Summit County pioneers: Helen Foote
Special to the Summit Daily News
FRISCO — Even with fewer than 70 people once living in Frisco, Laura Helen Foote was always in the heart of the town’s social center. For 53 years, Helen lived at 510 Main St., which over the years has served as the general store, post office, gas station, communication center and meeting house.
Born on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, Helen married the neighbor boy, Robert S. Foote in 1941. They moved to California for the majority of World War II while her husband worked for Vultee Aircraft. He was never drafted, and by the war’s end, she soon found herself on the road to Summit County, caught up in her husband’s vision of living in a cabin by the creek and fishing all the time. Fishing was a passion that she and Bob shared throughout their marriage. It became a biweekly ritual to fish in the Tenmile Canyon every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon. They also were among the first fishing guides in Summit County.
After a long trip to scout prospective property on two-lane gravel roads with their 3-year-old daughter, they were forced to spend the first night in Fairplay before arriving in Frisco.
“This part I remember distinctly,” Helen said in the late 1990s. “We spent the night in some cabin that had wood and coal heat and a great big cook stove. My husband would get up in the night and throw another log on the fire to try and keep us warm. There was a tea kettle with water in it that was sitting on the back of the stove, and yet the room was so cold that even with the fire, the water in the kettle froze. I said, ‘Boy, we sure don’t want to live here!’”
Frisco, originally named Frisco City, was founded during the height of the gold and silver mining boom. During mining’s glory days, Frisco boasted 31 saloons, four hotels, two railroads, a 50-oven coke operation and numerous logging operations. It was a rollercoaster living through the many booms and busts that the community continually managed to survive. The eventual collapse of mining following World War I left the local residents scrambling to find alternative employment in areas such as logging or hunting.
In that first year or so, Helen sent her daughter Patty door to door delivering May baskets as a friendly gesture to their new neighbors. She also made every effort to get involved with the community as well as create fun for her children in their remote mountain town.
“That first Halloween, I made a costume from gunny sacks and dressed my daughter up as a little monkey,” Helen recalled. “It sure didn’t take them long to go trick-or-treating because there weren’t all that many houses in town.”
Unlike Dillon, which had neon lights lining the street, Frisco was much darker because it didn’t have the same lighting system. Frisco received electricity and street lights in 1901, but when the Excelsior mine ceased operation in the 1920s, these amenities were removed until many years later. Helen had the foresight to bring everything they owned when they moved from California because there wouldn’t be many stores to buy things once they arrived in the Rocky Mountains.
In 1946, Helen and Bob pooled resources with Bob’s mother, Hannah Nonnie, to purchase eight lots for $6,500. In 1948, they finally received running water and a year later indoor plumbing. On the property was a building, which became Helen’s home, that was built by late 19th century engineer and mining clerk Louis A. Wildhack. In 1882, Wildhack built the one-story, 14-by-14-foot frame structure with a wooden porch and false front along Main Street to serve as his office and residence. In 1914, after a fire consumed the post office, Wildhack became Frisco’s postmaster, using the Main Street house as its new location. A decade later, he added a 2 1/2-story addition onto the east side of the original structure to accommodate the store and post office using materials from the nearby Admiral Mine. It became the only general store in town and functioned as the social center of Frisco. Having one of the only two telephones in town in the early part of the century, Wildhack’s store became the central location for messages and information. Local residents mingled with miners who ventured as far away as Wheeler Junction (now Copper Mountain) and ranchers from Dickey and Bill’s Ranch. Adding to its significance, the post office/general store also served as the town commons, where people gathered to discuss recent happenings as they waited for the mail to arrive. There was no formal church in Frisco until the 1940s, so services were often held in the old Town Hall, which still stands and is now being used as a preschool. At some point in his ownership, Wildhack erected on the property a two-story barn, which included an ice house/chicken house, using materials from nearby Admiral Mine. A blacksmith shop operated in the bottom half of the barn and remains of the forge still exist. In the next 10 years, the 1930s, tourist cabins were built on the property by another owner Guy Cannam.
During World War II, soldiers from Camp Hale’s training facility would socialize across the street at the Chamberlain Café. The postmaster, a job held by Mary Ruth from 1942 to 1947, was given the difficult task of notifying families of the dead or missing. Then in the happier days of the 1950s, a clock lighted by neon lights was placed on the front of the general store.
Its new owners Helen, Bob and Hannah spent two furious weeks cleaning and painting the general store, which they reopened as Foote’s Rest and the four log cabins were cleaned and furnished as soon as possible. Bob became the postmaster in 1947 and served until 1965. In 1966, the post office was moved to a larger building on the corner of Fourth and Granite streets. In 1958, Helen accepted a new challenge of teaching home economics to junior high and high school students and was credited with the opening of the first home economics department at Breckenridge High School, now the present Colorado Mountain College building. Later, a new high school was built in Frisco. She retired from teaching in 1980.
On two separate, yet equally brief, debuts, Helen and Bob attempted skiing as the sport was gaining popularity in the county. Helen strapped on her skis but ended up “splatting” on Fifth Street while she was practicing. Her husband, after deciding he was going to go skiing, ended up backing up his 1930 Chevrolet pickup “Whoopee” into the bank with the skis sticking out the back and snapped them in half. He never went again. Their children took lessons and learned at a special instructional facility in Frisco.
Meanwhile, Helen and Bob ran a thriving business and watched the community grow from their central Frisco location.
“Customers began buying gasoline from our hand pump, and tourists rented the cabins for one night or one week at a time,” Helen recalled. “Some would even make reservations to return the following summer. If they were lucky enough to catch some fish during their stay, then they’d be sure to come back the next year. We met a lot of neat friends that way.”
The store closed in 1961. Bob died in 1973. Three of their four children took up residence in surrounding towns while one son moved to California.
Helen continued to live at 510 Main St., which still has the original window panes, store display cases and the post office window and boxes. The original soft pine of the flooring creaks as if to share memories of days gone by. In 1984, Helen’s home was placed on the National Historic Registry. The east wing remains intact and serves as a museum, smiling back at the fun the Footes had watching Summit County grow and change.
Editor’s note: Helen Foote died in 2006.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at summitdaily.com/news/history.
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