Longtime local Karen Musolf knows much of Summit County’s history by heart
July 1, 2014
When the Summit Historical Society receives a phone call and a query from out of state or overseas, more often than not it's Karen Musolf who has the answer. As co-chairwoman of the archives, Musolf, 76, is an expert at searching for the records of long-lost great-great-grandparents and other wayward ancestors whom people are trying to track down.
"In recent years, many people are taking up the family's histories or genealogy as a hobby, and we get many requests for family members who may have been residents of Summit County, buried in Summit County or just passing through," Musolf said.
She spends much of her time in the archives, working with other historical society volunteers, combing through old copies of newspapers, photographs and maps.
This type of work is "invaluable," said Christy Nelson, administrator of the Summit Historical Society. Requests will come in from as far away as Sweden, and Musolf is quickly on the case.
"When she does something, she does it well," Nelson said. "I walk in there (the archives) and I'm overwhelmed," she added with a laugh, "but these gals know their way around and I'm so grateful about that."
Sometimes, it's as simple as looking through the obituaries to find a last name, Musolf said. Other times, she ends up hunting for tombstones in the cemetery, or digging through old copies of the Summit County Journal.
"She reminds me of the Energizer Bunny; she's got so much energy," said Nelson.
In addition to her research skills, it's Musolf's passion that fuels her work.
'Lots of lives'
Musolf spent her childhood growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Her parents, both teachers, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"To this day, one of my favorite places is to go back to the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is now a big tourist area, but it was a holy place for the Native Americans," Musolf said.
Although she has no Native American blood, she grew up surrounded by American Indian culture. She recalls watching her father go off on a traditional buffalo hunt and witnessing the various tribal celebrations.
"I remember big powwows — this is way back in my childhood — big powwows, the cooking of the buffalo, the dances and hearing, going to bed at night, the sound of drums," she said. "It was so colorful; I remember that."
Musolf attended the University of South Dakota, where she earned two undergraduate degrees in English and speech. It's also where she met her husband, Bill, at a mock United Nations event.
"He defeated my motion," she said. Nevertheless, she agreed to attend a picnic with him afterward. Their relationship continued even as she traveled overseas to England to study Shakespeare and he went on to graduate from the university. They communicated by writing letters, and when she returned from England they married and moved to Minnesota.
"I've had a lot of lives," she said with a smile. When their two children were in undergraduate school in Minnesota, she enrolled and earned a master's in intercultural studies and a doctorate in speech communication.
When she had finished defending her dissertation at the university, she "walked out the door and got into the car. (Bill) and our daughter had packed up our house and we moved to Colorado," she said.
Getting to know Colorado
Though she knew quite a bit about history in South Dakota, Musolf admitted that when she arrived in Summit County, she knew little to nothing about her new state's history. She quickly amended that by volunteering with the Summit Historical Society and immersing herself in local knowledge.
She served on the society's board, gave walking tours of the Valley View Cemetery in Breckenridge, worked in the Barney Ford House Museum and Edwin Carter Museum and helped develop the Summit Ski Museum before lending a hand in the archives.
Through this work, Musolf has gathered a large amount of knowledge of Summit and the surrounding areas, particularly of the people who lived here. She can list early Breckenridge socialite Katie Briggle's favorite card games, for example, or share tidbits of historical gossip about the local newspaper editor and who he was friends with.
"She has a very good memory," said Deanna Speer, co-chairwoman of the Summit Historical Society's archives. "I admire her for that."
Musolf has spent many hours reading through old newspapers with Gail Westwood, founder of Breckenridge Tours.
"It's very relaxing. We both start reading the paper and we get into a story and often half an hour's passed and we're so enthralled with this story," Westwood said. "We discuss this story that's on the front page of a 1903 newspaper and we forget the time, and the hours have gone past. We kind of get ourselves in that year, if you know what I mean, we're right there, we're in 1903 and experiencing whatever's going on at that time."
Getting lost in history is something Musolf enjoys, both in her work in the archives and in Park County with the South Park Archaeology Project. Musolf and her husband go out with other volunteers searching for artifacts from the Paleozoic Era.
"It's totally engrossing," said Musolf, as to why she loves the search. "I like being outside. You're outside all day long and you're totally focused on walking around, looking for signs that somebody did flint knapping years and years ago, that you forget all the other details in your life — your appointments, what you have for supper — you're totally focused."
Books and adventure
Among all her achievements, the one she's proudest of is the creation of the Summit Historical Society Book Club and Adventure Society. The book club has been going for at least 17 years and isn't like most other book clubs. Instead of choosing just one book, for example, the members will choose a topic (such as cowboy art). Each will go read a book of their choosing on the subject, then reconvene in a month to discuss it.
"It's like big-people book reports," said Musolf with a smile. "By the end of the evening, the topic has been covered and covered very well."
In addition to reading, the club members go on outings to various locations of interest to their topic, such as snowshoeing to an old mining camp or visiting a marble quarry.
Between the book club, the archives, archaeology hunts and activities like hiking and snowshoeing, Musolf remains active. She also spends plenty of time with her grandsons.
"They are the fun in my life," she said. "I just think they're amazing boys. They open me up to experiences in all my years I've never had."
Those around Musolf can tell she's passionate about her family and all of her activities.
"She's very considerate, helpful. … She's very thoughtful," Westwood said. "I can go to her for advice. She's like a mentor to me."
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