As a Southwest tour leader and former museum director, occasionally after a few beers, folks tell me what they took from public land. Then I help them return items. Such is the case with stolen stove doors carted away from mining cabins high in the San Juan Mountains.
Years ago, I learned of two 19th-century rifles that a Quaker family in Philadelphia wanted to return to the West. After checking serial numbers, we realized that the guns had been lost by Custer’s men of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn battle in 1876. Lakota warriors had taken the guns and then lost them again to 7th Cavalry soldiers at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. An Indian commissioner from a Quaker family had been given the guns. His descendants wanted to return them, so I helped arrange for the rifles to go to the South Dakota State Historical Society.
I’ve assisted pot-hunters in returning ancestral Puebloan pots and broken sherds taken from the Navajo Reservation. Locally, I’ve delivered a box of potsherds collected over decades to Mesa Verde National Park for rangers to use as a teaching and interpretive collection. Heavy, historic mining artifacts are in a class all their own.
HHHWith the widespread proliferation of Jeeps after World War II, historic mining camps began to be looted for artifacts. Vandals ripped boards off buildings for the “barnwood” craze of the 1970s, when suburbanites lined their family room walls with old wood. Thieves once helicoptered heavy ore cars from the historic Silver Lake Mine above Silverton.
Large, four-wheel-drive pickups and smaller, highly mobile ATVs make it easy to steal from public land. A case in point is a uranium mine ore car now on display at the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center in Silverton.
In the former uranium mining district near Naturita, a Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer observed a thief taking a large ore car and loading it into his pickup. Rather than arrest the vandal on the spot, the officer discreetly followed him home. The officer then arrested the vandal and the case went to court. A judge ruled a crime had been committed, and in addition to community service, the thief paid a $2,400 fine. Eventually, the Silverton museum got the ore car and the restitution dollars to mount an exhibit about uranium mining.
“The ore car was pilfered out of a BLM adit in a supposedly abandoned mine. But the theft was observed by a BLM ranger,” Exhibits Curator Steve Rich explained to me. The BLM developed a traveling exhibit based on the ore car, and part of that exhibit is now in Silverton. “I liked the story, so I decided to put it on a label,” Rich said. The exhibit concludes with the words, “Remember, because an artifact seems abandoned and nobody is around to see you, it doesn’t mean no one owns it.”
On public land, we all own historical artifacts, and they must stay in place. My hero, President Teddy Roosevelt, signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, protecting Native American sites on public land. Because of a wave of looting, Congress strengthened the original law in 1979 with passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act that protects both prehistoric and historic sites and artifacts. Looters now face serious penalties.
HHHThe stove door story is complicated. When a Denver-area couple talked to me about items they had taken from the San Juans, I did not understand until they presented me with a binder full of photos. I then understood the extent of their collection, their regret at taking the stove doors and their sincere desire to place the objects in a museum. The couple will remain anonymous.
In the 19th century, miners built their log cabins on cliffs, in gulches, on ridgelines and by springs. They used local materials as much as possible, but the one thing that had to be imported and brought in by burro were cabin stoves – essential for heat in the winter and for cooking year-round. A few stove manufacturers existed in Colorado, but most stoves came from companies back east, and though the stoves – sometimes two burners, sometimes four – were functional cast-iron objects, along the sides could be embossed metal with intricate designs. Usually, the most fashionable part of the stove was the door, which opened into the fire box.
As I viewed photos in the three-ring binder, I understood how big the collection was. I did not yet know about the couple’s meticulous notes, including United States Geological Survey maps with exact coordinates, elevations, descriptions and even directions like, “from semi-collapsed cabin on knoll 100 ft. WNW of jeep road; cabin had coal room in rear, old collapsed bed frame.”
I arranged for the San Juan County Historical Society to accept the stolen stove doors. The repentant couple hand-delivered the collection from Denver – 15 boxes weighing from 30 to 55 pounds each. “They were real friendly folks and we worked together unloading. They stole stove doors then documented everything and were very glad that someone wanted the collection,” curator Steve Rich says.
The couple wrote, “Probably no other gold rush-era artifact has as much nostalgic romance as the miners’ respite from cold, disappointment and loneliness than his warm companion – his stove. What stories could emerge from this most basic tent/cabin necessity. The hillside tents, outback cabins and even major mine complexes have receded into the earth. In many cases, the only clues of occupancy are the durable cast-iron stoves.”
“The collection of stove doors was born of urgency,” the couple wrote in a preface to their extensive documentation. They offered, “Our family backpacked most of the San Juan high country. We were saddened by observing the neglect of mining-era artifacts. Unfortunately, at that time, it was common thought that ‘mining stuff’ was to be shot at, burned or rolled down slope. Government agencies were understaffed for such a wide area. Local sentiment at that time was, quite frankly, ‘so what?’”
HHHSo why steal the stove doors? Why backpack with a hammer and chisel to break the hinge pins and carry out the heavy metal doors? The couple’s rationale was simple. “We decided to collect the stove doors before they were shattered by gunshots.” In other words, they wanted to take something off public land before someone else did or because artifacts might be damaged.
I’m not sure a federal judge would agree with that philosophy, but then if the doors were taken before 1979, federal and state laws were imprecise. A judge would agree with the couple’s statement, “Now, after more than 40 years, it is time to find a home for them.”
Bev Rich, director of the San Juan County Historical Society, adds, “The doors are important because they are a snapshot in time. Cast-iron stoves were everywhere in this rugged wilderness.” The stove doors came from Illinois Gulch, Cement Creek, Georgia Gulch, Little Giant Basin, Silver Lake, Grassy Gulch, Poughkeepsie Gulch, Maggie Gulch and Mineral Point.
The stoves include the New Loyal Cook No. 8 made in Albany, New York; the Kibler Stove Co. of Denver from 1895; a No. 7-16 from 1881; the “Palmetto” made by the Comstock Castle Co. from Quincy, Illinois, patented in 1873; and a white porcelain Pride Pearl Buck’s Stove and Range – “guaranteed to bake like a brick oven.”
I believe in amnesty. I believe returning something taken from public land is important, but all artifacts, whether they are log cabins, wagon wheels, arrowheads, ore cars or stove doors, belong in situ, or at their original location. We need to learn to leave things alone, to have an open museum on our public lands. But in the meantime, as that ethic evolves, I’ll help folks give back what they should not have taken in the first place.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.