As the Aspen Historical Society celebrates its 50th anniversary, there’s little surprise that the Aspen institution — whose mission is to actively preserve and passionately present local history in an inspired and provocative manner — chose to host a Chautauqua.
The event, named after Chautauqua Lake in New York State where the first iteration was held, was a gathering of speakers, teachers, musicians and entertainers that was very popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The goal, ultimately, was to spread the culture of the United States’ big cities to rural areas, where denizens had limited access to the arts.
At the height of their popularity, President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”
But really, the event, taking place from July 8-12 under a big top on the Aspen Historical Society (AHS) grounds, might just be the most Aspen thing happening in Aspen this summer. Perhaps not since the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial Convocation in Aspen — the birthplace of the mind-body-spirit Aspen Idea — has a single event attempted the capture the essence of Aspen, past and present.
“Our goal, as an organization, is to make history fun and interesting,” says Aspen Historical Society director of marketing Christine Benedetti. “We want history to be engaging and irreverent, and not like reading a textbook.”
To that end, AHS has created a packed five-day calendar, with events spanning from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each evening. The week of events, moderated by Dr. Patricia Limerick, director of the Center of the American West, will include keynote speakers, Aspen history character representations, and sunset film screenings (including time-tested ‘60s favorites like “Pink Panther,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World”).
But seeing as this is Aspen, there will also be daily brown-bag-lunch talks for the adults with simultaneous children’s storytelling; morning yoga, tai chi and Zumba; and informal morning coffee sessions with Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, longtime local Dick Durrance, Aspen Yoga Society Founder Gina Murdoch, and Obermeyer Asset Management Founder Wally Obermeyer.
Other Keynote speakers will include: Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Ted Conover, American political journalist and pundit Michael Kinsley, Buffalo Bill Museum Director Steve Friesen, and AHD Board President and cowboy extraordinaire Tony Vagneur.
“People shouldn’t come expecting a lesson on mining in the 1880s,” adds Benedetti. “It will be more of a look at the past 50 years of art and how that’s evolved over time; a look at cowboys and what they meant to the valley culture; authors talking about how Highway 82 has affected the town; and what shifting dynamics and the town’s history mean to the people living here now.”
Benedetti points out that when current AHS President Georgia Hanseon took the helm of the organization 10 years ago (she’s set to retire next year), the society was on the brink of collapse. And the increase in programming — including events like next week’s Chautauqua — are part of the slowly built foundation of a newly flourishing organization.
“I think we’re finally starting to see recognition and respect from the community,” Benedetti says. “And that’s something you have to work on over the years.”
The Aspen Historical Society will also host a 50th Birthday Block Party on Friday, July 12, from 6-9 p.m. The event will feature dinner, drinks and dancing through the decades. Reserved tables are available for $1,000, Joiner’s Table reserved seating is available for $100, and unreserved seating is available for $50 each.
For more information on the Block Party and an updated schedule of events for the Chautauqua, visit www.aspenhistory.org  or call 970-925-3721.
presented by the Aspen Historical Society
Monday, June 8 through Friday, June 12, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
AHS 50th Birthday Block Party
Friday, June 12, 6 to 9 p.m.