“ISLE, July 10, 1896 — Ilse is the name of the new post office and town that has sprung up at the Terrible Mine, which is on Oak Creek in Custer County, very near the Fremont County line. There are in the neighborhood of twenty-five families living in Ilse, and there is a settler on every ranch from Yorkville to several miles above Ilse.”
— Levi “Bona” Hensel, The Pueblo Chieftain
Recently while researching the history of the Terrible Mine for articles about the environmental cleanup going on at the nearby former townsite of Ilse, I was stunned by the number of people who lived and worked in this area during the time between when lead carbonate ore was discovered there in 1879 and the mining activity dwindled in the early 1940s.
Most interesting were the ironies from both a historical and personal standpoint. Over the two decades I have lived in the area I have nurtured a tempestuous relationship with the landscape, the environment and the lifestyle. And also during this period I have found many hints of other such past relationships with the area. . . a cattle ear-tag stamped from tin, weathered tree stumps, hand-dug rock-lined wells, bottles, cans, potato cellars, cabin foundations.
I often jokingly refer to myself as one of the area’s first “settlers” since I moved here before the big real-estate rush in the 1990s when Custer County was listed as the fourth fastest-growing county in the nation. The truth is there was a thriving community here many decades before I arrived.
While historians speak of hundreds of Ilse area residents when the Terrible Mine was operating, a rough count on my part puts today’s population in the dozens. And while as many as 100 men may have worked at the Terrible Mine at one point, very few people actually make a living directly from the land and its resources these days. In fact, the cleanup project that lasted only a few weeks is the only thing approaching the notion of local economic development that I have seen in recent memory. And even that was a strange and fleeting boom-bust fling.
Other ironies abound.
In Ilse’s heyday, there were three saloons, which, with hundreds of people living in the area, I suppose would make for a more lively social life than we have around here now. At last count there are only two saloons in the Silver Cliff/Westcliffe metroplex, 15 miles away, and driving home after partaking at these establishments is strongly frowned upon. However, I understand it’s still legal to ride a horse while under the influence and that’s how most people in Ilse probably got home from the saloons.
Judging from photos, eroding foundations and other remains of these homesteads, most people lived in fairly humble accommodations. The two- or three-room hand-hewn 20×30 log cabin seemed to be fairly standard. Today within a short distance of Ilse there are homes of veritable opulence, with thousands of square feet of living space, central heat, indoor plumbing, satellite television and high-speed Internet access.
And while there was a hotel and a boarding house to make up for the shortage of housing at early day Ilse, today very many of these contemporary homes are vacant much of the time, used only for weekend get-aways or vacations.
Isle had a U.S. post office in the late 1800s, and one of the few remaining landmarks of the former town is its flagpole. Shortly after moving here in 1991, I went around the neighborhood with a petition to get rural mail delivery. I think I needed something like six people who would commit to putting up mailboxes, and it was difficult to get that many signatures. For one thing that’s about how many families total lived out here then. For another, one of the objections I met when trying to get these signatures was that some people looked forward to the social interaction when picking up their mail at the Westcliffe post office. Today I think most area residents have their mail delivered. So I was sort of a pioneer in that respect.
With so many families in the surrounding area, it was only natural that Ilse had a school in the early days. I’m guessing anything within four or five miles would be considered “walking distance” back then. These days, I drive two 30-mile round trips to Westcliffe each school day to get my son to and home from school. There is school bus service out here, but because of my son’s autism we’ve been hesitant to let him ride. I wonder if any autistic kids attended the Ilse School. Probably not.
Speaking of buses, there was for a period of time an operating mass transit system of sorts during Ilse’s busy years. A teamster ran a wagon from the post office to Grape Creek to meet up with the railroad. A person could pay $1 to catch a ride to the train, then ride the rails to Cañon City and points beyond. Today we just drive motor vehicles everywhere.
And speaking of driving, sometimes it seems like that’s all we do. I nearly always have an ice chest in the vehicle because unlike decades ago when there was a general store in Ilse, our only sources of supplies are in nearby towns like Westcliffe, or Pueblo, the other metroplex we frequently visit. While the original settlers apparently managed to grow some food crops like potatoes, grains and livestock animals, if you expect to have things like year-round fruits and vegetables in this “food desert” you’re going to have to drive.
Which brings us to the real heart of the matter — is living here sustainable? Ilse’s settlers were drawn here for some reason. That reason may have been the lure of striking it rich. It may have been the promise of gainful work. It may have been the notion of self-reliance or independence. It may have been simply a love for the land.
Certainly early day Ilse residents had less than we do, but in some ways they also had more. Regardless of the reason or reasons they chose to live here, at some point everyone simply packed up and left. Life here was not sustainable, and whatever Ilse was to these people is now reduced to artifacts, a flagpole, mine tailings.
Today, with dwindling social and economic opportunity, and fuel prices once again on the rise, it makes one wonder what might or might not be here 100 years from now. Somehow I doubt there’ll be a Starbucks on every corner.