Looking Back: History’s name game

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Some say buildings have a soul, others claim an old, dilapidated structure is just what it appears to be — an empty shell. What is it about old buildings that fascinate, that enthrall?
A local history class offered this semester by CNCC, instructed by Dr. David Steinman and other members of the Rio Blanco County Historical Society, counts on that interest to bring the past to life. The class demonstrates that following one historic building’s roots back to the date it was first built is not only historically significant, it is personally relevant. The human connection supersedes all else.
Sharing one local archaeologist’s excitement about finding fire rings on local ranch land, as it provided evidence that the Fremont People had inhabited this part of Northwest Colorado, I was surprised by one longtime resident’s lack of enthusiasm. “Why should I care?” he asked me, adding that his interest was in the here and now, and how his land would be used in the future for his grandchildren. “Besides … “ he added, “they were just passing through, weren’t they?”
Most of us become interested in the history of a house when we know someone who either lived in the building or is related to someone who lived there previously. That is why the tradition of offering the name of a previous occupant has continued with newcomers proudly linking familiar local names to their physical address. Sometimes learning about a house’s previous residents makes it seem as if the former families still inhabit the place.
A local ranching family raised their family in our house, so even though they had moved out to their ranch on Strawberry, their name still identifies our place to many local folks. As our house is younger than some of the trees that surround it, (it was built in the 1940s), most residents remember someone who knew the builder. “Oh, that is my great-uncle So and So! He’s not really my uncle, he is married to my aunt’s sister-in-law, you remember the Housmans who were here in the ’40s?” This means that each time I am asked where I live, before I can recite the address, someone has linked my house with a name of the members of a family that inhabited it at some point in time. They usually have a childhood story or two to tell, or a memory of an event that took place there.
One of the children in the family came over after we first remodeled and regaled me with more funny stories. I like knowing that 32 years before we moved in, one of the teenagers hooked up a “dumbwaiter” to sneak snacks down from the kitchen to his basement bedroom. It may not affect my use of the kitchen or the basement, but it makes me laugh. It is the people connection sparks my interest.
Our first neighbor, Freddie Gordon, shared the tidbit that her pioneer parents gardened on this little plot of land before the house was built. “Did you know that you live in our old potato patch?” she asked not long after we moved into the house. She entertained me with so many stories that after she passed away and her house had been sold, I hated to see the tongue and groove floorboards torn down. The new neighbors offered them to us. After we nailed them up on the dining room wall I spent many a night typing a column at the dining room table and I remembered my old friend Freddie. I like living in the house in which Etchart’s lived, that Metzger’s built (supposedly), on the Frizzell family’s potato patch. It keeps me connected.