The voices of Summit County’s past will come alive next Friday through the voice of local author and historian Mary Ellen Gilliland. As part of the Fall for the Arts activities, Gilliland will recount tales of the rascals and scoundrels of the area’s gold rush days, as told to her by old-timers who knew them.
“We attracted people who were willing to leave Eastern society and strike out, so they’re risk takers and creative thinkers, but when they got here some of them didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so they used their creativity and fertile brains to do mischief,” Gilliland said.
Many of the stories she’s telling come from her book “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods,” first published in 2005. Gilliland’s other historical titles include “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History” and “Breckenridge, 150 Years of Golden History.” Her research involved more than just reading and combing through historical records. Gilliland, who has lived in Summit County for 43 years, tracked down and interviewed older locals for their stories of the county before modern day. It was a challenging yet rewarding endeavor.
“A lot of these stories I got from the old-timers. At first they didn’t trust newcomers and they were very reticent about what they would say,” she said. Once she gained their trust, however, the stories came one after the other, each full of colorful characters and local history. “It was really fun to get to know them,” she added.
After the interviews, she did her research to separate the facts from the tall tales, though often it turned out the radical-sounding stories were actually true.
One of these was May Nicholson, one of the few “shady ladies” in Summit County. According to Gilliland, Nicholson was “the most colorful madam of old-town Breckenridge” during the gold rush. When the mining boom waned, she took the money she had earned — a considerable sum — and bought a ranch on the Blue River, near where the Raven Golf Course is in Silverthorne today.
“She went from milking traveling salesmen and errant husbands to milking cows,” Gilliland said. In addition to dairy, Nicholson also got into the tourism business, taking men from Denver on fishing trips around Willow Lakes. However, the visitors ended up gawking more at Nicholson than the scenery.
“She had a lot of personality,” said Gilliland. “Her language was so blue that these guys, they couldn’t handle it.”
Eventually, Nicholson hired a young man to be her representative. That man was in his 80s when Gilliland interviewed him for her book, and was able to tell her many stories about Nicholson and her life, language and attitude.
There will be time for a question and answer period after the talk, where curious listeners can ask for further details from the knowledgeable author. Gilliland’s books will be available for purchase and autograph afterward.
“It’s going to be entertaining and truly historical,” Gilliland said of her talk, “because these were real people. … It’s accurate history, but it’s fun because we attracted so many different types of personalities during the Gold Rush.”