A peculiar bleakness seems to blow through this area, a feeling of hardscrabble lives, immense physical dangers, and existence eked out against crushing odds. Every day, in rain, snow, blistering heat, and thin air, Frank Godec made the trek up the hill to this mine from his tiny home, and then entered the mineshaft to climb back down inside that same hill and scrape for metal in the earth. One day, with a thunderous roar, that earth buried him alive. Like a pencil grabbed to underline an irony, a private jet suddenly lifts off in a straight line in the distance as we stand there. The lights of the town are coming on below, the revelers preparing for another night of expensive merriment. The vision of the mine, especially at dusk, is not one that encourages lingering.
Every family seems to have a Moses of a sort, a man who opened the first doors, busted the first clod, and performed the heroic tasks under whose sway succeeding generations toiled in relative ease. The buried miner Frank Godec was certainly no weak branch on Judy's family tree, but it was her great-great-grandfather on her mother's side, a man named Jake Pettingell, who sank the taproot and founded part of the Front Range as we know it.
Pettingell was an Easterner who arrived in Sulphur Springs, Colorado, in 1880, still a young man, and never left. Noted in a local paper for his "youthful step, snappy eyes, and ready wit," he was, the article reads, "determined to carve a worthy Grand County out of the wilderness he'd known as a boy." Pettingell did just that. In fact, as regards Grand County, the man was in perpetual motion. He was a mayor, deputy fish commissioner, county clerk, and eventually county judge, serving for so long in the same courthouse (50 years) that it got him a place in Ripley's Believe It or Not. While alive, he opened a successful hotel (the Grand; since demolished), and amassed both a considerable reputation and fortune. Posthumously, a mountain—the 13,553-foot Pettingell Peak—was named in his honor, and his legacy includes dozens upon dozens of family members scattered throughout Colorado.
Early this summer Judy and I set out to explore Planet Pettingell. In my quest to unearth the truth about this man, I'd already spent much time paging through brittle books of old newspaper clippings. I'd skimmed volumes on the history of Grand County. I'd stared lengthily at his photos. Through these various means I'd come slowly to possess the image of an immensely likeable individual. Pettingell was the archetypal Western film protagonist—peppery, country-shrewd, upright, funny, frugal, and personable. He seemed as concerned with his fellow citizens as he did with himself, and hewed to an old-fashioned model of civic morality. At the same time, he clearly had his eye on the main chance, and his record testifies to a keen, pretelevision sense of his public image.
It was Pettingell's legal intervention that caused the word "Hot" to be appended to the former Sulphur Springs, a commercially savvy move that helped distinguish the town from other healing-water locales nearby. It was Pettingell who, in his position as county clerk, "recording the transactions in an easy and fluent script," had highly privileged access to property records and used this fact to advance his booming real estate career. But it was also Pettingell who, upon the birth of his son in 1903, threw a huge stag party attended by every rancher within a day's horse ride. In the ensuing booze-up, celebrants consumed 137 quarts of Champagne. Nonetheless, according to a paper of the time, "a unique feature of the celebration was the refusal of Mr. Pettingell to join in the drink. He looked wise and kept his hand on his checkbook while 200 men of all sorts and conditions spent 1,700 dollars for him."
To journey into Jake Pettingell's past, one must, genealogically speaking, pass through the present town of Idaho Springs. Judy's relatives are thick on the ground here. And yet Idaho Springs, in truth, doesn't have a lot to recommend it today. A raw, wounded openness floats over the place, a sense of civic stagnation and drift, unrelieved by a pretty main street. Too far from any large city to have caught a lift from its proximity (as Carbondale does, for example, by drafting on the winds of Aspen), and without anything indigenous that would draw tourists, it hunkers down in a kind of Rocky Mountain lull.
Nonetheless, this was near where Judy's maternal great-grandfather, Tulley Nelson, in typical pioneering fashion, hiked the scary-high Empire Pass as a boy to get to school in Georgetown, and later, as an adult, became famed for his picturesque mountain photos of bighorn sheep. It was also here that the McCormick girls, Judy's grandmother and two great-aunts, renowned for their beauty, enticed suitors from all over the area for dances at the Elks Club and old-fashioned flirtations on the glider. Back in the palmy, peaceful days before World War II, an ambitious suitor might have taken one of the girls to the Idaho Springs Opera House, still standing today. To draw near these pretty mountain flowers, however, the boy would have had to jump over the rather high stile of their mother, a woman by the name of Mary McCormick for whom the word "formidable" seems far too gentle.
Flinty to the point of petrifying, Mary ran the Rex Cafe (long gone), which catered to truckers, and was known both for her forgiving heart and her toughness. More to the point, she was reputed to have once said of her drunken wastrel of a husband: "He came home one night coughing blood, and I did what was necessary: nothing. He died at my feet."
Every family has colorful stories of its ancestors, and I have my own baker's dozen—my Uncle Albert, the East River tugboat captain who died too young; my Uncle Bernie, the moustachioed Romeo who struck it rich as one of the original investors in PAM cooking spray and built an indoor pool in his New Jersey house which was used—to his wife's horror—for porno shoots. But I have to admit that lovable toughness in my family's women is in short supply. Compulsive generosity, maybe. The occasional beautiful face, for sure. But the emphasis in our family is not on the pioneering virtues of frugality, physical stamina, or the kind of salty toughness characterized by Katharine Hepburn, or in this case great-grandma Mary. Nor is it identified with any one place. Its hallmarks are the rueful, the ironical, the tragicomic, along with a persistent interest in "culture." Its master theme, if it has one, is about outwitting the statistical probabilities the better to have a good life, and of laughing uproariously at others' foibles with—always—a catch in the throat.
But iron spines and a kind of cheerful stoicism seem to have been plentifully parceled out to the ladies of Judy's family, along with an old-fashioned tendency toward self-reliance. Gertrude Frey, Jake Pettingell's daughter, lived out her dotage in Idaho Springs, and her prim Victorian still stands today, as does the spotless white picket fence around it. It was beneath that fence that the widow was found lying motionless on the grass one evening. Alarmed residents called the police, who when they arrived found her somewhat cross at the interruption. She'd merely been clipping the grass-blades between the pickets with a scissor, she explained, and needed to get back to work!