Happy New Year! It seems impossible that 2021 will be as dismal as 2020, so let’s be hopeful, optimistic, thankful and ready to celebrate the sesquicentennial of our fair city. Given that we’ll likely be sheltering in place for another few months, what can we do to prepare for the coming community celebrations? Are you ready for concerts, parades, barbecues, flyovers, people in bizarre period costumes, TV specials, and speechmaking politicians? Much of it will be dreadful, but some will be fun, informative and satisfying. It’s our city, after all.
The city’s first stake was driven on July 31, 1871. Since then, thousands of Colorado Springs-related books, pamphlets and journals have been published. Colorado Springs fascinates me, so 2020 was an opportunity to acquire new books, re-read old ones and roam happily through the vanished past. So here are a few of the best, volumes that illuminate past and present. Some are wonderful reads, some can be tedious or infuriating, and some are all three. All should be available at the Pikes Peak Library District.
• Isabella Bird, 1879: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains — Bird, an intrepid explorer who spent the fall and winter of 1873 wandering alone through the Front Range, is one of the most compelling women of the 19th century. She didn’t care much for General Palmer’s little city. “To me, no place could be more unattractive than Colorado Springs from its utter treelessness,” she wrote. Yet as Daniel Boorstin wrote, “[Bird’s book] is more than a book of mountain travel. It is a record of speedily changing American life in the days when the West was most full of change.” Bird is sui generis, a woman a hundred years ahead of her time — imagine Susan Sontag exploring the Rockies on horseback in 1873.
• Rose Kingsley, 1873: South by West — This is the earliest and best description of life in the city during its first few months, as experienced by a single, adventurous and vastly talented woman in her 20s. Her prose is sparkling and her observations accurate and interesting, although often shadowed by the racialist/classist beliefs of the era. Her account of a months-long 1872 trip to Mexico City with Queen and General Palmer is less travelogue than paean to American capitalism.
• Irving Howbert, 1925: Memories of a Lifetime in the Pikes Peak Region — Howbert came to the Pikes Peak region at 14 in 1860, and helped shape the city for half a century. His book is an indispensable tool for anyone seeking to understand the complexity and ambiguity of our history. His achievements were remarkable; his faults even more so. He participated in the Sand Creek Massacre, and in his book falsely claims it was actually a battle.
• Alice Echols, 2017: Shortfall — Most books about business in Colorado Springs might as well be Chamber of Commerce brochures, celebrating community-minded entrepreneurs who lift up the city while making a well-deserved buck in the process. Echols focuses on her grandfather Walter Davis, a savvy and ruthless con man who swindled thousands of Springs residents out of their life savings in the depths of the Depression. Drawing on contemporary accounts and family papers, Echols tells a story that’s deeply at variance with the accepted narrative of our history.
• Jane Hilberry, 2005: Body Painting — This 72-page volume of prize-winning poetry from Colorado College professor Jane Hilberry is a window into our century. It’s the way things are — history as we live it. “If this is the book of the body, its lineaments are those of not only erotic but spiritual desire,” wrote reviewer B.H. Fairchild. “Here friends and lovers, mothers and children, intermingle as in the morning light and shadow of a forgotten room, and the source of that light is Hilberry’s very distinctive lyric voice, constantly surprising us with its subdued wit and deep understanding of what it means to be human.”
• Marshall Sprague, 1961: Newport in the Rockies — 60 years later, Sprague’s fun, lively and utterly readable history of the city is still an indispensable read. A former reporter, Sprague came here for his health in 1941 and stayed for the rest of his life.
• Mabel Barbee Lee, 1958: Cripple Creek Days — Born in 1884, Lee grew up in Cripple Creek during the gold rush of the 1890s. Her memoir is an extraordinary work, insightful, intelligent and moving. It’s as good as anything written by a Colorado author.