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A Christmas Ago

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The old, idyllically decorated mansion that sits in the center of Pueblo has been standing through generations of Christmases. As time goes on, and the holiday continues to creep inexorably into the months leading up to it, the mansion too becomes draped in each new generation’s idea of Christmas.

The Rosemount Museum, as it’s decorated today, represents a modern Christmas far from what was celebrated by its original owners.

People flock to the mansion during the holiday season. It has been featured on documentaries and local TV programs and tourists tell its curators they’ve always wanted to visit during the holidays.

There was a time, however, when the Rosemount looked far less elaborate during Christmastime.

Just before John and Margaret Thatcher built the mansion in 1893, Christmas was hardly a commercialized holiday in the West.

People had marginal resources at the time, especially as the first pioneers of the Old West were still making their way to Pueblo. Even a family wealthy enough to build a mansion kept Christmas relatively simple.

Before the Thatchers began acquiring their wealth, their minimalist lifestyle in a much smaller house translated to their celebration of Christmas.

“Even though they were probably the most successful people in town, they still, by Eastern comparison, didn’t have a lot of money. They still lived a pretty simple life in their other home for many years,” said Deb Darrow, executive director of the Rosemount Museum.

“Originally, they would have celebrated very much like anybody else did back then, which was pretty simple,” she said.

The months-long celebration of the holiday season has taken years to materialize. Early Victorians, like the Thatchers, are largely responsible for its development.

During the Victorian era, Christmas all over the western world started to become more grandiose.

Queen Victoria’s celebrity status in England started to influence westerners. Once people took notice of her approach to celebrating Christmas, they started to replicate it.

“Within the course of two years, the holidays went from very religious-based, to these more decorative, festive Christmases we know,” Darrow said.

Much of what modern people associate with Christmas today can be credited to the queen’s husband, Prince Albert, and his nostalgia for his home in Germany.

“A lot of our Christmas traditions are very German-based. (Prince Albert) was used to more festive celebrating.”

The Christmas tree and large family meals, for example, can be credited largely to Prince Albert.

Even as these traditions were burgeoning well past the influence of England, people of all incomes kept Christmas small.

The American West was opening up when these celebrations started to become relevant. During the initial pioneering years, hardships forced families to prioritize a traditional celebration revolving very much around family and religion.

“Their celebration was as traditional as you could get in the West,” Darrow said.

The Thatcher family was instrumental in bringing industry to Pueblo and eventually, more extravagant Christmas celebrations.

“They gave Pueblo that kick-start to get it going,” she said.

Before the family came to Pueblo, the town centered itself on a lifestyle that included trading posts and saloons. John Thatcher’s arrival to Pueblo in the 1860s was the beginning of an industrial turning point.

John and his younger brother Mahlon created the first mercantile in Pueblo and eventually a string of 30 Colorado banks. As they became more successful, they began to diversify with various investments.

As Pueblo became a burgeoning hub for new businesses, people began to expand their Christmas celebrations.

The Thatchers became wealthier and gained the ability to provide a larger celebration for their family.

“Over time, as Pueblo developed, they could get their hands on things. They had more money by this point,” Darrow said.

Still, elaborately planned traditions had a few more years to develop.

“Part of their Christmas Eve celebration would have been decorating the tree,” she said.

Tree decorations consisted mostly of edible items, such as strings of popcorn. At that time, Rosemount was only decorated with one tree. The tree’s position, for years, was on the mansion’s veranda, which used to be partially covered with glass.

In later years, the tree was moved into the formal parlor, where it was still minimally decorated with edible items. As far as Christmas activities, Darrow said John and Margaret kept the Rosemount to themselves.

“This group of Thatchers didn’t necessarily do Christmas parties.”

John’s brother and his wife, however, did.

“They were known for their galas. I think John and Margaret were excited to let them take care of that,” she said.

After John and Margaret died, two of their children, Lillian and Raymond retained residence at Rosemount.

Lillian started to decorate more elaborately as she became in charge of Rosemount.

“Lillian did a lot more. She was more of the socialite,” Darrow said.

After Lillian died, Raymond reverted the Rosemount back to its minimal Christmas.

The series of alternating stewardship at the mansion very much determined the elaborateness of its Christmas decorations.

Shortly after Raymond Thatcher died in 1968, the mansion was converted into a museum. Here, a new tradition began to develop into one just as elaborate as the holiday itself was becoming.

“When the house became a museum, (decorating) really went in a different direction. They (staff and volunteers) really took advantage of the enormity of the house,” Darrow said.

Every year, on Nov. 1 precisely, the Rosemount enlists an organization known as the Women’s Auxiliary to decorate the expansive space.

In juxtaposition to the Thatcher family’s tradition of decorating on Christmas Eve, the women volunteers tackle decorating one or two rooms per day, just over a month and a half before the holiday itself.

Darrow credits the elaborate Christmas decor to the auxiliary and said without them, the small Rosemount staff would not be able to uphold the tradition.

“We’d be in really big trouble if we had to do anything like that. We’d go back to the very old times,” she joked.

Christmas at the Rosemount may be getting more modern, but one tradition allows it to hold onto its past.

In an old mansion decorated to reflect modern ideals of Christmas, an elaborate village of miniature buildings and figurines represents the humble beginnings of the holiday.

Since the Rosemount was converted into a museum, employees and volunteers have been collecting the Victorian figurines to create an increasingly intricate miniature village.

Members of the Thatcher family donated the original pieces of the collection to the museum in 1968.

“It’s a very popular part of our Christmas decorations,” Darrow said.

The collection has been on display during Christmas since 1968 but this year, it had to be redesigned to accommodate for the space it was taking up. Now, it has several more moving parts and an observation deck for children.

The designers of the display also replaced the train with a trolley to make it more authentically Victorian.

Christmastime is the busiest time of year for the Rosemount. Darrow recommended that large groups call ahead for guided tours. All other tours are self-guided but have museum representatives in each room to talk about the mansion.

The Christmas season at the mansion starts the day after Thanksgiving and continues throughout the end of the year.

“It really does come together quite nicely,” Darrow said.

The old mansion in the middle of Pueblo has weathered years of Christmas. Once a representation of the humble Victorians who lived there, the Rosemount has come to reflect the continually growing and extravagant Christmas of the modern people who visit it today.

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Arts & Culture

The Exotic Strangeness of the Americas on display at CS Fine Arts Center

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This month the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center premiers a modest collection of Haitian paintings and sculptures titled, “The Art of Haiti: Loas, History, and Memory.” Though the exhibit suffers from some organizational problems, it still provides a fascinating look into a country whose rich culture and fiercely independent people belie its difficult past.

Haiti: land of fire and land of mountains. The first black republic in the world and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is a country of extremes, colorful, noisy, in-your-face and uncompromising. That unsinkable spirit is reflected in its unique art, which is famous all over the world for its vibrance, joy, energy, and creativity.

The FAC’s “Art of Haiti” touches upon three common themes in Haitian art: voodoo (the “loas” mentioned in the title, which are voodoo spirits), historical scenes, and scenes of daily life around the island. There are paintings, sculptures, multimedia pieces, and installations, but unfortunately no prayer flags, which are probably the most popular Haitian art form currently on the market.

Strangely, The Art of Haiti works backwards from the most recent and modern art, ending with examples of artists who helped jump-start the Haitian Renaissance. Therefore it’s best to go against the flow set out by the curators and start the exhibit in the last gallery, gradually working your way back towards the beginning.

The Haitian Art Renaissance began in the mid-1940s, when an American watercolorist named Dewitt Peters opened a gallery, the Centre d’Art, in Port-au-Prince. What set Peters’ gallery apart was his collection of artists, which included both formally trained and self-taught, or “naïve,” painters.

It was these untrained artists who eventually became famous all over the world for their unique painting style. Like Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Haitian naïve painting captures daily life and events using simple lines, vivid colors, and flattened, patterned backgrounds. The charm and exuberance of these works feels at once very non-Western, and yet very accessible. The style appeals to a vast array of artists and collectors, from André Breton to Jonathan Demme.

You can see several pieces by some of the most famous Haitian Renaissance painters at the FAC (although the superstar of the bunch, Hector Hippolite, is not represented). Wilson Bigaud’s “Gede at the Graveyard,” and Antoine Obin’s “La Viste,” are perfect examples of scenes of daily life. Both Obin and Bigaud are able to tell a whole story in one non-narrative scene, contrasting a dark subject (death) with bright colors and a ton of movement and visual interest; or balancing a happy subject (a visit) with a softer palate and simplified, linear composition.

Michel Obin’s “Battle at the Ravine at Couleuvres,” meanwhile, is a visually complex history painting depicting a scene from the brutal slave rebellion that led to the nation of Haiti. His use of patterning in the trees and fields is particularly outstanding. That same technique and tradition is continued with a contemporary twist in the works of Tessa Mars, on the wall catty-corner to Obin’s piece.

Also of note in this gallery are the metal sculptures placed in the corners of the room. These represent a unique Haitian art form, first popularized by George Liautaud in the 1950s, where artists hammer out old oil drums to create loas figures and crosses for graves.

The Haitian Renaissance artists like Hippolite and Philomé Obin didn’t follow a particular school or style of art. Instead, they creatively searched for ways to express themselves and their culture. Today some contemporary artists adhere to their “naïve,” linear, and hand-painted style, while others–called the moderns–reject the Cap-Haitien style of painting in favor of the art schools and styles of the US and Europe. Nevertheless, the work of the moderns has the same vibrancy of color, historicism, voodoo influence, and vitality that can be found in the art of the naïves.

One of these artists, seen in the next gallery down, is Edouard Duval-Carrié. His multimedia series called Memory Windows uses layers of colored glass and resin, along with images and objects, to create kaleidoscopic pieces that are like puzzle boxes of Haitian history and culture. “Memory Window #1,” for example, has portraits of Haiti’s native Taíno people decimated by disease after Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola. These portraits also include Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolutionary general who’s considered the father of Haiti, who is kind of like the Haitian version of George Washington. Up close the Memory Windows reward viewers with details and surprises; farther back they take on the appearance of organic forms, like split cells or skulls.

Another modern artist with numerous pieces in The Art of Haiti is Ralph Allen. Although born in Haiti, he emigrated to New York at a relatively young age to escape the reign of Haiti’s Duvalier dictators, “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc.” Much of Allen’s work addresses the terror of the Duvalier years and the ongoing political, social, and environmental problems in Haiti. His pieces are lyrical, blending images together in a flowing pattern that pulls viewers in like a visual maze. Sometimes the effect is sensuous, as with “Mistress Erzuile;” at other times it conveys violence or horror.

Although laid out somewhat confusingly and in desperate need of better signage, “The Art of Haiti: Loas, History, and Memory” provides a good introduction to the art and creativity of this unique country and the indomitable spirit of the people who live there.

The Art of Haiti will be at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center February 10-May 20, 2018. For more information please visit www.csfineartscenter.org.

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Beer

Fresh pressed: Cider comes to Colorado’s Apple Valley

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A long, winding drive through the mountains on the way back from Grand Junction gave Kevin Williams time to reflect and think about his future. Inspired by a brewery he had recently visited, Williams was racking his brain for a way to incorporate a location or aspect related to Pueblo into a nano brewery he had long planned to open. And as the winding roads continued to clear Williams’ thoughts, it hit him: Penrose is known as Apple Valley. Why not open a cidery there?

Kevin Williams, former brewmaster at Walter’s Brewery in Pueblo, wants to put Penrose on the beer map with his Apple Valley Cider.

A week later he mentioned the random idea to his dad, who a few days later had a building picked out for him just off of Highway 115 next door to Broadway’s Bar & Grill. Starting with a blank space, the building owner worked with Williams and has built the location to fit the needs of a cidery.

Floor drains have been installed, a large walk-in cooler has been constructed, and an office is in place. A few more finishing touches and Williams will begin making cider under the aptly named brand Apple Valley Cider. His current plan is to have bottles of his three ciders: a semi-sweet, peach, and black currant on store shelves near the beginning of February.

No stranger to what it takes to come up with craft recipes, execute on the tasty ideas, and then market and sell, William’s started his professional brewing career at Walter’s Brewing in Pueblo. He has since moved on, citing the desire to move from employee to owner of his own business as the main reason.

Williams has been experimenting and making cider almost from day one of his homebrewing days, and has continued to do so even when he moved on to brewing professionally. It has been a learning process, but one that he feels has led up to the point where he’s ready to share with the outside world.

Brewing beer and making cider are similar in a few ways, namely starting with a sugary substance that you add yeast. However, the process is vastly different when it comes to the amount of labor required during the brewing process itself. Instead of long, hot, and heavy brewing sessions where larger burners and heavy bags of grain are required, making cider consists of mixing juice with water, adding some yeast, and waiting for nature to do its thing. That may be a bit simplified, but you get the point.

The more intense part of the process is going to be bottling and kegging cider for distribution. Currently, Williams plans to distribute everywhere he can within an hour drive of Penrose. So, that means Pueblo County, El Paso County, and Fremont County. Salida and Buena Vista will potentially be included in the first round of cities he will self-distribute in.

As a member of the Steel City Brewers homebrew club, I’ve known Williams for a couple of years now. During that time, I’ve had the chance to taste some of his ciders. More recently, he started asking the club to taste what (unknown to us at the time) would soon become his first three cider variations for Apple Valley Cidery. Over the course of several months and several iterations, I tasted ciders that went from decent to OMG YOU NEED TO SELL THIS.

Apple Valley Cider

The semi-sweet cider has plenty of apple flavor with a pleasant amount of sweetness. The peach cider is, in not so many words, delicious. It tastes exactly like the peach candy rings you can get from a convenience store—only better. It’s not overly sweet, and the peach is clearly present from start to finish. As for the black currant cider, there’s a notable tartness to the cider that’s rather enjoyable.

Apple Valley Cider won’t have a formal taproom. Instead, the Broadway’s Bar & Grill next door will serve as an informal taproom where you can try out any of the currently available ciders. Williams will have a grand opening party and special tastings as new flavors are released in the front room of Apple Valley Ciders.

Speaking of special tastings, Williams is working with Jenkins Farms to create a special release Apple Valley Cider made with apples from the Jenkins’ orchard. Exact details and timing are still being worked out, but I could tell by the excitement on his face that it’s going to be big.

If you want to keep tabs on Apple Valley Cider, like the Facebook page where Williams will post more details about his impending launch and release party.

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Books

Crouch’s ‘Dark Matter’ and our ever-present what ifs

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Colorado author, Blake Crouch, in his most recently published novel, “Dark Matter,” explores and aims to answer one of humanity’s most pressing existential questions: what if? Crouch writes on the dedication page of his newest novel, “For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.” And indeed it is.

The story follows the journey of a man named Jason Dessen – a brilliant physicist living in Chicago with his wife and son. Although Jason had the opportunity at one point in his life to achieve his career dreams and become a star in his field, he chose to lead a more family-focused life as a local community college professor.

One night, he is abducted and drugged while walking home. He awakes in a world where his wife doesn’t know him, his son doesn’t exist, and he has achieved that professional success that eluded him in his previous life. Jason’s quest to return to his reality leads him on a thrilling and psychologically probing goose chase through the multiverse that, as Crouch writes in an afterword of the novel, “forces him and the reader to reckon with the quantum-mechanics principles that make our universe tick.”

Science fiction is not uncharted territory for Crouch. He is most well known for his “Wayward Pines” trilogy, which was adapted for television and premiered on FOX in May of 2015. Like the “Wayward Pines” series, “Dark Matter” weaves elements of the fantastic and the actual, with themes of love and family truly making up the core of the story. Crouch is already working on the screenplay for the film adaptation of “Dark Matter” – this time on the big screen. Sony bought the movie rights for the film, and will begin production in the near future.

Crouch was inspired to write the novel by his interest in quantum mechanics, despite his limited scientific background. In an afterword of his book, Crouch writes: “I wrote ‘Dark Matter’ so if you’d never heard of quantum mechanics, it wouldn’t matter.” And he is true to his word. Crouch’s narration weaves in the scientific aspects nearly seamlessly, and makes even the more complicated points understandable to his readers by being concise with his language and clear in his analogies.

A common error among sci-fi stories is piling information on the reader to make the author sound more credible. Crouch avoids this error, striking the right balance of factual information that applies to the narrative with the more fictitious elements that are then bridged effortlessly in the reader’s mind.

While Crouch’s novel does dwell heavily in the science-fiction genre, it is a love story as much as it is an existential thriller. Rather than highlighting the ecstasy of being able to trade a life you’re dissatisfied with for another, Crouch’s approach is more to point out how shallow the reasons are that create that sense of dissatisfaction. His main character, Jason, is motivated throughout the story purely by the love he has for his wife and son – and the realization that his biggest mistake is taking that love for granted.

Detailing Jason’s grappling between his family life and his professional life is where Crouch really hits home with so many of his readers. Detailing that struggle on a larger existential scale where virtually every choice creates another competing life, and that these lives aren’t just possible separately, but also simultaneously, is what lends so much ingenuity to Crouch’s entire premise.

Every single one of us wonders what would have happened if we’d taken another job, gone to a different college, moved somewhere different, married someone different, didn’t marry at all; the list goes on and on. “Dark Matter” is an intelligent proposition of an answer to our ever-present what-ifs. Not to mention an altogether riveting and touching tale.

Originally from North Carolina, Crouch currently lives in Durango, Colorado and has ever since he received his Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina. When asked in an interview what drew him to Colorado, Crouch said: “I love everything about the West. The wide-open space. The history. The mentality. Rain curtains over the desert. How much deeper and more rattling thunder sounds as opposed to everywhere else. Sage brush. Mountains. Desert. Snow. But most important, a serene, contemplative place to write.”

Crouch is currently working on a new novel from his home in Durango. In addition to “Dark Matter” and the “Wayward Pines” trilogy, he has written more than a dozen other novels and short stories; most of which can be found for sale on his personal website: www.blakecrouch.com. His other television projects include the TNT television show “Good Behavior” starring Michelle Dockery, which is based off of a series of three interlinked novellas Crouch previously wrote and published.

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