Postcards sent from the past

Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 11:56 PM
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
The Durango-to-Silverton road, before it was paved, was gravel and dirt. This is a springtime image of the highway along what is now Lime Creek Road.
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
Durango is blessed with numerous excellent restaurants, but in the 1950s, the Chief Diner could not be beat for hearty road food. Note the 95 cent price for a 20-ounce T-bone steak.
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
One of the earliest photos of Durango, this 1880 image shows Main Avenue with wooden buildings. Durango was founded that year.
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
The brick Hermosa House at Trimble Springs Resort did not survive a 1931 fire. The hot springs remain, but the historic hotel, home in the winter to occasional Silverton miners, no longer exists. This postcard was mailed June 3, 1908.
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
The Durango Smelter once refined gold and silver, but during World War II it smelted uranium ore for an atomic bomb used at Nagasaki, Japan. The former superfund environmental waste site is now our local dog park.
Photo Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies
Then and now, a favorite hiking area for local Durangoans has been Animas Mountain with its views of the north Animas Valley and meanders of the Animas River.

It began as a simple thing. Fort Lewis College donor and part-time Durango resident Nina Heald Webber started to collect postcards. Now two decades and 4,000 Southwest Colorado postcards later, we all benefit from her passion.

“Everybody in my family collected things where I grew up (in Wooster, Ohio),” says Webber, now 80. “I was privileged. I had 14 years of childhood without television, so we went to each other’s homes and saw our collections. ... Collecting, for me, has been my best friend.”

When Webber began buying postcards, rare, vintage images could be found at garage sales, flea markets and antique shops for $1. Similar postcards now can bring up to $150 apiece, but that does not deter her.

For a decade, Webber, who also lives in Massachusetts and Florida, has donated postcards to the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. Her initial gift has grown into a vast collection of irreplaceable images of Durango, Lake City, Cortez, Mancos, Ouray, Telluride, Bayfield, Ophir, Rico, Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins and the Million Dollar Highway.

“I love Durango, and I come three or four times a year,” she says. “I am thrilled and delighted to have my collection at FLC. It’s touched my heart.”

Now her collection can touch your heart, too.

In 2004, The Durango Herald Small Press brought out a book titled San Juan Sampler: Selections from the Nina Heald Webber Southwest Colorado Postcard Collection. This year, local authors have focused on Webber’s Durango images to produce Durango, a book in the Postcard History Series of Arcadia Publishing.

“It was a book for which we had the most postcards, and it was a good place to pay tribute to Nina Webber,” FLC Archives Manager Nik Kendziorski says.

Frederic B. Wildfang wrote the captions and worked with Kendziorski on the project.

“It’s a great PR piece for Durango and the Center of Southwest Studies to create closer contact with the community and region,” Wildfang says.

Durango has inspired various authors. Duane Smith’s Rocky Mountain Boomtown: A History of Durango, Colorado is a good place to start. Also see Wildfang’s Durango in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America Series, and I admire Kay Niemann’s Salone Italiano: The True Story of an Italian Immigrant Family’s Struggles in Southwestern Colorado.

Authors sift through the past and interpret people and events, but postcards are the past. They tell us about both the sender and the person receiving the card. Consider them echoes from a long time ago, like lost emails with colored pictures and 1 cent postage.

“The value of postcards is to show us buildings that are still recognizable and also buildings that are gone like the Chief diner, which was once a local landmark,” Kendziorski says.

Now all that survives is the diner’s neon sign across from Toh-Atin Gallery at 145 W. Ninth St.

“In some cases, postcards are all we have left,” Wildfang says. “Information on the back of postcards gives you another perspective on the past. Postcards reflect boosterism and what tourists wanted to share.”

In the late 1890s, Victorian Americans wrote long, flowing letters expressing their sentiments and aspirations, but when the Victorian era gave way to the Progressive era, a bustling nation sought rapid communication. In 1906, rural free delivery revolutionized mail service for isolated farm families, and by the next year the U.S. Postal Service allowed customers to send picture postcards and write on the back. Before 1907, you could only write on the front of postcards, which left no room for scenic views.

In Durango, several innovations occurred simultaneously. Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906. Kodak released its simple box camera, and tourists fled the Midwest in Model-T Fords looking for adventure in the Rocky Mountains. Auto tourism, middle-class vacations and the desire to send messages home resulted in a golden age for postcards mailed from the Four Corners states to the far corners of the nation. Webber has enjoyed searching out local postcards sent to distant families and friends.

Though most early images are black-and-white photos printed on postcard stock, some are on leather or wood, and some are hand-tinted images from a colored lithographic printing process. The new 2011 postcard book Durango by Wildfang and Kendziorski features 180 photos of miners, women, Ute Indians, buildings, mining camps, agriculture and FLC when it moved into town and new construction began.

Postcards offer a window into the past with stunning illustrations and equally interesting notes on the back. Some have no relation whatsoever to the image on the front.

“It is evening. The coyotes come up to the house at night and eat any meat scraps they can find,” one postcard enthusiast wrote. “I can hear them in the distance now. Don’t you wish you could?”

The caption for one postcard describes the highway that “climbs to the top of the great series of mesas that form the site of Mesa Verde National Park,” but the hand-written message on the back was anything but picturesque. The author wrote in pencil: “This morning they had to take grandma’s little toe off. Dr. Burnett thought she would get alright. Time will tell.”

The Webber Collection includes valuable postcards of Southwest Colorado from every decade of the 20th century. With these rare photos we can see what our area looked like.

“Postcards, as opposed to a family album or photos, show what a community found valuable about itself and the highlights of a town,” archivist Kendziorski says, which is why the postcard images can be viewed on the FLC website (see “On the Net” box).

In our era of Internet and email, postcards have been eclipsed by Twitter and Facebook. Today, tourists send digital photos, but will they be archived a century later? Probably not.

If the future of postcards looks bleak, for Webber, collecting has never been more fun. Not only does she gather postcards for posterity, she’s also buying stereocards, lantern slides, photos, books, brochures, maps, matchbook covers, souvenir teaspoons and china, and other ephemera from folks who visited the Four Corners. She’s saving a tourist perspective on our area’s history.

So if you’re looking for stocking stuffers this year, of if you want to give Santa a special treat to read on his way home to the North Pole, the new postcard book Durango is for sale locally. Royalties return to Fort Lewis College for archival expenses.

Thank you, Nina Webber. In this holiday season, your ongoing donations exemplify giving back to one’s community, and your postcards are picture perfect.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at

On the Net — Nina Heald Webber Collection: