Looking back on the life of one of the county’s most famous authors, Belle Turnbull
Born in Hamilton, New York, in 1881, Belle Turnbull moved to Colorado Springs when she was 9 years old, the landscape inspiring her to pen her first poem. However, Turnbull was inclined to return to her home state to attend college, graduating from Vassar in 1908 and working as an English teacher in Buffalo until 1909. In 1910, Turnbull, weary from hurriedness of the city, set back to Colorado. She taught English at Colorado Springs High School, where her father was the principal. Twenty-two years later she was the head of the English department, and in that time had poems published in The New York Times and Poetry Magazine.
Before retiring in 1937, Turnbull met her life partner, Helen Rich, who was working as the first female journalist at the Colorado Springs Telegraph. They bonded quickly over their love for writing, vacationing for a year before moving to Frisco together. In 1939 they decided to settle down in Breckenridge — in a log cabin on French Street — where they would remain, writing full-time, until their deaths in 1970 and 1971, respectively. The pair acknowledged that their education had never taught them to chop wood or handle frozen water pipes, but decided on the electricity- and plumbing-free cabin anyway, learning to live off of the land and be true mountain women — “Not to say they’re fair, or sleek with oils, for woodsmoke in the hair.” (“Mountain Woman”)
The two took on part-time jobs during WWII, Turnbull as a typist for war prices and rationing. She eventually resigned, choosing to use her talents documenting life in the Rockies during the age of mining. Her first book, “The Goldboat,” told the story of love and danger in the mining business through a series of letters, short stories and poems. In 1953, she published “The Far Side of the Hill,” the story of a family living in a mining town. And in 1957, “The Tenmile Range” was printed, including “At That Point Mr. Probus,” which was awarded a $100 prize in 1938 by Poetry Magazine (about $1,700 today).
“With my bright dipper, frosting it with rime/ Hoarding no more than God would hoard a dime … / Seven years some few will last who stand the gaff/ Sometimes where the machines bore, springs will come/ I have to laugh, he said, I have to laugh.”
– “The Tenmile Range”
To end her writing career, Turnbull published “Trails” in 1968, mostly a move away from writing about dredging and fully focused on the metaphorical gems of the High Country.
“Our god was ice with goldleaf plastered on…/ Gutted our valleys to his lordly blare…/ And newer outfits sweating hope and blood/ Raise in his place more preposterous gods.”
– “Opus 8”
Turnbull easily captured through her writing what any guest to a mostly untouched landscape feels: the freeness, openness and short-lived feeling that you can pick up and leave wherever you are, to just be here and be present. As long as you live here, you never quite get bored with anything around you. The bluebirds never turn grey, the rivers rush and glimmer, turning to slow-moving glass in the winter. And it’s exciting every time. To understand fully the attraction and sometimes unexpected trials of living in the American West at such a prominent time — able even to transcend its time and relate to the modern West — was a laudable accomplishment, and one that shouldn’t be lost to history.
“Mountains cast spells on me/ Why, because of the way Earth-heaps lie/ Should I be choked by joy mysteriously…/ Timberline and trees…/ Why am I mad for these?”
– “Mountain Mad”
To learn more about Belle Turnbull, visit the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance online at BreckHeritage.org or in person. Read her most prominent writings in “The Tenmile Range” and “Belle Turnbull: On the Life & Work of an American Master,” edited by David Rothman. Most of her books can be found in local libraries.
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