Gilliland knows how to write a local best-seller |

Gilliland knows how to write a local best-seller

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Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk

BRECKENRIDGE ” Mary Ellen Gilliland broke the rules of publishing, and still she ended up on the top of the heap.

When traditional history books presented information in a dry manner, she livened up her language. She used cartoons for the covers of both her history and hiking books ” a virtual no-no in the publishing world. (Everyone knows a hiking book should feature a beautiful blue lake, not a drawing of a mountain teeming with colorful hikers.)

But her experience as a writer ” she wrote specialty books for Family Circle Magazine ” and her fun approach have caused her books to become the single best-sellers in Summit County. And with a Front Range market that seems to like history and hiking and a market that keeps turning over as tourists and residents come and go, it doesn’t look like the trend is heading downhill.

Gilliland emerged with groundbreaking work on Summit County history after she moved to Summit in 1973. Her Silverthorne-based publishing company, Alpenrose Press, began 25 years ago with her release of “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado.” The lively history has sold tens of thousands of copies and received excellent critical reviews by well-known Colorado historians.

She followed her success with “The Summit Hiker,” which is now in its seventh revised edition, featuring updates on trails. In 25 years, she has published more than 20 books on Colorado history, hiking and the outdoors.

But her all-time favorite is a release that came out this month: “Colorado Rascals, Scoundrels, and No Goods.” It has taken her a quarter of a century to piece together full stories of characters 12-15 old-timers alluded to throughout the years. In September, she began researching the validity of the stories through The Breckenridge Bulletin, the Summit County Journal, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Historical Society Library.

“What I felt I had to do was to try to dig out the facts about each character so it just wasn’t a whisper or a comment from an old-timer,” Gilliland said. “I had to go to the newspapers and libraries and document that they actually existed.”

She discovered that most stories were “amazingly accurate.” In fact, one decedent of a pioneer family told Gilliland how Jesse James tried to hold up Mr. Marshall’s stagecoach near Leadville. But local history didn’t mention James’ presence in the area. Through internet research, Gilliland tracked down a reference to James’ one foray into Leadville.

But nevermind James ” her favorite character in the book is Stephen Decatur, a local leader who helped build Argentine Pass, which opened Summit County to the world.

“To me, he demonstrates the duality of human nature ” that he was a genius and gifted contributor to society and he was a horrible liar and cheat,” she said. “He was a bigamist who left one wife after another and left families scattered throughout the West. He spoke on temperance, but he was an alcoholic.”

Gilliland’s next project involves publishing an expanded edition of “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado.” And beyond that, her love of Summit County, past and present, is bound to emerge in print again.

“I have a real sense of belonging here, and the people of the past sometimes are more real to me than the people of the present. Their lives are very vivid to me,” she said.

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at

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