'Tomboy Bride'

Harriet Fish Backus surrounded by friends. (Photo courtesy of West Margin Press)

It’s been 50 years since Harriet Fish Backus published her iconic memoir about the trials and tribulations of being a young bride and mother at the Tomboy Mine high above Telluride in the early 1900s.

Half a century after it first came out, “Tomboy Bride” continues to cast an irresistible spell with its frank and refreshing first-hand account of life in the mining camp. New generations of readers can’t help but fall in love with the outgoing, adventurous narrator who once gamely traipsed around the snow-strewn cirque of Savage Basin at 11,500 feet, with her long skirts swishing, her silver tea service gleaming and her Gibson Girl hair upswept into a messy bun.

“It’s really an inspiring book,” said Angie Zbornik, the marketing manager for West Margin Press, the book’s current publisher. “Harriet was a lady and a badass.”

West Margin Press recently released a lavish 50th Anniversary Edition of “Tomboy Bride,” featuring a new forward written by award-winning Colorado author Pam Houston, an afterward by Harriet’s grandson Rob Walton, a reader’s guide, and lots of previously unpublished historic photos and memorabilia.

On Friday at the Telluride Historical Museum, the publisher and Telluride’s Between the Covers Bookstore are teaming up to throw Harriet’s beloved book a birthday bash. Fans of all ages are invited.  

The party takes place from 3-5 p.m. It will feature special appearances by Houston and Walton, music and Victorian refreshments from Caroline Trask Norton’s classic Rocky Mountain Cookbook (which has woodstove directions!) that Harriet herself faithfully used during her years up at Tomboy.

There will even be an opportunity for guests to take selfies with (an actress portraying) the Tomboy bride. And Walton will be sharing some old voice recordings of his grandmother that he recently dug out of the family archives. The spirit of Harriet will be strong.

“We are hoping folks will get a lot out of it and learn a few new things about the ‘Tomboy Bride’ story,” said museum director Kiernan Lannon.

The genesis of the upcoming Tomboy Bride Fest came about three years ago when Zbornik and Daiva Chesonis, the co-owner of the Between the Covers, bumped into each other at a book industry event.

Zbornik mentioned she was working on a new edition of the book to be released in 2019 in honor of its 50th anniversary.

“Oh, my god,” Chesonis thought, visions of selfies with the Tomboy bride dancing in her head. “Let’s throw Harriet a party.” She’s been looking forward to the Bride Fest ever since. So has Lannon.

“‘Tomboy Bride’ is a story with universal appeal,” he said. “A young couple just starting out in life, thrown into an impossible situation to eke out a living in unfamiliar territory. It is told in a very engaging way that is very accessible to people. The descriptions are so vivid, you can almost feel yourself in Harriet’s shoes.”

Harriet herself had a special relationship with the building in which the museum is now housed. It used to be the Miner’s Hospital, and the room just to the left of the entryway is where Harriet gave birth to her first child, a baby girl (also named Harriet) who may have been the first baby born at the hospital.

“We have a distinct connection with the Tomboy bride — virtually more than anyone else in Telluride,” Lannon said. What better place, then, to celebrate her story.

Ask a random sampling of fans what they love most about “Tomboy Bride,” and there seem to be a few recurring themes.

Some people marvel at Harriet’s colorful stories of life at 11,500 feet. The packrats that infested the hut she shared with her husband, George. The time she and George rode horses over treacherous Virginius Pass to visit the Camp Bird Mine on the other side. Harriet’s many high-altitude misadventures in her tiny kitchen — the rancid turkey, the mutton roast that turned out to still be frozen solid, the seemingly endless batches of bread dough that refused to rise.

Some readers adore the author’s way with words, how she crafted her descriptions of the San Juan Mountains in such a fresh, specific and exquisite way.

Some love her sense of humor — that knack for making midwinter trips to the outhouse through hand-dug snow tunnels sound like fun — and her constitutional inability to whine.

History buffs and scholars find the book invaluable for its vivid, detailed descriptions of what life was like in the high mining camp in Savage Basin before it became a ghost town.

Retired Western history professor Duane Smith, author of “A Visit with the Tomboy Bride” (Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2003), used to assign “Tomboy Bride” to his students at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, and found that Harriet’s book made the history of the area come alive for his students in a way that no other text could do.

A few times before she died, he even had her talk to his students.

“When you go into a class and talk about history, kids today have no idea what mining was like,” he said. “They don’t understand life without television. Then you start telling them that for these people, a phone was a miracle. That’s why Harriet was so good, she told about those things.”

The thing Smith loves best about the book shines through on virtually every page. Simply put: Harriet was crazy about her husband.

“At its core, ‘Tomboy Bride’ is a love story of Harriet and George,” Smith said. “Look at it that way and you will get new insights into it.”

Indeed, the book begins in November 1906 with Harriet dashing off from Oakland to Denver to marry her high school sweetheart and ends back in Oakland some 60 years later with her beloved George “going peacefully to eternal sleep” in her arms.

“Part of what makes the book so special is the added layer of their love for each other,” grandson Rob Walton said. “It is really an honest portrayal of not only what they did when they were young, but how they felt about each other throughout their life.”

Harriet Fish Backus wrote “Tomboy Bride” during the last chapter of her life, just eight years before she died in 1977.

“She loved to talk about the old days, so the family knew the stories long before the book was published,” Walton said. “She’d even tell her stories when the audience wasn’t listening.” (That story about the wily packrats stealing teaspoons and baked potatoes was among her favorites.)

Finally, she decided to write it all down — not out of a desire to become a celebrated author, but simply so her family would have a lasting record of those adventurous early years of her life with George.

Harriet, or “Hattie” as her family and friends called her, was 84 when “Tomboy Bride” was finally published, fulfilling her long-time dream.

George, by then, had died, and Harriet was living alone in the family home they had shared for decades in Oakland, California. The year was 1969. The nation was obsessed with men on the moon, the Vietnam War, Woodstock and the Summer of Love.

No publisher would touch her manuscript, so the first edition was self-published. It turned out to be a hit — and not just with her family. Duane Smith was among the book’s first reviewers. Soon, Harriet found a proper publisher and a second edition quickly ensued. “Tomboy Bride” has remained in print ever since.

“The sales reflect the power of a great story — close to 85,000 copies sold to date,” said publisher Angie Zbornik. This figure is especially remarkable, she added, considering that “there is no author promoting it, which is usually what it takes now for a book to be successful.”

That’s where the power of a great local indie bookstore comes into play.

Daiva Chesonis has been co-owner of the Between the Covers Bookstore in Telluride for 15 years. Every Jan. 1, she has a New Year’s Day ritual of checking what the Top 10 bestsellers have been at her store over the past year.

“You don’t even have to look at what the number-one top-selling book will be,” Chesonis said. “You know it’s ‘Tomboy Bride.’ Every bookstore has its local forever book, and for us, this is the one. The classic Telluride book. Every year, we pull the report, and there she is again.”

Chesonis particularly loves putting “Tomboy Bride” in the hands of every teenage girl who wanders into her bookstore. “The fact that it is written from a woman’s perspective is really awesome,” she said.

“Tomboy Bride” is also the number-one seller in the gift store at the Telluride Historical Museum, which has a small “Tomboy Bride” exhibit. And it is apparently the “most lifted” book at Telluride’s hotels and short-term rentals, so locals are constantly needing to replenish their supply.

In Zbornik’s publishing world, the 50th anniversary edition of “Tomboy Bride” is an especially big deal, because the book is one of her all-time personal favorites.

Zbornik asked Pam Houston — “another badass woman” — to write an introduction for the new edition of the “Tomboy Bride.” Houston had already written a forward for a previous edition of the book that came out about 20 years ago and happily accepted the new assignment.

When she wrote the first introduction, Houston was relatively new to southwestern Colorado. She had recently used the advance from her first book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” to put a down payment on a homestead near Creede in the southern San Juan Mountains. Like Harriet, she was fresh-eyed, newly in love with the landscape around her, looking forward with wonder to what the rest of her life might hold in store.

Now in her 50s, and with her own newly published memoir just out, Houston came to the task of writing the new forward for “Tomboy Bride” with the completely different perspective.

“I am a lot older than when I wrote the first introduction,” she said. “I have had 25 years to get attached to a particular 120 acres of ground.” And in those interim years, Houston added, “I have gone from being someone whose life is all ahead of me to someone who is looking back on a lot. It made me read those passages where Harriet is talking about her connection to the land with a lot more understanding and melancholy.”

In reading and re-reading “Tomboy Bride” over the years, Houston said she has learned some important life lessons. “One of the things I took from the book, especially when I was new to having a ranch and making a home for myself, was that women had every bit as much of a right to their own relationship with wilderness as men,” she said.

Houston also appreciates Harriet’s abilities as a writer. “A lot of times these historic texts get published in spite of the writing, and that was not the case with her,” Houston said. “She has really clear descriptions. You get a sense of the place and the time. Her wonder comes through, which is really important to the book. Her love of that place and her frustrations.”

Houston particularly appreciates the way Harriet opens many sections of her book with an exquisite paragraph of description of the landscape and the weather, and includes one of her favorite such passages in the forward:

“These vertebrae of the monster included the giants Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Red Cloud, Sneffles, Wilson, Sunshine, and Lizard Head, each one higher than fourteen thousand feet, soaring to heaven like spires, and surrounded by peaks of eleven, twelve and thirteen thousand feet. They held our gaze through the snow falling in large soft flakes, fuzzing our faces, whitening the robes.”

 

“She saw it and was able to render it in words,” Houston said. “And I love when she says, ‘Don’t be pious.’”

Now 71 and recently retired, Rob Walton still vividly remembers his grandparents, with whom he spent a lot of time as a young boy growing up in Berkeley, California.

Harriet wasn’t pious, as he tells it, but she could be pretty bossy. “She was quite the matriarch in our family,” Walton said. “Their house in Oakland was command central.”

He still remembers the address in Oakland where they lived: 355 Adams Street — a far cry from the tiny shack in Savage Basin where they started their married life. “It was a big house, where we had big family meals that she would orchestrate,” he recalled. “She didn’t allow any smoking or drinking in her home. She didn’t tolerate that at all. And she was devoted to George, just like in the book.”

In his later years, George suffered from Parkinson’s disease. And as the disease progressed, Harriet devoted herself to taking care of him. “She was totally dedicated,” Walton said. “I have a fond memory of him in a wheelchair; she would tickle him and he would giggle. They were totally close.”

Harriet managed the family finances in the last two decades of her life with George, and was a student of the stock market. As her memoir suggests, she was quite the extrovert. “Everywhere she went, she would make friends,” Walton said.

In some respects she was also quite the prude. “She talked about how my grandfather was a true gentleman, in that he never cast his eyes upon his wife without the benefit of clothes,” Walton said.

“Yet she was also an avant-garde, modern woman who was very much able to take care of herself,” he added. “I remember her driving her 1951 Ford.”

When Walton recently took the time to reread “Tomboy Bride,” he says he was stunned. “I hadn’t appreciated what it must have been like to live in a little shack where it was 20 degrees below zero,” he said. “I still marvel at the different sides of her — the city girl from Oakland, setting up housekeeping way up there on the side of a mountain. Somehow they made it work.”

Back when Harriet and George lived at Tomboy, the mining camp in Savage Basin had a population of 900 rugged and adventurous souls, and boasted a rich mine owned by a British syndicate, a bowling alley, tennis courts, a school and the loftiest YMCA in the world. Now, it looks as if the hand of God came down and smashed it all to bits, leaving only piles upon piles of debris behind.

Nature is reclaiming the world Harriet and George inhabited there, but the stories of that place will always remain alive, thanks to the “Tomboy Bride.”

Meet Pam Houston (award-winning Colorado author and “Tomboy Bride” foreword writer) and Rob Walton (Harriet Fish Backus’ grandson and “Tomboy Bride” afterword writer).

Celebrate this cult classic Telluride book, enjoy readings, music and refreshments, see icons and exhibits from the era, and get a copy of the new 50th anniversary edition.

Hosted by Between the Covers Bookstore and West Margin Press.