and dances took place at the school house.
In Liberty, Creede and other mining towns that had no churches,
worship, Sunday school and group meetings were often held
in the school building. At the turn of the century in Liberty,
Reverends John Norveil of Liberty and John Dunlap of Crestone
shared the pulpit, with the school teacher playing hymns on
Most school houses had pianos, and many planned and unplanned
dances and musical evenings took place there. Sociability
rather than musical expertise were the main reason for these
musical evenings. Popular instruments included: piano, fiddle,
accordion, jews harp and the harmonica. Sheet music was a
big seller, and folks waited with anticipation for new tunes
to be printed for sale so they could recreate popular hits
Early Crestone pioneer Howard Hopkins, who built the first
house in town, was a well known fiddle player. He taught a
local woman, Clara Farnham, how to chord on the piano, and
the duo was in great demand for local dances.
My grandfather, Thomas Huston Lowers, who worked as mining
engineer in the Cripple Creek District, played the fiddle
and had a good memory for popular songs. He played well and
was in demand at lodge and family events. The amazing thing
was, he still played after having lost most of three fingers
in a mining accident!
Ice skating, sledding and making snow sculptures were popular
wintertime activities. Winters in the Rockies were much wetter
then, and there was plenty of snow.
The winter of 1897-98 came early and was very hard. Huge
drifts and bitterly cold temperatures made travel difficult.
The town of Lanark along Cottonwood Creek had a very hard
time keeping its store supplied. Jack rabbits became the primary
source of meat for residents. That Christmas, as a practical
joke, two cousins, Walter Parker and Ed Rice, hung their stockings
on the mantle, only to find them filled with rabbit skins
and feet. For years afterwards, whenever the two men met,
they got down on all fours and hopped like jack rabbits.
In some strange way I find it comforting to think that the
people who lived here before us looked to amusements similar
to ours to get them through the dark and cold. I can almost
see the ghosts of old Crestone stopping by to enjoy a Cabin
Fever show, a drama production, or one of our other home grown
activities that keep modern winter blues at bay.
The Leadville Ice Palace
“On a massive range, where towering peaks
hold while the font of river’s flow.
We have builded the Frost King’s freaks,
and invite all the world to play in the snow”
In Leadville, Colorado west of Denver, a mammoth ice palace
was erected in 1895. It took 5000 tons of ice blocks to build
the palace. The structure enclosed five acres of ground and
boasted towers ninety feet tall. The inside of the palace
contained a restaurant, ice rink and dance floor. Electric
lights illuminated the palace inside, and colorful searchlights
painted prismatic pictures on the ice walls. Visitors came
to Leadville from all over to see the magnificent ice palace.
The early thaw of March 1896 melted the Leadville Ice Palace,
but it remained clear in the memory of all who saw it!
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