One of Grand County’s preeminent historians bids farewell
Pioneer Village Museum director to take over Wyoming museum
At some point we all start to dig into our own histories. We look around at old buildings and guess at their stories, press our elders for tales from their childhood and dive into literature or photographs that might shed light on an era long past.
As the mysteries of our history churn in our minds, many of us turn to pillars in the community for answers, those who have studied, chronicled and analyzed the events that helped to shape our surrounding communities over the years.
Unfortunately, one such pillar is leaving Grand County at the end of the month.
Tim Nicklas, historian, author and director of the Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs, announced that he will be leaving his post to take over the position of executive director at the Grand Encampment Museum in Encampment, Wyo., in a town a bit larger than Hot Sulphur and not too far over the Colorado-Wyoming border.
Nicklas’s exit is the latest shake-up in Grand County’s historical field, with the departure of Cozens Ranch Museum Director Kristi Martens earlier this year and the selection of Shanna Ganne as the new director of the Grand County Historical Association in January.
Growing up loving history
Nicklas was born in Pueblo, a sixth-generation Coloradan, and grew up just outside of Colorado Springs. As a child he took to history naturally, spending his days reading his set of encyclopedias and comic-book-style biographies about America’s founding fathers from the school library.
“I just devoured those,” recalled Nicklas, sitting in the Pioneer Village Museum gift shop for one of the last times, surrounded by the state treasures he helped to curate. “I had to have permission to even be able to check those out because they were for fifth and sixth graders, and I was only in second grade. Since I was a little kid I was obsessed with history.”
At Thanksgiving and Christmas he enjoyed listening to his great grandparents tell stories, and said his biggest regret is not writing down and recording those stories.
“I think of all that history that was lost with my great grandmas that I had access to,” said Nicklas. “I think about that with my grandparents and with my mother. All those generations that were lost, you can never get it back. It just reinforces, for me, how important it is to share history with everyone. It’s just so valuable, and we don’t realize what we’ve lost until it’s gone.”
Despite his natural affinity toward history, Nicklas spent much of his life trying his hand at different careers. He married his high school sweetheart and ex-wife, Andrea, at just 20 years old in 1990. By 21 they had their first of four children, and they would have the others over the next seven years.
In 1993, Nicklas and his family moved to Grand County for the first time, a brief stint in Grand Lake where Nicklas ran the Corner Cupboard Restaurant for a summer. They quickly moved back to Colorado Springs where Nicklas took a job as an optician.
It was around then that Nicklas first enrolled in college, first at Pikes Peak Community College before transferring to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to study medicine.
“I was a pre-med student with a history major, so I was pretty unusual,” said Nicklas. “But it was great. I got all the science courses, and my courses that I enjoyed in history. I could explain the history of the science to a lot of people, much better than I could actually explain the science.”
In 1998, Nicklas and his family moved to Fraser, where he commuted to University of Colorado-Denver. He was accepted into medical school in St. Maarten in the Caribbean in 2002, and finished two years of studies before falling ill with dengue fever. The illness became so severe that he couldn’t keep up with his studies, and was forced to drop out and move back to Fraser.
“They call it broken bone disease, because it feels like every bone in your body has been broken,” said Nicklas. “I thought I was going to die, literally.”
Nicklas took a number of odd jobs upon returning to Grand County, working at a coffee shop at Winter Park Resort, Bottle Pass Liquors and Grand Adventures. Wanting a more steady income to provide for his family, Nicklas enrolled in the Aurora Police Department’s academy, though he didn’t last long.
“I found out that I really don’t have what it takes to become a law enforcement officer. So scratch another career off the list.”
Finding his calling
But Nicklas eventually found his calling. He still recalls his interview for the Pioneer Village Museum Director position eight years ago, and the reaction of Larry Gross, vice-president of museums for the Grand County Historical Association: “It’s about time.”
Nicklas took over operations post-recession, and immediately noticed a myriad of issues within the historical association. He recalls the lean times for the museum, and some of the ideas that helped to save it.
“I felt at the time that the organization as a whole had lost its position within the Grand County community. At one time it was a very prominent role in the community, but it had just diminished greatly by then, and the association was barely surviving. Everything just kind of felt dormant, and I wanted to bring enthusiasm back into the history right away.”
Nicklas credits Dan Nolan, former president of the historical association, for pushing to open the museum for free on Hot Sulphur Days as a major boost for donations to help sustain the business. Nicklas also points to the hundredth anniversary celebration of the Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Carnival, his own idea, as a defining moment of his tenure with the museum.
The celebration was a six-week event from December 2011 to February 2012, a nod to the six weeks between the first carnivals back in 1911 and 1912. The event featured ice sculptures, merchandise, food vendors, snowboard competitions and even a reenactment of Carl Howelson and Angell Schmidt’s famous trek from Corona Pass to Hot Sulphur Springs. In a twist, the area didn’t have enough snow at the time, so the county helped to truck in snow for the competitions. In all, the event drew thousands to the typically sleepy mountain town.
“It was so cool,” said Nicklas. “It was all over the entire town. This was New Year’s Eve and we’re attracting hundreds of people to Hot Sulphur Springs? Are you kidding me? It was some dedication, it really was. But we pulled it off.”
For their efforts, Nicklas, Nolan and former Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Hershel Deputy were invited to the state house where recently embattled Sen. Randy Baumgardner sponsored a resolution to recognize Hot Sulphur Springs as the birthplace of the Colorado ski industry.
During his years at the historical association, Nicklas penned books, wrote articles, appeared on numerous documentaries and radio shows, and became known as the county’s predominant historian. But he said it was his interactions with county residents and getting to discover Colorado treasures that made his time at the museum special.
“I think about the conversations I had with Ida Sheriff, Barbara Mitchell and all of these people,” said Nicklas. “It takes me back to thinking about my great-grandmothers and not recording these people when I had the chance. Because the truth be told, they taught me more about our history than anything I can read around here. They lived it, and their parents lived it.”
Pieces of history
Nicklas recalled some of the most important artifacts he identified during his time at the museum, and his astonishment that such a small museum had them. He noted the original Berthoud survey map, a printing of the first Rocky Mountain News, the original plat map of Denver among others.
Nicklas admitted that it would be difficult to remove himself from the exhibits and artifacts he spent so much time learning about and curating, and perhaps wanting to handle them once again, dug out some of his favorites: E.P. Weber’s bloody documents from the Grand Lake Massacre, and the personal effects of Texas Charlie, who was famously gunned down on the streets of Hot Sulphur Springs in 1883.
“I had no idea of the extent of some of the things we had here. What are these things doing in a small, little museum like this? They belong in the Smithsonian. But we’ve got it, it’s ours here.”
Nicklas will leave for Wyoming at the end of this month, and begin his new job immediately thereafter. As executive director of the Grand Encampment Museum, near Saratoga, Nicklas will oversee more than 15 historical buildings filled with photographs, artifacts, documents and an entirely new history to learn.
Still, Nicklas said he wants to remain a resource for Grand County residents looking to learn more about their history and community, and said he’d welcome people calling with questions or for help on projects.
“It’s going to be hard to not be in Colorado,” lamented Nicklas. “I have a lot of pride being a Coloradan and a true native. Encampment’s history is very similar to Grand County’s. The timber industry was huge up there; a lot of Norwegians logged the forest. A lot of the early settlement was up there, and they get a boatload of snow like we do. But it’s not going to be Colorado anymore.”
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