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Treasure trove of history

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Photos by Eric Goold The old Bowie Schoolhouse is home to the Paonia Museum, which is maintained by the North Fork Historical Society. The schoolhouse was donated to the society in 1997 and moved to its current location adjacent to the Paonia River Park.

There's an old adage that says if you don't learn from history you're bound to repeat it.

In the North Fork Valley, a small group of locals have a slightly different perspective on that: if you don't teach people about their history, that history will cease to exist.

"So many of the people who were here a long time ago are gone now," Judy Livingston said. "So the best sources are becoming unavailable. That's why we feel it is so important to keep what we have and it's good to know where the roots of things come from."

Citizens from around the valley can come to the Paonia Museum to see those roots. The museum is located adjacent to the Paonia River Park and resides in the Old Bowie Bell Tower Schoolhouse.

Next to the schoolhouse is the Parks Family House, which houses old relics, photographs and family heirlooms.

"I think it's fabulous. We have so many artifacts," Livingston said. "Almost everything we have is from the North Fork Valley. We have some very unique items. There's just a lot of history there for people to see and learn about the valley."

A lot of new people are moving into the valley and don't know much about the rich historical tradition that is on display, not only around the towns but in their museums too.

"If they're interested in the valley at all I would think they'd be interested in understanding how it became to be what it is," Livingston said. "If they're interested in how this valley was settled and interested in seeing a lot about the fruit industry, we have a lot of items that relate to that. The fruit industry was the primary industry when Paonia was first settled.

"And also the Bowie School is a really interesting place to visit," Livingston added. "It has the same furnishing as it did when it was in Bowie. It's preserved the same as it was when the miners' children went there. And we have a lot of mining history."


On a recent golden fall afternoon in Paonia, Oogie McGuire gave a tour of the museum buildings for local resident Megan MacMillan and her newborn daughter, Ebba.

McGuire's mother was part of the group who helped get the Bowie Schoolhouse donated to the North Fork Historical Society and moved to its present location at the River Park.

"There is a rich history here that most people don't know," McGuire said. "And if they don't know where it came from they won't know how to preserve it or keep it or care about preserving it."

MacMillan became interested in taking the tour after a recent trip to a museum in another western Colorado town.

"What got me thinking about this was going to Telluride and their museum is fantastic," MacMillan said. "They have so many people that are second home owners there and tourists going through all the time. I feel like you go to visit that museum and you come out of there with a reverence for that land that you wouldn't have had if you just based your judgments on the modern present day.

"I just think that Paonia could have something like that here too," she added.

Walking into the Parks House and the Bowie Schoolhouse is like entering treasure troves of history. There's clothing from the 1880s all the way through the 1970s.

There are more modern items like the barber pole from the former Pete's Barbershop. There are many remnants of the fruit and coal mining industries, which played such a large role in the history of the North Fork Valley.

Intricate hand carved wooden miniatures of miners and mining camps adorn the back wall of one room in the Parks House, their paint faded but not gone.

There's sports memorabilia going back to the very beginning of Paonia's rich athletic history. You can find the original Rockwell Cup, now given yearly to the most outstanding boy and girl student athletes at Paonia High School.

There's the pennant from the 1912 champion baseball team, and the one from the 1944 boxing team. Most people don't even know Paonia High School had a boxing team.

There are all sorts of pictures and collectibles from the Cherry Days Parades over the years, going back to one of the original Cherry Days Floats in 1907.

There are a wide range of photographs ranging back to the early 1900s, still on the original nitrate negatives. One of the ongoing projects for the North Fork Historical Society is scanning those photos into digital images.

McGuire said it's possible for people to get copies of specific images for a fee.

Family history is a big deal in the Parks House as many North Fork families donated books, heirlooms and antiques over the years.

"All sorts of family history that has been researched and compiled," McGuire said. "And there's tons of stuff from the many social clubs and organizations that were so important to the culture."

Over in the Bowie Schoolhouse, most of the displays and relics reflect the rich history of schools around the North Fork Valley. Classrooms still have the original desks and other furnishings from when the schoolhouse was in Bowie.

One could spend a whole afternoon in the schoolhouse and not see all there is to see.

"We don't even have a good inventory of all our stuff. We don't even know for sure what we have," McGuire said. "We have to turn away stuff because there's not enough room to store it."


Livingston is the President of the North Fork Historical Society, which is tasked with the maintenance and upkeep of the museum facilities.

The historical society survives on yearly dues from members, donations from businesses and occasional events like the ice cream social during Cherry Days and Kids Pasta Project dinners.

But over the past couple of years, enthusiasm for the historical society has waned.

"We have a fairly good-sized membership but it's pretty much inactive," Livingston said. "People are very good about sending membership dues and so forth but as far as actually having a group of people who participate, it's not so good."

The museum is open from springtime till Labor Day, or anyone interested can call Livingston at 527-3970 to set up a personal guided tour.

Anyone interested in volunteering or joining the North Fork Historical Society is also welcome.

"I would be very happy to speak with anybody who wants to be involved in any way," Livingston said.

This figure of the first female coal miner at Bowie is called Ms. Miner and is one of the many pieces at the Paonia Museum that reflects the North Fork Valley’s coal mining legacy.
This journal and doll belonged to one of Paonia’s first residents.
This dress dummy was one of the first adjustable dress dummies and is made of paper.
The first switchboard used in Paonia, circa 1903. Operators connected wires manually to the switches that allowed the first telephone calls in the North Fork Valley.
These dresses are just a sample of the clothing collections at the Paonia Museum, which boasts clothing examples from the 1880s through the 1970s.
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