Author: alyssa

Castle Rock Libraries: Past & Future

If you haven’t been paying attention to recent library news, it should be obvious by now: We’re building a new library in Castle Rock. Construction (or rather, the pre-construction destruction) is already underway in the parking lot in front of our current location at 100 South Wilcox Street. Trucks are scraping away asphalt and unearthing trees that will find new homes with the Parks and Recreation department.

More information about the project can be found on the Douglas County Libraries website at dcl.org/build. In spite of the noise, dust and inconvenience this may cause, there are positives to keep in mind:

  • Building a new structure on our current site will allow the library to stay open to the public for as long as possible before we shift operations to the new facility.
  • The new building is going to be bigger, better, and more beautiful in every way.
  • The Archives & Local History department is getting a major upgrade! ALH collection growth has outpaced the storage capacity and service capabilities of our space in the current building, and we are really excited about the improvements to come.

For the groundbreaking ceremony held on May 2, I was asked to reflect on the history of “the Castle Rock library” and this post is adapted from my spoken remarks. My research led down some unexpected rabbit holes (as it often does!) so I am glad to be able to share it in this format, where I can provide more details and links to source material.

Part 1: School Days

I started by looking through ALH reference files—timelines, indexes, lists—compiled by staff and volunteers over many years. Although Douglas County’s public library system officially dates back to the 1960s, we knew there were previous attempts to establish a library in Castle Rock. Information for the earliest dates was conflicting and unclear, so I went back to the oldest sources I could find: the local newspapers. (Thank you to the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection for being so searchable!)

I was surprised to discover that Castle Rock has a long history with libraries, going back almost to its very beginning.

But the Town of Castle Rock has always been self-aware of its special role as the county seat. After all, it won this honor before anything was built here, in 1874, based on its potential as much as its central location. (According to this news article, there was only one resident at the time.1) In spite of competition from more established settlements, Castle Rock won the popular vote2 based on the idea of what it would become. The founders envisioned an orderly, prosperous city conveniently located near an iconic natural landmark.

Because Castle Rock had a profound sense of civic pride before it even had a civic population, it makes sense that it prioritized architectural projects like the county courthouse and the Cantril Street school, built from locally quarried rhyolite stone3. Historian Robert Lowenberg describes these early developments in his book Castle Rock: A Grass Roots History:

The Courthouse of Douglas County faced the mountains … above the large leafed cottonwoods … showering the square with leaves of gold and brown. … [It] reflected all of the pride and expectations of the people who contributed to the founding of the county and the construction of the building. … These two structures dominated the architectural appearance of the town as indeed education and government were predominant in the minds of its citizens.4

Soon after, another thing on their minds was a library.

To provide some context, this was the era (late 19th century) when public libraries took hold as an idea, developed professional standards, and became the type of institutions we know today. Libraries quickly proliferated across the country thanks to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who funded the construction of more than half the U.S. libraries in existence at the time of his death.

Conducting a search of Castle Rock’s two local newspapers for the time period5 I found over 80 news articles about new Carnegie libraries being built all over the country and in nearby towns like Pueblo, Leadville, Denver, Colorado Springs, Manitou, and Littleton.

While it’s true they had pretty low standards for what qualified as newsworthy back then (they would report who ate two pieces of pie at the church picnic), the fact that the local papers were reprinting these stories meant the citizens of Castle Rock were aware of them. Carnegie’s libraries helped establish the idea that public libraries were an essential civic institution, and Castle Rock was always clear about its ambitions to be an ideal sort of modern city.

Unfortunately, it would not have a public library building (Carnegie-style or otherwise) for many years to come.

However, a library collection can exist without its own special building, and that was the case for Castle Rock’s early libraries—which were school libraries.

The first mention I found of any local library in the newspapers was December 1, 1886, in the Castle Rock Journal, and there were actually two items. One stated that “The Teachers’ Association voted to create a circulating library in the county for the benefit of the teachers.” The other described the first book purchase ever made for the Castle Rock school library: a 22-volume encyclopedia set.6

Because the newspapers liked to include a great amount of detail in their reporting, we can actually track the development of the school libraries pretty closely over the next few decades. There were many calls for donations of books, announcements about fundraising events (called “Book Socials”), and lists of new acquisitions.

It’s not hard to argue that a school library is a kind of public library, if the collections are funded by the community and ultimately are for the good of the greater community. But I was surprised to discover that the school libraries were also acting as public lending libraries. The evidence? The newspapers printed public notifications when items were overdue. These announcements were generally polite, like the following from the Castle Rock Journal, September 27, 1901: “Any persons having books belonging to the … library will kindly return them at once to the county superintendent’s office.”7

But the rules of this arrangement aren’t clear, and it seems like people were still arguing for the establishment of a public library even though books were available for borrowing from the schools8.

In 1905, an opinion column entitled “What Castle Rock Needs”9 described the importance of having a library that is a physical place, not just a collection:

“Why not have a reading room or some place where the young men of Castle Rock … can congregate and come in contact with good literature? … As it is, the ‘saloon’ alone offers any rest to the weary Pilgrim and seekers after a little social comfort. … Surely this matter is vital to the progress and advancement of Castle Rock.”  

Part 2: We Can Do It!
(The Woman’s Club Era)

Although the anonymous author of “What Castle Rock Needs” envisioned a reading room where young men could “enjoy a social smoke,” it was women who heeded the call. The Woman’s Club of Douglas County opened Castle Rock’s first non-school public lending library in 1922.

The woman’s club movement was not unique to Douglas County, but a national trend, one of many social reform organizations of the Progressive Era. We often associate these women’s groups with issues like temperance and prohibition, voting rights, child welfare laws—but helping to establish public libraries across the country was another project with long-lasting impact.

In Castle Rock, the Woman’s Club library began in the “Recreation rooms” of the county courthouse with public hours on Thursday afternoons10. We know it started as a very small collection because it was only up to 300 books four years later (1926) when it moved to the “County Agent Room” in another part of the courthouse11.

Based on the lists of newly acquired books published in the newspaper, the Woman’s Club seemed to be developing a certain kind of collection. Unlike the school libraries, which collected history, biography, classics and textbooks, the new library had popular fiction and magazines12.

This could explain why the community continued to agitate for a public library, and utilized that library, in spite of being able to borrow books from the schools. School libraries didn’t provide a general-interest collection—the books you would read for entertainment or leisure. This was the gap the Woman’s Club library worked to fill.

And the work wasn’t exactly easy. Although the club here was affiliated with the larger Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, I don’t believe that came with any kind of fiscal support. The statewide group may have provided coordination or a sense of direction, but not library materials.

Just like in the previous case of the school libraries, our local newspapers printed frequent solicitations for donations to the Woman’s Club library. Members contributed their own books to the collection, used a portion of their club dues to purchase books, and volunteered their time to manage the library and keep it open (albeit only 2:30-4:30 p.m. on Thursdays).

On top of that, finding an appropriate physical location for the library seems to have been an ongoing issue. The collection moved so often that it’s difficult to pin down all of the addresses.

Between 1922 and 1936 we know it occupied different rooms in the county courthouse. In 1936 it moved briefly to the “grade school,” which likely means the building on Cantril Street.13 (It’s worth noting that specific addresses hardly ever appeared in the newspapers at this time, even in business advertisements. Presumably, in a small community like this, those details weren’t necessary.) Later in 1936 the library moved into a new home at “Town Hall in the building formerly occupied by the Castle Rock State Bank.”14

There must have been a relatively stable period after this, because the Woman’s Club was able to expand the library’s open hours to a second day of the week (Saturday afternoon, 2-5).15 For the rest of its existence, the library remained within the Town Hall, although Town Hall became City Hall and moved from the “bank building” to a new location in 1942.16

By 1954, however, the Douglas County Woman’s Club was talking about disbanding17, and in 1956 it gave the library collection to the Castle Rock school district (to be further redistributed if deemed appropriate by the PTA). Among the reasons cited were a lack of volunteers necessary to keep the library open and the need for a “more suitable location.”18

So, 50 years after that anonymous newspaper column, Castle Rock still didn’t have a public gathering place to rival the saloon—and Castle Rock’s first non-school library ended up at a school anyway.

Part 3: Modern Times
(Or Keeping Up With the County)

The modern history of the library begins soon after the dissolution of the Douglas County Woman’s Club (and the decline of women’s clubs in general). From here, the chronology is much easier to keep track of—not only because it’s more recent, but also because it is better documented. This is the institutional history of Douglas County Libraries (although that name came later).

As an institution, we owe a lot of thanks to Genevieve Mead (better known as Nicky) whose advocacy efforts began in the 1960s. Her campaign for a publicly funded library led her to form the Friends of the Douglas County Library group in 1966, and she served as its first president. She organized community planning meetings and fundraisers, secured donations, and lobbied the county commissioners to create the Douglas County Public Library system. In 1967, Mead was appointed to the library’s first Board of Trustees, and everything was set in motion to establish a new public library in Castle Rock—officially its first.

But, again, there was the question of a building. Where should the library live? Nothing that already existed was adequate. This is where local businessman and philanthropist Philip S. Miller stepped in, along with his wife Jerry, and pledged $25,000 to fund the construction of a new library building. It was the first of many generous gifts the Millers made to the library district over the next decades.

From 1967-1968, while the new library was designed and built, DCL operated out of a temporary location at 311 Third Street in Castle Rock. Finally, the brand-new building at 303 Gilbert Street (specifically intended to be a public library) was completed at the end of 1968. And, although the modest one-story building was expanded in 1975, the library outgrew it by 1986.

If you know anything about the demographics of Douglas County, you’ll realize this time period corresponds with an explosion in population. Between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, the number of people living in Douglas County doubled or tripled every few years—increasing from about 5,000 to approximately 50,000. Of course, this growth wasn’t all within Castle Rock, but the addition of library branches in other communities didn’t change the fact that ours was too small.

The second public library building in Castle Rock19 (named after Philip S. Miller, who once again provided funding) was built at 961 South Plum Creek and served as the library’s home from 1987-2003. This was another period of intense growth and change, and not just for the county’s population (which quadrupled again). Libraries in general had to adapt to a lot of new technology (e.g., computers, the internet, switching from index cards to online catalogs). An important mile-marker in our history came in 1990 when the formation of an independent library district was approved by a public vote. The citizens of Douglas County approved the measure—with funding—by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.

Out of everything described so far, this vote was the most significant statement of community support for the library. It has allowed us to continue serving the people of Douglas County in a more sustained and steady way through subsequent decades of growth.

When we outgrew our second library building in 2003, we moved to our current location at 100 South Wilcox Street. This retrofitted grocery store (built in 1977) has done its best for nearly 20 years. In fact, it has been home to Castle Rock’s library longer than any other structure to date.

Now it is time for a library building worthy of the history of Castle Rock and the community that has advocated for its existence for well over 100 years.

Part 4: Today

I think I can speak for all DCL employees at this location when I say we’re pretty excited about the new building and the improvements it will bring. But on behalf of the Archives & Local History department, I can affirm that we are the most excited.

ALH is getting the largest space increase—not because we’re greedy or bribed any of the architects, but because properly caring for historic collections requires special facilities and a lot of space. Archival collections only ever grow larger; they never shrink. When we add collections to Archives & Local History, we make a commitment to care for them in perpetuity. That requires a lot of resources, including resources we can’t even anticipate yet. (Archives of the future, for example, will be increasingly digital and occupy different kinds of space.)

We believe the investment is worthwhile, because the alternative is: We just don’t know our history. If we don’t collect it, it disappears.

Another outcome? If we don’t provide a home for history, it will go to live somewhere else. Many local archives end up stored in a central repository at the state or federal level. They may be safely preserved, but they’re inaccessible to the people whose history it is.

The worst outcome of all is to lose everything to an unforeseen disaster. That has already happened right here, to this community, and not that long ago! In 1978, when the county courthouse burned down, Castle Rock lost a unique architectural treasure along with historic documents from the town’s early history.

This is why it’s important to plan ahead, think about infrastructure, and put systems in place to protect what we value. We want to keep the history of Castle Rock (and Douglas County) right here because it belongs to you and your community. Being responsible stewards of history now ensures that it will also be here for your children’s children.

I ended my speech at the groundbreaking ceremony with a quote from the Rocky Mountain News from 1874. My source for the quote was Robert Lowenberg’s Castle Rock: A Grass Roots History, which I mentioned above and highly recommend if you’re looking for a book on the subject.

The Rocky Mountain News ran the following editorial April 14, 1874, after the citizens of the county voted to choose the new location of its government seat, and it rather accurately predicted the future:

“Douglas County did the right thing in voting to locate her county seat as Castle Rock. … [It] cannot avoid becoming one of the most prosperous towns in Colorado. It will have the immediate advantages of a railway, post office and telegraph and will become the focal point for the entire local trade of the county. … Douglas is a growing county, rich in agriculture, grazing and dairying capacities and certain to be one of the wealthiest and most productive in all Colorado. Castle Rock … is certain to be well patronized and sustained by the local pride and interest.”20

On behalf of the Archives & Local History department, thank you for the sustained pride and interest that helps keep Castle Rock’s history alive.

Citations

1 Colorado Springs Gazette, January 23, 1875 (pg. 3)
2 With 315 out of 597 votes cast. Sedalia was the runner-up.
3 Constructed 1889-1890 and 1896-1897, respectively.
4 Pages 32-33 of the 1986 paperback edition.
5 1886-1929.
6 See “Pencil Points” section (pg. 3), Castle Rock Journal, December 1, 1886.
7 See also the Record Journal of Douglas County, March 23, 1917, pg. 1.
8 The earliest I found was from the Castle Rock Journal, October 28, 1891, pg. 4.
9 Castle Rock Journal, January 6, 1905, pg. 1.
10 Record Journal of Douglas County, March 31, 1922, pg. 7. (See also RJDC February 7, 1936, pg. 1, confirming the location.)
11 Record Journal of Douglas County, February 5, 1926, pg. 1.
12 Ibid. and Record Journal of Douglas County, May 26, 1922, pg. 1.
13 Record Journal of Douglas County, February 7, 1936, pg. 1.
14 Record Journal of Douglas County, September 4, 1936, pg. 1.
15 Record Journal of Douglas County, July 2, 1937, pg. 5.
16 Record Journal of Douglas County, February 27, 1942, pg. 5.
17 See: Records of the Douglas County Woman’s Club, C-92018 (https://alh.archives.dcl.org/repositories/2/resources/10).
18 Douglas County News, February 23, 1956, pg. 1.
19 Rumor has it the library collection was then, briefly, housed in an industrial warehouse on Park Street while awaiting the completion of the new building.
20 Lowenberg, pg. 24 of the 1986 paperback edition.

 

 

Flowers & Vinegar: A Brief History of the Valentine

Valentine’s Day: Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it’s one of the most commercially successful holidays recognized in the United States. According to the National Retail Federation1, Americans spend more than $20 billion per year on Valentine’s gifts and rituals, including greeting cards, chocolates, roses, jewelry, restaurant dining, entertainment, and travel.

Something interesting about the holiday, from an archivist’s perspective at least, is its unique method of celebration: the defining ritual is an exchange of paper documents. This activity is so central to Valentine’s Day, in fact, that the documents are simply called “valentines.” All the other things—gifts and romantic gestures—are major business for retailers but otherwise technically optional, the proverbial (pink) icing on the (red velvet) cupcake. Estimates vary regarding the number of valentines given each year because so many are made by hand or exchanged in person, but most reports put the number somewhere between 150 million and 1 billion for the U.S. alone. Giving and receiving valentines is also traditional in many other countries2, so altogether the total is … a lot of documents.

That level of cultural saturation is also apparent in the aesthetics of Valentine’s Day. The symbolism is so distinct and consistent it hardly needs to be described: cherubs, lovebirds, flowers, the red and pink color palette, hearts everywhere—not anatomical hearts, of course, but the instantly recognizable ♥ icon. Combine any of these elements and the resulting design is obviously a valentine.

Because my archival specialty is ephemeral documents and design history, this is exactly the kind of thing that piques my historical curiosity. So I wondered: How did Valentine’s Day become so major? Is it thanks to the marketing budgets of powerful commercial interests—like when De Beers invented the diamond engagement ring “tradition” because it saw the perfect opportunity to increase demand for its product? The amount of research necessary to answer this question could fill a book, but it’s not hard to find some evidence that Valentine’s Day traditions have evolved from a mix of ancient symbolism and modern methods of trade, communications and technology.

A Rose By Any Other Name

The origins of the February 14 holiday are murky to say the least. Even the identity of the real person called Saint Valentine3 isn’t entirely clear. Several early Christian martyrs had the same name, but the most likely candidate lived in the third century, which means there’s been plenty of time for various mythologies to develop. One story says that Valentine performed secret marriage rites for Christian couples, who were persecuted at this time by the Roman emperor, and was executed for his crime. Otherwise, Saint Valentine seems not to have been associated with the idea of romantic love or courtship for the next thousand years.

Doth Chaucer Tweeteth?

In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls described an allegorical ritual, occurring on “seynt Valentynes day,” when all the birds of the world gather to choose their mates and pair off. Historians generally agree there was no precedent before Chaucer made this connection between the Saint Valentine’s holiday and love, but the notion caught on so quickly in European medieval poetry that it’s hard to say for sure. Valentine references appear in 15th century correspondence and later in the writings of Shakespeare and John Donne. By the 18th century, most western Europeans were exchanging handwritten valentine notes or cards.

Then the 19th century arrived with its combination of Victorian cultural conservatism and rapid advances in industrialization. Cheaper paper and more efficient printing methods (which also allowed reading to become a popular leisure activity for the first time) helped to popularize commercial Valentine’s Day cards. After England standardized its postal system in 1840, and mail could be sent cheaply and anonymously, it led to a huge increase in the circulation of valentines. Another Victorian-era development was an entirely new genre of valentine greeting—comic in tone, satirical, sometimes political, with messages ranging from gentle mockery to outright cruel insults. Likely a direct result of the new ability to send anonymous mail, these came to be known, fittingly, as vinegar valentines4. While their popularity was short-lived, they are historically interesting for what they reveal about gender, class, social status, and the rising influence of mass media during this period.

Put a Bird On It

These vinegar valentines tended to be very simple, flat cards with a printed illustration on one side only, but the larger valentine market also ranged toward more elaborate styles, incorporating layers of embossed, die-cut “lace paper,” gilt details, ribbons, and more. Mid-century, the U.S. was slightly behind Britain regarding the design of valentines and their popularity, but Esther Howland5 of Worcester, Massachusetts, changed all of that.

In 1847, at age 19, Howland received one of these ornate European-style valentines, and quickly concluded that she could make one—but better. She started designing her own valentines and hired her friends to assist with assembly and embellishment. By 1849 she launched what would become a wildly successful woman-owned, entirely woman-staffed business with average yearly sales of $100,000.

Although Howland’s company did expand to include other types of greeting cards, she is most remembered for popularizing the valentine in America, and for her design innovations. Esther Howland introduced three-dimensional elements, creating a viewing window or shadow-box effect, and set the standard for greeting cards to follow by adding pre-printed texts to the cards’ interiors. Howland’s decorative motifs meanwhile were very traditionally Victorian: images of birds, rabbits, butterflies, portraits or silhouettes of happy couples holding hands, chubby angel babies, and flowers of every variety (but mostly roses), arranged in garlands, wreaths, and bouquets. Almost no hearts, however.

Mid-century Modern Design (No, the Other One)

The next big innovation in valentines had to do with improved color printing processes, namely chromolithography6. Lithography was first invented in 1796, but multicolor lithographic printing took longer to develop, really flourishing around the mid-1800s. The most famous publisher of chromolithographs was probably Louis Prang, another entrepreneur who based his printing company in Massachusetts. He is credited with introducing Christmas cards to the American market, beginning in 1873.

This is when we come to the part of the story that can be illustrated by items in the Archives & Local History (ALH) collections right here at the library. The history of valentines started long before the United States of America existed, let alone Douglas County. But ALH has rich holdings of print material dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like the valentines pictured here.

I haven’t found any Louis Prang & Company cards hidden among our ephemera collections (yet), but that doesn’t mean his influence is absent. Prang was a German immigrant who traveled back to Germany to learn the newest chromolithographic methods and bring them to the United States. Printing technology has a long history in Germany, beginning with Gutenberg and persisting with the invention of lithography. Look closely at the selection of valentines in this post and you’ll see that each one is stamped with the word Germany. Every single card I pulled at random from our collections happened to be German-made, although there were also plenty of German-American greeting card publishers operating in the U.S. at the turn of the century.

Right Round (Like a Record, Baby)
Or: Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The German influence on the greeting card industry extended beyond the dominance of multicolor printing; starting around 1900, manufacturers introduced the “mechanical valentine,” which featured moving parts. The two examples I’ve included here were produced between the 1920s and 1930s, and they use similar hardware to achieve different effects. The cowgirl valentine (above) has a brass pin holding the two layers together so she can rock back and forth as the horse’s tail switches and rear legs kick back. The one of a girl standing at a blackboard has a wheel pinned between layers of paper that turns when you pull on the edge visible at the right side of the card. The motion of her hand passing across the cut-out window with a stick of chalk reveals the words “To my Valentine.” Keep rotating, and an eraser appears in her hand that wipes the chalkboard clean again.

Although most of these cards are undated, we can be pretty sure that they were made and sold before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, consumer goods like this simply stopped being produced; and after the war, Americans had very little appetite for products imported from Germany.

Not surprisingly, mechanical valentines are easily damaged, and surviving specimens can be very delicate. The fact that we have so many in good shape nearly a hundred years later is pretty exciting. Like everything else at ALH, these items are available for public viewing on-site in the local history research room. That means you can come see these valentines in person. To learn more, please check out the ALH digital collections or contact us to arrange a visit.

If you’d rather do your exploring from the comforts of home, I recommend this online exhibition curated by The Strong National Museum of Play and hosted by Google Arts & Culture: Heart of the Matter: A History of Valentine Cards7.

Citations

1 https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/americans-spend-239-billion-valentines-day-year

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine%27s_Day#Celebration_and_status_worldwide

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Valentine

4 https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2014/09/08/love-letters-and-hate-mail-victorian-vinegar-valentines/

5 https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2016/03/esther-howland-and-the-business-of-love/

6 https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/jjcoll/2020/05/21/the-magic-of-chromolithography/

7 https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-heart-of-the-matter-a-history-of-valentine-cards/ZAVR0t8TzcBFKw

ALH Collection Highlights: On Discovery & the Naming of Things

One of the best things about working in archives and special collections is, to put it simply, the fact that we get to hang out with really cool stuff all day. As Julia pointed out in last month’s post, Archives & Local History (ALH) collection materials range from deeply odd to downright adorable, encompassing ancient artifacts and modern media. And there is truly so much more in between.

As an archivist, I am frequently reminded what a privilege it is to know history through direct experience, as something concrete that I can touch. The hard part of the job is figuring out how to share that—the sense of discovery, excitement, and deep familiarity with the material—when we can’t just put these rare collections out on a shelf for the public to browse.

Bridging that gap is not something that can be accomplished with a blog post, but I’m happy this opportunity exists to talk about collection news and highlight gems from our rare book collection. As the curator for ALH, a lot of my work happens in the background, unseen. I am going to try to write more often about our book collections, and in return I would love to hear what you think. I welcome any suggestions on material to collect or topics we should develop more. Get in touch with me at acarver@dclibraries.org.

NEW ACQUISITION

John Charles Frémont. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-’44. First edition. (28th Congress, 2nd session, serial 461, Senate executive document 174.) Washington: Gales & Seaton, printers, 1845. Call number: LH 978 FRE

This is a handsome copy of one of the most significant narratives of 19th-century western exploration, made even more valuable by the presence of the large folding map in the rear cover pocket. While it is not uncommon for older books to lose maps or illustrated plates over the years, this map of Frémont’s first two expeditions is especially scarce. Usually referred to as “the Preuss map” (in recognition of cartographer Charles Preuss), it helped to make the West more navigable during a period of increased public interest, when overland migration and the discovery of gold in California “led to a feverish popular demand for maps … no matter how geographically deficient.”1 Preuss’s map, on the other hand, was so accurate regarding the topographic details of Frémont’s route that it became the basis for many subsequent maps of the American West.

As great as it is, the map is not the reason I wanted this book for our collection. Instead, it is because Frémont’s 1843 expedition holds special local significance for Douglas County.

In the category of Colorado’s early white explorers, you might not come up with the name John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) first. He is perhaps more well-remembered for discoveries (and misadventures) further west, in Utah, California, and Washington. We usually count Zebulon Pike as the first explorer of this region, passing through the area south of Douglas County in 1806. Next came Stephen Long in 1820. Frémont didn’t arrive until 1842, but it’s actually his Second Expedition, of 1843-1844, that we are most interested in.

On July 9, 1843, Frémont recorded the route his party took from the South Platte River:

“…entering a country of picturesque and varied scenery; broken into rocky hills of singular shapes; little valleys, with pure crystal water … green spots of luxuriant grass, flowers of all colors, and timber of different kinds… To one of these remarkably shaped hills, having on the summit a circular flat rock of two or three hundred yards in circumference, some one gave the name of Poundcake, which it has been permitted to retain, as our hungry people seemed to think it a very agreeable comparison.”2

This passage isn’t just a painterly description of the landscape, but in fact the first documented sighting of the geological feature we know by the name of Castle Rock.

As for why “Poundcake Rock” didn’t stick, we can only speculate. Place names become fixed to locations over time because enough people agree on their usage, but almost 30 years passed before settlers established permanent communities in the Castle Rock area.

In fact, there was no system for standardizing place names and no agency with the authority to undertake such a project until 1890, when President Benjamin Harrison created the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). Today, the BGN reviews proposals for new or changed place names, decides on the details of spelling and variant terms, and maintains the searchable Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database. If you happen to be a strict grammarian and find yourself bothered by the lack of possessive apostrophes in the official names of our nearby mountains, you can blame the BGN. (Technically, it is Pikes Peak, not Pike’s Peak.)

Speaking of names, honorary eponyms come in many forms that aren’t geographic features like mountains, rivers, counties, or cities. Frémont’s expedition was not just a pathfinding mission; he also collected scientific data in the form of detailed weather observations and physical specimens in the form of fossils, shells, and plants. Unfortunately, many of Frémont’s botanical specimens did not survive the strenuous journey. Some remained intact enough to identify as new species, and over the course of his five expeditions Frémont described or gathered numerous unique specimens and varieties that still bear his name. However, of the hundred-plus results related to Frémont that appear in the U.S. Department of Agriculture PLANTS database, only a handful are native Colorado species. These include: dwarf mountain ragwort (Senecio fremontii), Fremont’s geranium (Geranium caespitosum var. fremontii), moss gentian (Gentiana fremontii), western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum var. fremontii), and Fremont’s beardtongue (Penstemon fremontii), which, objectively speaking, has the best name and is the prettiest color.

John Frémont had a long, eventful, and frequently controversial life as an explorer, investor, military officer (serving in both the Mexican-American War and Civil War), and politician. The fact that he ran for president in 1856 as the first candidate for the newly formed Republican Party in a historic three-way race doesn’t even rank among the top-five most significant things he did.

To learn more about Frémont’s life and historical legacy, I recommend the recent biography by NPR radio host Steve Inskeep called Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Published in 2020, it is notable for examining the relationship between Frémont and his wife, Jessie, who has long been recognized as the coauthor of his expedition reports3,4. Her own ambition, talent, and political savvy have perhaps been overlooked until now. Had they lived in a different time, we might find ourselves in the Jessie Rock branch library, or looking up at Jessies Peak today.

Citations

1. Quote page 98; see 98-116. Wheat, Carl Irving. “Mapping the American West, 1540-1857: A Preliminary Study.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 64, pt. 1, 1954, pp. 19-194.

2. Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition… , p. 113.

3. Leeder, Kim. “John Charles Frémont and Jessie Benton Frémont.” Early American Nature Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Daniel Patterson, Greenwood Press, 2007, pp. 146-153.

4. See p. 300. Weiss, Stephen Craig. “The John C. Fremont 1842, 1843-’44 Report and Map.” Journal of Government Information v. 26, no. 3, 1999, pp. 297-313.