Lucky Strike

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From Interstate 25 we took the exit for Trinidad and pulled into a McDonald’s on the edge of the commercial district, near the Colorado Welcome Center and the local chamber of commerce.

We interpreted that welcome center’s newness and imaginative design as a good sign. Places that tourists already flock to don’t need such establishments. They are usually the goodwill gestures of state governments to regions where the old tax base of manufacturing, mining, or agriculture has disappeared.

And of course, a McDonald’s is always a good omen. Years ago the proof of a community’s connection with the modern world was a railroad station. Now it is an interstate exit and a McDonald’s. There was therefore hope for Trinidad, although the coal mining that had made it thrive at the turn of the century was greatly diminished and the blast furnaces of Colorado Fuel and Iron, in Pueblo, where Trinidad coal had gone, now stood cold and silent, if they stood at all.

I parked our shiny white Ford at some distance from the other cars in the ample McDonald’s lot. You don’t want those parking-lot dings. The hot sun blazed from a clear blue sky, and we breathed with pleasure the dry, clean air.

While we stood there beside our car, a large, old, rusty American V-8 pulled up and parked next to us, and a Hispanic father and mother and four little girls in fancy, brightly colored dresses, all pleats, furbelows, and shiny fabric, emerged. Detroit had thought that its big V-8 sedans were intended for Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia, to impress themselves and their neighbors. They were also meant, a hundred thousand miles later, to transport large nonsuburban families of moderate income in relative comfort and safety while the Suburbias bought cars like ours—smaller and more expensive, although easier on gas.

On a drive through Colorado the author stopped in the town of Trinidad “on the hunch that because no one else talked of going there, it would be someplace special.” It was, and not simply because time seemed to have stopped around 1950.
 

My wife, Edie, and I smiled at the children and complimented the parents on their youngsters, while the kids gathered near their mother and, restraining their excitement, walked to the restaurant.

After lunch we crossed the street to the welcome center, gathered up handfuls of brochures for the entire state, chatted briefly with an elderly lady behind the desk, and returned to our car. Instead of reading the brochures, we took the bridge across the Purgatoire (“Picket Wire,” to Anglos) River, and continued up a hill to Trinidad’s old downtown.

As we did so, Edie said, “This is wonderful. It’s as if time has stopped.” And indeed it had, sometime around 1950, when the war boom ended and the country began leaving the coal and iron era behind. The sorts of signs, Art Deco neon letters on metal backgrounds, that elsewhere were sold in antiques stores still decorated Trinidad’s downtown. And the buildings themselves dated mostly from the 188Os and 189Os, when Trinidad came into its own as the commercial center for the nearby mining towns. We had headed for Trinidad on the hunch that because no one else talked of going there, it would be someplace special. And it was.

Then, on the right, I saw a large black-and-white sign, AULTMAN MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHY, above the big glass-fronted facade of what once must have been a department store. I said to Edie, “Aultman. His photographs appear in Colorado on Glass .”

Colorado on Glass is a large, richly illustrated volume reproducing photographs from around the state taken during the era of glass-plate negatives, which began there in the 186Os and lasted until roll film replaced the fragile and difficult-to-handle glass plates around 1900.1 love old photographs, and Colorado on Glass is one of my favorite books. One picture in it had struck me particularly.

The photograph shows a young lady attired in white, her dress and hair in the style epitomized by the art of Charles Dana Gibson. She is standing in an interior with the potted plants and ornate furnishings that suggested gracious leisure in fin-de-siecle upper-middle-class American life. A line across the top of the image indicates that the eighteen-by-twenty-two glass negative was later accidentally scratched, but not in a way that spoils the picture.

Even in that era of large negatives, one measuring eighteen by twenty-two was extraordinary. There do not remain, in all of the United States, very many that big. And because they were so expensive, even fewer are photographs of private citizens taken for personal use, as the picture of this young woman evidently was. According to the caption in Colorado on Glass , she was the wife of O. A. Aultman, whose brother, O. E. Aultman, had owned a photography studio in Trinidad beginning in 1889.