You say Breckenridge, I say Breckinridge
Ryan Summerlin April 24, 2008
BRECKENRIDGE At its essence, uncovering history is about skepticism. To trust the word of another is to put the truth at risk. Its just as dangerous to trust a newspaper, an obituary, a book. Doubt everything and everyone, historians are taught even yourself.The only problem? Your goal is to come to a conclusion, which doesnt leave a ton of room for doubt in the end.Or maybe it does. The town of Breckenridge was settled back in 1859, and yet on a Monday morning earlier this month, in the hopes of confirming some disputed facts before next years 150-year anniversary celebration, six noted historians and a seventh on speaker phone from Hawaii sat around a table in Town Hall debating minutiae that, really, you wouldve thought someone had already figured out by now.Things like where the towns name came from. Was it the otherwise-insignificant settler Thomas E. Breckenridge? The former vice president of the United States, Southerner John C. Breckinridge? Or was it named, perhaps, after the most important family in Kentucky, as longtime town historian Rebecca Waugh suggests? The concept of convening in the 21st century to explore such antiquated quandaries is unique primarily because it is so rare. Few historians or groups employ such a tactic, perhaps due to how few of the debates actually end in a consensus. Still, to the 28 observers who witnessed the discussion in Town Hall, the theories alone were often entertaining enough.For instance, Robin Theobald, a fifth-generation Breckenridge resident, agrees with his grandmother, Ella Foote, who wrote an early 1900s newspaper story arguing that, in fact, the town was named and then renamed three different times. Theobalds contention, like that of Bill Fountain the meticulous researcher on speaker phone two weeks ago is that the town was indeed named after Thomas Breckenridge, then changed to Breckinridge when it was decided that taking the name of the vice president would enhance the possibility of getting a post office, then renamed yet again when the residents decided they didnt want their town to be named after a member of the Confederate party. The only hole left by such a hypothesis is, why would the town originally be named after such an insignificant settler? Thomas Breckenridge wasnt known to be important for any reason more than the next guy.Theobalds response was vintage history mystery. The guy coulda bought a round for the house, and they decided to name the town after him, he said. It doesnt mean he had to be the leader of the pack to have it named after him. Maybe he saved someones life and they wanted to honor him. Who knows?Excellent question. The answer, of course, is that plenty of people know, but theyre all dead. Which is one of the reasons the debates got so interesting.No love lost hereAnother reason is more subjective. According to Tom Noel, one of the states most respected historians, who is known thusly as Dr. Colorado, the historian world can be tricky. Pride inevitably gets involved. Historians fall in love with their sources and grow to doubt those of others. Rivalries develop. Theres a lot more of that than academics and professionals let on, Noel said, adding, History is not quite as objective as a lot of people think it is.At the recent Breckenridge panel, to a person the historians denied the existence of rivalries, just as Noel hinted they would. It was fine, Sandie Mather, a geologist by trade who specializes in mining history, said after the forum ended with no grand outbursts. We respect each others work, so no, it wasnt contentious at all.Alas, fellow panelist Rick Hague, president of the board of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, wasnt quite so sure. He said he knows too well the people involved.There is, well, how could one put it diplomatically there certainly is no love lost between some of the people there, he said, declining to identify who dislikes whom but noting that some of the rivalries among the historians date back to the 1960s.You figure, what could possibly be more benign or warm and fuzzy than history figuring out how things happened? But it just is incredible the personality conflicts and politics that get involved, Hague said. I just sort of scratch my head and watch.Real storiesIn addition to Mather, Theobald, Waugh, Hague and Fountain, the Breckenridge panel also featured Maureen Nicholls, a Breck resident since the mid-1960s who specializes in the towns skiing history, and Mary Ellen Gilliland, a former magazine journalist-turned book author who began researching Summits past in 1975.After introducing each panelist, moderator Wendy Wolfe, a board member of the Breck Heritage Alliance, which organized the forum, went over the ground rules. Most important among them was the two-minute time limit theyd be given to speak.We want to tell real stories, Wolfe said, explaining how the forum would serve Brecks 150-year celebration. We dont want to perpetuate rumors. It was that desire which attracted a few of the onlookers as well, including Mark Schuster, general manager of the Gold Pan Saloon, who sat in the back with a clipboard and pad of paper. Hed gotten word that one of the topics to be discussed was whether the Gold Pan is, indeed, one of the oldest continuously operating establishments west of the Mississippi, as it has been billed for decades.Im here to figure that out, Schuster said with a grin. Ive been making stuff up and telling people things that may or may not be true for a long time now.The topic proved to be one of the highlights, if only because it delivered a rare instance when the historians unanimously agreed. False! they crowed the Gold Pans legacy is not as historic as so many have been told.The panel also addressed the prevalence of prostitutes. Every once in a while, it would erupt at town council that the sporting ladies were a little too free in town, Nicholls explained, to which Gilliland added, reluctantly: We dont have much documentation because the ladies of the night operated on a first-name-only basis.The role of saloons was covered They were very important, Mather said, but it wasnt a Leadville as were the rumors of gunfights on Main Street (didnt happen) and ghosts haunting the town (no consensus).A trick we play on the deadIn the end, most of the panelists bought into the premise behind the forum. We need to send a united message, Gilliland said. Nicholls, however, disagreed. I dont think historians should be totally unified, she said. I think theres always research to be done, theres always new things that you can uncover. So I think its a copout to say everybody should agree on everything. That aint gonna happen. It shouldnt happen. Not if you have any intelligence.Which brings us back to the practice itself. How does one balance so much skepticism with the goal of ultimately arriving at a conclusion?Noel, aka Dr. Colorado, has a quote he likes to use when such a question arises, one he got from an 18th Century French philosopher. History, Noel said, is a trick we play on the dead. One generations heroes become villains for the next.Makes sense. After all, Hague said, We can point to all the evidence we want, point to all the logic that we want, but at the same time were just seven people sitting around a table, trying to figure out how things happened 150 years ago.Devon ONeil is a freelance writer living in Breckenridge.