Community collaboration holds the power to make history engaging and relevant. It also can bring diverse people together to ensure the long-term care and preservation of our collective history and heritage.
I have had the good fortune to work on many teams and community outreach programs during my nearly 20 years at History Colorado. These projects have all involved History Colorado staff and many community members. From History Colorado’s collections, curatorial, education, and philanthropy teams to its Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Community Museums, and State Historical Fund, we work daily with communities across Colorado on programs that directly benefit citizens such as our soon-to-be-launched podcast and the We Are Colorado initiative.
Personal experience has taught me two valuable lessons about community collaboration. First, people greatly appreciate when History Colorado representatives visit their community, especially those outside the Denver metro area. Meeting on our diverse communities’ home turf builds trust and puts people at ease, making the sharing of stories and traditions more natural and comfortable. Second, being in the community encourages empathy and understanding between the storyteller and the listener. It helps outsiders to better understand the community and in many instances makes newcomers feel a part of the community.
These lessons show in most of History Colorado’s endeavors, including exhibits in the History Colorado Center. One example is the core exhibit Destination Colorado, whose beginnings date to around 2001 with a quilt exhibit called Quiltspeak: Stories in the Stitches. While working on this project I met Colorado folklorist Georgia Wier. Folklorists are much like curators, working with individuals and communities to preserve their unique history while also fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of those histories.
Georgia brought Colorado quilter Auriel Sandstead to the project. Auriel grew up in Keota, Colorado. Early in the development of the Quiltspeak exhibit she welcomed us into her childhood home and community—a community still alive despite the loss of the physical town. Auriel became a colleague, a community curator of sorts.
After Auriel’s death in 2007, her family generously donated a large collection of material, perhaps the most comprehensive collection History Colorado has on an Eastern Plains town. This collection became the foundation for the Destination Coloradoexhibit featuring Colorado’s Great Plains—which make up more than 40 percent of our state—and the town of Keota.
This story illustrates the power of working with communities. It shows how collaboration encourages inclusion and engagement. It also reveals the significant impact of a single project and its power as an impetus for other projects.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of community projects lies in their potential to ignite curiosity and spark interest in history. A powerful example of this ability involves a researcher from northern Italy named Savino Beiletti. Recently Savino contacted us, looking for information on his grandfather. Research about this family revealed that Savino’s grandfather immigrated to Colorado in 1902, finding work in the mines of Las Animas County. He later moved with his wife and children to Rameyville, Colorado, a small mining town located not far from Berwind. Savino’s grandfather worked at the Ludlow mine, including in 1914, the year of the Ludlow Massacre. He survived the horrific event and afterward returned to work in the mine. Around 1920 Savino’s grandfather returned with his family to Italy, where they remained.
This research project stands out because of its personal nature and because we don’t often learn what happened to families who came to America in search of a better life, only to return permanently to their country of origin. Further, this research reflects the potential of the work that we do to impact the public on a local, national, and international level. Finally, the documents and photographs that filled in the missing pieces of Savino’s family history in Colorado came from two History Colorado community projects: the Italians documentation project and the Ludlow project. In this way, one community helped the other.
More specifically, the image of Ramey (also called Rameyville) was taken about the time Savino Beiletti’s grandfather would have been living in Colorado. This is a rare image, for not many survive of this small mining town. The Diebold family shared it with History Colorado during the development of the Children of Ludlow exhibit, currently on view at History Colorado’s El Pueblo History Museum. The Diebold family (siblings Jennine, Pat, and Ted) are descendants of the owners of the Ramey mine and survivors of the Ludlow Massacre as well. Their grandmother Eunice “Gertrude” Ramey Sherman said that bullets went through her sister Dessie’s petticoats as she ran home from school during the shootout. How wonderful it is that one family, because of a shared history, helped another; the Ludlow community helped the Italian community and in doing so shared a valuable part of Colorado’s past.
History Colorado remains committed to the important work of community collaboration with statewide reach. We thank our community members for helping us to serve as good stewards of Colorado history—your history.