Bringing Aspen’s history to life

Who’s B. Clark Wheeler, you ask? If so, that’s half the desired effect of Weiler and the Aspen Historical Society. They also want to inspire folks to poke around in Aspen’s history resources to find the answer.

Wheeler was the “other” Wheeler who was instrumental in the founding of the town. Mining magnate Jerome Wheeler is better known, mostly because he left behind the legacies of the glorious opera house and hotel bearing his name.

But B. Clark played a major role as well. He changed the name of the fledgling camp from Ute City to Aspen, surveyed the townsite, laid out and named the streets, founded The Aspen Times, and tirelessly traveled to Denver and points farther east to promote the town.

While he hasn’t exactly been forgotten, he’s definitely been overshadowed.

“I see him almost as a minor character,” Weiler said, referring to Wheeler’s standing in history, not his actual role. “It fascinating how much [Wheeler] really did and how little is known about him.”

He learned of B. Clark Wheeler in his own research of Aspen and jumped at the opportunity to continue with more in-depth work with the historical society. A special program called the Characters of Aspen at the Aspen Historical Society gives interested residents a small stipend that allows them to take the time to thoroughly research a character from Aspen’s past, be it from the mining era or Aspen’s second coming after World War II. They study how the characters ended up in Aspen, how they fared while in town and, in the case of the pioneers, what happened to them after the town withered and nearly died after the 1893 silver crash.

The program was funded by a grant from the city of Aspen.

Two weeks ago, Weiler came across a lecture that B. Clark Wheeler delivered on March 9, 1880, in Denver, and most likely in other places around the time. Wearing a black suit and a black, broad-brimmed hat that materials say Wheeler was fond of, Weiler recited the speech to 30 or so Aspen residents and visitors as part of the historical society’s Time Travel Tuesday series.

He spoke with gusto about the geologic occurrences that dumped rich veins of silver and other minerals in the rocks of the mountains surrounding Aspen. He tempted men with tales of opportunity, both for the mining investors and the common laborers. Come to Aspen, he said, and you will be rewarded.

The crowd appreciated the performance, particularly when people “planted” in the audience call out questions, such as whether a person is safe from Ute Indians, much like the audiences probably did back in the day. Weiler as Wheeler fires back quick responses to the questions.

Speaking after his performance, Weiler, 38, said it appealed to him more to speak in Wheeler’s own words rather than for him to come up with a skit based on what he learned.

“I’m really into historical accuracy,” he said. He operates Aspen Walking Tours, which explore different parts of the town’s history, separate and in addition to his volunteer gig with the historical society.

The performance was his first as Wheeler. He plans to keep studying the man’s history, and to hone and expand his performance.

“I still have a lot of room to work with this character,” Weiler said.

–¬†Scott Condon
August 22, 2010
Aspen Times