It’s About Time column: Boarding houses were important to frontier life

Bill Kight
It’s About Time
Bill Kight

Sometimes history gives us only a peek into the past, and in such a way that we find only tantalizing bits and pieces with no apparent way to fully fill in the blank pages.

Such is the case with the search for information on boarding houses in the Glenwood Springs area. Only a few pieces of information can be found; not enough to complete the puzzle.

The Dec. 30, 1888, edition of Glenwood Springs paper the Ute Chief mentions “There are about twenty boarding houses and restaurants in the town of Glenwood Springs. According to the statistics, about 400 people can be accommodated with board and rooms.”

That brief statement doesn’t tell us exactly how many boarding houses there were, nor does it tell their names, locations or proprietors.

Boarding houses were a necessary part of domestic mix in the early days of frontier life, and the often primitive existence of settlers. Western towns would not have survived without them.

Hard working single men, who after ten hours of strenuous labor had no time to cook their own vittles nor the money to buy three meals a day needed more than lodging.

Necessity created opportunity for women to earn money by providing a bed, breakfast, the evening meal and a full lunch pail to their boarders. Taking in three boarders in a home could earn as much as a hard rock miner made in a day.

Amelia Williams was one Glenwood woman who made the most of this opportunity to run a boarding house at her 802 Blake Ave. home, adding 11 rooms and turning it into a hotel.

The May 1, 1913, Avalanche Echo newspaper tells us, “Another hotel will be added to Glenwood Springs. Miss Amelia Williams owning property on the corner of Blake and Eighth Street broke ground yesterday for additions to her large rooming house.”

Railroad companies and mining camps provided boarding houses for their workers. South Canyon Coal Camp west of Glenwood Springs had a boarding house run by Gladys Pendergast’s mother (per an interview with Virginia Earnest conducted by Jean Edmonds Feb. 6, 1999).

When Northern Italian immigrants came to work in the Jerome Park mines, boarding houses gave single men the opportunity to live with people who also spoke their native language.

Looking through the early Glenwood Springs newspapers for this column, there were no advertisements for boarding houses due to the fact that informal networks and word of mouth were used to pass on information about places to stay.

My own faint memories of boarding houses came when my mother’s brother, Uncle Jim, would come to visit my childhood home in eastern New Mexico. Uncle Jim lived in boarding houses while he worked in northern New Mexico’s logging camps in the 1950s. Too bad I didn’t pry stories out of him about his communal living experiences. All I remember about those visits was the anticipation of getting the Beeman’s BlackJack licorice chewing gum he brought for me.

Not able to find an adequate explanation as to what brought on the decline of Western boarding houses after the 1950s, I’ll leave that up to some future sociologist to research. Today all that seems to be left of the boarding house tradition are homes turned into bed and breakfasts for lodging.

But bringing back boarding houses could be a partial solution to the affordable housing crisis all of our Colorado mountain communities continue to experience. Our family has a friend who has fallen on hard times and has no place to live. An inexpensive boarding house would be a good place for him to stay until he is able to get back on his feet.

In an April 30, 2019, Forbes blog penned by Anne Field, “Can a Modern-Day Rooming House Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis?” one possible solution is offered.

Who knows? Perhaps an entrepreneur reading this column may have the wherewithal and capital to revive the boarding house concept for Glenwood Springs and our mountain region.

Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.

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