As the world collectively navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, the Aspen Historical Society is asking Roaring Fork Valley residents what living through this time has meant for them. The organization has undertaken a collection called Quarantine Stories: Recording History—a project in partnership with Aspen Public Radio—as part of its efforts to capture and archive the local ripple effects of the pandemic.
“Because this is such an unprecedented event—essentially a hundred year event—we thought that this was a situation in which we needed to be a little more proactive,” said the Aspen Historical Society’s president and CEO Kelly Murphy. “We’re just asking people to either call in and leave a voicemail or a voice memo and email it in—however this is affecting them, and just whatever they want to talk about.”
The circumstances—business and school closures, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing—are extraordinary, but there's precedent for using stories when archiving history.
Several years ago, Aspen Historical Society’s vice president and curator of collections Lisa Hancock was researching the Roaring Fork Valley’s involvement in World War I when she made a startling discovery. 239 people from Pitkin County enlisted in the military at the outbreak of America’s involvement in the war; 9 of those that joined the fight never returned home, but only 2 were killed in action. The rest died of flu during the 1918 pandemic.
“I had objects and artifacts in the collection from World War I, but I didn’t have hardly anything from the pandemic,” said Hancock. “This was a major event, and we just don’t have much to talk about with it, so I started researching more.”
Hancock tracked down hospital and cemetery records and newspaper clippings that painted a grim picture from 100 years ago; the 1918 flu pandemic had ravaged the Roaring Fork Valley. The death rate from the illness locally was 7 percent, with entire families succumbing to the illness—some within a matter of days. Within a 3-week span, 49 people died in Aspen.
Current COVID-19 data indicates that the strain of novel coronavirus responsible for the present pandemic is far less deadly, but Hancock’s research pointed to some parallels between then and now. Newspaper articles decried lax quarantine rules in Aspen. Carbondale, meanwhile, restricted travel in and out of town. Frontline health workers were falling ill and citizens were ordered to wear masks. By 1920, a deadly second wave of flu-related illnesses and deaths forced Aspen officials to pass drastic restrictions on public gatherings and shut down businesses to stop the spread.
Hancock’s paper trail, however, lacked personal stories from the time—a hole in her research that she’s thought about since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I would really like to know as a historian is how the citizens felt,” she said. "All the things that we’ve experienced now, did they experience those same things and how did it affect them?”
The Aspen Historical Society hopes that its collection of Quarantine Stories will answer those questions for future generations. The organization plans to archive submissions as part of a collection from the current pandemic, which also includes photographs, newspapers clippings and artifacts like homemade masks.
Similar efforts to document more personal sentiments from the current pandemic aren’t exclusive to Aspen.
Alisa DiGiacomo is the director of curatorial services at History Colorado, which has also been collecting and archiving submissions from Coloradans throughout the pandemic. She says that the current pandemic has highlighted the importance of using technology to reach more people and preserve their stories.
“The big difference with what we’re collecting now and collecting in the moment is that we are getting first hand accounts but also a variety of voices,” she explained. “Now we’re really looking at what’s happening in Colorado to reflect diverse stories.”
DiGiacomo says that while the organization has catalogued events ranging from the Columbine shootings to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ripple effect stemming from COVID-19 is unprecedented, and it’s the organization’s biggest collection effort to date.
“I’d really prefer it be seen as not just collecting, but collaboration," she said, "because we’re hoping to give back, sharing the material and sharing the stories and allowing people the opportunity to express themselves.”
Locally, Hancock says she hopes the Aspen Historical Society’s archival efforts capture what this outbreak is like for future generations, and provide more insight for historians than what currently exists from the 1918 pandemic.
“Back then [during the 1918 pandemic], you would have had diaries or letters. We don’t have any of those in the collections,” she said. “That’s why Quarantine Stories for the current pandemic is super-important. People who are researching this in the future can get a sense of how our community dealt with this—the good and the bad.”
They’re betting that those personal sentiments will stand the test of time.
“What we’re really doing is thinking about the future right now,” said the Aspen Historical Society’s Murphy. “Maybe a hundred years from now they’re going to have all the answers and they’re going to understand this virus and this pandemic so it’s going to be really interesting for them to see what were the concerns people had. From a historical standpoint, that’s really valuable information.”