See What Develops

Here's my tortured premise.
Just after 11:59 p.m. December 31, 1999, the Y2K disaster occurs, all right, but not exactly as foreseen. Instead of moving into the year 2000, not only do our computers roll back to 1900, but so does our computer-driven society. And so do we.

At first glance, this wouldn't change much for me. I could still walk one block from my office, a pre-1900 building in lower downtown, to the circa 1893 Oxford Hotel, have a drink and consider the implications. In fact, I think I'll practice that right now.

A few restorative toddies later, I call the Colorado Historical Society. (The phone was invented by 1900, although back then the Oxford didn't have pay phones outside the men's bathroom with the giant urinals where Bat Masterson once relieved himself.) Over at the briefly historical society--Colorado had been a state for only 24 years in 1900--at least one employee thinks my Y19C fantasy sounds like the promised land.

"Machines would be much more simple and beautiful," says Eric Paddock, curator of historic photographs. "When you went shopping, your change would be whizzed along the ceiling in a cool little basket."

He's got a point. Modern times, thanks to Martha Stewart and her cartel, are lousy with little baskets, but the baskets never seem to be working for a living, and I can't tell you the last time I saw one whizzing along the ceiling. And Paddock is right about machines, too. I feel like crying whenever I open the hood of a car built in the last 25 years. Who but Mr. Goodwrench knows what all that computerized crap is or what crucial part of the machine it runs? By contrast, what could be more beautiful than a big cast-iron gear, or a leather fan belt, or a machine through whose elegantly simple moving parts you can see the sky?

On my way down to the historical society, I decide that 1900 will suit me just fine. I'll have to make a few changes, but they'll all be improvements. For instance, I could continue to take vigorous exercise through the auspices of the Denver Parks Department, but I would wear the "bloomer costume" instead of obscene Lycra separates.

Further along on my way to the historical society, I reconsider. Everyone I know has a green-phlegm cold, treatable with antibiotics. In 1900, green phlegm could kill you.

I'm allowed to choose which collection of photographs I'd like to see first: assorted views of Denver, 1900, or something called the Lillybridge File. The work of Charles S. Lillybridge, Paddock says, is a familiar mystery around the historical society's library. Little is known about this photographer, who operated a studio in Denver on and off between 1893 and 1925. A collection of his work was donated to the society by one John Werness long before Paddock's day, and for a long time, it was known simply as the Werness Collection.

From tantalizingly few clues, an intern discovered that the artist was actually Lillybridge, who had died in the Colorado State Hospital in 1935. She became so intrigued that she tracked down a Lillybridge descendant in Texas and traveled there to discuss the collection. The few notes that appear on the back of some photographs--identifying one or two people, as well as one dog--come from that interview.

The society's official description of the collection points to its importance in chronicling a time when Denver "shifted from agriculture to heavy industry." Sounds dry. Isn't.

Ten pages into the first box of maybe 200 8-x-10 prints, I am through speculating about what life might have been like in 1900, because I am looking right into it, through a window that is admittedly small but extremely specific.

There is a picture of Lillybridge's studio in 1900, a run-down shack on the banks of the South Platte River, perhaps twenty feet from Alameda Avenue. Lillybridge is 53. He is a short, slight man with a tightly curled white mustache. His son--either Allen or the other one, whose name has been forgotten--is taller and beefier. Both men pose next to suitcases amid drifts of snow. Are they going somewhere?

One of them is. In 1901 Lillybridge photographs a funeral procession for one of his sons--Allen or the other one. There are two black horses, matched, and the hearse driver wears a top hat and carries a long black whip.

Is Lillybridge destroyed by this, relieved, or something in between? Is it any of my business? What can you tell, anyway, from looking at a face?

That is a question Lillybridge himself could have answered definitively. In the years between 1893 and 1925--but mostly between 1893 and 1909--he seems to have stepped out of his studio onto the dirt path that ran beside the South Platte thousands of times, and each time, he took a photograph.

His subjects look surprised, and not always happily so. Where the hell did that little old man come from? they seem to be asking, or Hey--YOU looking at ME? Some of them--the young couples out for a walk in a place more private than a parlor--seem ill at ease. Some of the women appear tortured in thought, or at least preoccupied. Some of the men--the ones with the beer bottles and the missing teeth--seem out to have a good time in the weeds, where they can't be located by, say, a prying wife. In Lillybridge photographs, life looks interesting but not easy--and in no way antique.

Here are some of the wanderers who passed Lillybridge's lens around the turn of the century:

An old Army veteran with a long white beard, stiffly holding two babies.
Three young toughs in men's swimming costumes, panning for gold in the Platte.

A gypsy family at home in their tent.
A female sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which was probably camped nearby.

All kinds of beautiful machinery--mule-, horse- and steam-driven--which appeared during the construction of the Alameda underpass, which occurred right under Lillybridge's nose. The hordes of male laborers are dressed uncannily like the male models in today's GAP ads.

Three adolescent boys with shotguns and a dog, out for a bit of pheasant hunting along the Platte.

Four dapper black cyclists, impeccably dressed, out for a day of recreation.
Three miserable-looking women out for a formal Sunday walk, in creaking corsets and tight pince-nez. They are pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. She is why they are miserable.

Mormon missionaries.
A soap salesman with his sample case, looking unsuccessful.
An elderly man in a suit, walking along with a chicken under each arm, very satisfied with himself.

In Lillybridge's neighborhood, there was never a shortage of raggedly dressed children unsupervised by any adult, horses that could do balancing tricks, or dogs. Young women seem to have enjoyed posing for him while wrapped in American flags. If Lillybridge ate lunch at the local bar, it most likely consisted of a five-cent "near beer" and a bowl of chili, spelled c-h-i-l-e.

Furthermore, bicycles were an exotic, admirable mode of transportation. The Denver parks were patrolled by bicycle officers with dour faces and serious uniforms. Streetcar conductors were really much too busy to have their photographs taken. They refused to remove their hats for such a trivial matter.

In general, hats were far more prevalent and had far more personality than they do today. You probably couldn't identify someone by referring to him as "that guy in the hat," but you might get somewhere with "that fellow who affects the bowler with the rolled brim and insists on wearing it on the back of his head at an impudent angle."

Women's hats contained an entire fruit bowl's worth of trim. You had to have good posture to wear one. Taking such a hat off at the end of the day and allowing your hair to escape its stringent regimentation might have been construed as an erotic act.

Ice, milk and coal were delivered to the door. Babies frequently died.
The South Platte River area was no greenbelt, but you could camp there for weeks, bringing along the Conestoga your grandpa came to Colorado in. You could swim there without fear of death by sewage. You could catch a cheap fish dinner. You could take your sweetheart there...although her mother might not have approved. You could buy some land cheap, build yourself a foundry and start paving the whole thing.

Some things were different. Some were similar. The weeds along the Platte in the height of summer--the mulleins, the ragweed, the hollyhocks--were exactly the same. The hollyhocks may have been a foot taller. Were they part of Lillybridge's garden? Who knows?

It was a long time ago. The people in his photographs, who seemed so alive and in-your-face, have grown old and died.

The tortured premise is history.

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