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THE PETTED DARLING
On the corner of Fifth and Bleeker streets in Aspen, Colorado, is a small frame house, utterly nondescript save for its pleasant color of pale rose. Its drab style is only underscored by the fanciful Victorians and neo-Victorians surrounding it in the West’s trendy capital of conspicuous consumption. Though the house has been added on to repeatedly through the years, in today’s real estate parlance it is a “tear-down,” the true value of the property being not in the structure but in the dirt beneath it. In 1991, Pitkin County’s appraisers reckoned the house was worth thirty-five thousand dollars—and the small lot $675,000.
A century before, caught up in Aspen’s first real estate boom, a Scotch-Irish immigrant from Ulster named George Ross paid a tidy one thousand dollars for the squat little cottage at 601 West Bleeker, and was doubtless glad to have it. Like the homes around it, it was thrown up in a hurry in the late 1880s, made from rough-sawn Colorado spruce harvested from the lush mountains girdling the mining boomtown. The house was situated facing north, but it was scarcely equipped to take the bitter winter winds; the plank walls were insulated with oilcloth, wadded newspapers, and pages ripped from old mining magazines. The current owners, who have renovated the house extensively, have even come across the occasional playing card nailed up over a hole, a pitiful pasteboard barrier against the unremitting draft. It’s not hard to imagine George Ross awakening in the middle of the night and, seeing his breath, rising to rekindle the stoves that heated the few small rooms. On November 6, 1892, a boy was born in this house. His mother, Ida, christened him Harold, a name meaning “leader of men.”
In temperament, Harold was very much his father’s son; in his upbringing, he was very much his mother’s.
Like most of the nine thousand or so Aspen residents in 1892, George Ross was there in search of fortune, a very long way from home. He was born in 1851 in County Monaghan, on a farm that had been in the family for five generations. Eldest of three boys and seven girls, George as a young man was swept up in the great Irish emigration to America (in time a half dozen of his siblings, one by one, would follow him). George came by way of Canada. At various times in his life he was a carpenter, grocer, contractor, scrap dealer, and, it was said, supervisor of a mental hospital in Toronto. But according to his son, George Ross was always, at heart, a miner, and he drifted from boomtown to boomtown across the West. Judging from his résumé, the elder Ross was a handy and resourceful man, if not especially lucky where prospecting was concerned. Voluble and gregarious, with a sharp tongue and a gift for sarcasm, he liked a good joke almost as much as a good argument. But he was said to be so genial that even his forensic adversaries admired him.
Sometime around 1885, George Ross’s wandering brought him to Aspen, where he worked the mines and eventually staked some claims. A few years later—no one is sure of the circumstances, whether he was traveling or she was—he encountered a school teacher from Kansas named Ida Martin. As Ida would recount to her daughter-in-law, Jane Grant, the courtship that ensued was an unorthodox one, even by the standards of nineteenth-century Colorado. Their brief meeting evidently left a much stronger impression on George than on Ida: a few weeks later he sent her a postcard pressing his suit and even proposing marriage, but her recollection of him was so dim that she had trouble making out the signature. Ida responded by offering to provide George some writing paper so that he might conduct a proper correspondence. He, in turn, mustered a charming apology. The epistolary courtship advanced through the school year and culminated with their marriage in June 1889 in Salina, Kansas, where Ida was then teaching. The groom was thirty-eight, his bride thirty-four. The formal announcement of their wedding concluded, “At Home, After June 25th, Aspen, Colorado.”
Ida Martin Ross came from old New England stock. She was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, north of Boston, in 1855, but her father moved the family to Kansas and she was raised in McPherson, not far from Salina. She was the embodiment of the prairie schoolmarm: prim, thin, plain, a little austere, recipient of a normal-school education. She was also outspoken and clearly unintimidated by adventure. Before working in Salina, it was said, she taught for several years in the Oklahoma Indian territory. Writer friends of Harold Ross who met Ida in her old age in New York often described her as naïve, as she no doubt was in the ways of speakeasies and cocktail-party protocol. But the woman who emerges in a handful of her surviving letters, written to Jane Grant when Jane’s marriage to Ross was foundering, is anything but naïve. This is a concerned mother and compassionate mother-in-law, a sensible woman plainly familiar with marital tribulation and other hard ways of the world. Besides, if there ever was a naïve side to Ida Ross, frontier Aspen would have ground it away.
Aspen, situated on the Roaring Fork River and circumscribed by mountains, is a place of surpassing beauty. Yet for all its natural appeal, it owes its existence to brute commerce, the mining of silver. Aspen sprang up in 1879, when its potential attracted a dozen silver prospectors who had been crowded out of Leadville, the boomtown just across the Continental Divide. By the time newlyweds George and Ida Ross arrived, in the summer of 1889, Aspen not only was bustling but was beginning to make the transition from mining camp to civilized town, with some gaslights, the occasional stone building, even social clubs. But no amount of makeup could disguise the truth of it: with its smokestacks, dirty air, rutted avenues, and noisy, oreladen trains, Aspen was all about silver. Those establishments not in mining directly were in its service, from the new Hotel Jerome to the East End brothels.
In the cumbersome grantee books in the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, one still finds George Ross’s claims on silver lodes with such romantic names as the Little Anney, the Sarah Jane, the Bartelett, the Bob Tail, and the Bonteet. There was nothing remotely romantic about the work, however, which was backbreaking and dangerous. Main shafts were dug hundreds of feet into the mountainsides, with short tunnels spurring off every so often, like the stubby teeth of a comb. Miners chiseled holes into the rock to set the charges, which generated tons of rubble that had to be cleared. Miners were completely at the mercy of mine owners, grantees, and supervisors for their hours, working conditions, and pay. Leases were arranged in various ways. For instance, George Ross’s 1891 leases on the Sarah Jane and Bartelett cost him twenty percent of the value of all ore he extracted. (He also agreed to work at least four miners per shift, to conduct eighty shifts a month, and to keep the three-and-a-half-feet-wide shafts clear of debris.) In 1892, leasing the Little Anney, he paid a flat five hundred dollars for rights, with no royalties.
George Ross never found his fortune in the mines, though he did make enough to hold a small interest in some camp boardinghouses, as well as to buy the modest house on Bleeker. The couple took possession in August 1892, when Ida was six months pregnant. After all the hard work, after three years of living in rental property, and with their first child on the way, the Rosses might have been completely content had it not been for the pernicious rumor racing around Aspen about this time that the government was about to demonetarize silver. And in fact, with the economic panic of 1893, Aspenites’ worst fears were realized. Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Act, which for years had required the federal government to buy much more of the metal than it really needed. Aspen’s sole commodity plunged in value, and the town began a long, slow decline. Thousands were driven from the mines, including George Ross. Rather than leave town, as many did, the Rosses responded, in 1893, by opening a meat market and grocery. Still, a service establishment in a dying community is a dubious proposition in its own right, and there was no more income to be had from the boardinghouses. Within a few years, as Harold Ross himself would say later, “everybody in town was broke, including my father.”