Joan Jacobson began her professional career at a small newspaper in Minnesota but eventually moved to advertising, public relations and freelancing before writing briefs and motions for a law firm. From there she turned to fiction and nonfiction books. Jacobson is a member of the Denver Woman’s Press Club, History Colorado and the Colorado Authors League.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Joan Jacobson: Time traveling influential Coloradans from the past to the present day was an idea that just fell from the sky during a hike at Red Rocks Park. I was thinking: How would John Brisben Walker, the park’s first developer, react if he experienced a concert today?
I knew a lot about Walker and his plans for Red Rocks from the days when I used to edit a newsletter for the Jefferson County Historical Society. He was a really interesting guy, a big thinker. He was a mercenary soldier turned Cosmopolitan editor, turned real estate developer. He had an alfalfa farm where the Berkeley Neighborhood is today.
And he built Riverside Amusement Park in more or less the same place Elitch’s is today. He tried to build a Summer White House for U.S. presidents and its cornerstone is the destination for the Castle Trail at Mt. Falcon Park. Not everything he did worked out. But what would this distinguished gentleman from the turn of the 20th century think if he stumbled upon an ear-blasting rock concert, getting tripped over by people in blue jeans sloshing beer?
From what I knew of him, he was an open-minded guy. I figured he might actually get a kick out of it, after a little initial shock. He wanted the amphitheater to be the most popular music venue in the world, and that’s what it’s become.
But why stop with Walker? I also wondered: What would Chipeta think of Sky Ute Casino? Would our pioneer recreational skier, Carl Howelsen, be astonished by today’s ski resorts? Would Barney Ford approve of our politics? How would Dr. Florence Sabin judge our response to COVID? Would Adolph Coors drink mango beer? And so on.
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I set out to identify 14 or so influential Coloradans to profile. They didn’t need to be famous, but they had to have left a legacy. For example, John Denver left music and progress toward renewable energy. For Dr. Stanley Biber, it’s a world where transgender people are accepted for who they are. And so on.
And then I had to dream up a mechanism for them to travel from their time period to the modern era. A geode, one of those brown rocks that breaks apart to reveal crystals inside, seemed like it could work well as a kind of a Colorado-style magic lantern. Rubbing the geode produces visions of the future — that’s the phantasmagoria — and then a genie appears to transport them to our time.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Jacobson: Most Colorado history books, at least those in stores, are obsessed with miners and madams. We’re so much more than that. I wanted to showcase our diversity. Not just diversity of race, although I made sure the book starts with a Hispano pioneer and a Ute leader. I also wanted a diversity of occupations.
So I’ve got a politician, Golda Meir; a restauranteur, Barney Ford; a musician, John Denver; a medical researcher, Dr. Florence Sabin; and so on. And of course, we’ve always had a diversity of sexual identities here, too.
One of my favorite chapters might be the tale of Ora Chatfield and Clara Dietrich, ladies who eloped from Aspen to marry each other in 1889. They didn’t succeed. But almost a hundred years later Clela Rorex in Boulder became the first clerk in the U.S. to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
But I think my favorite story is of the charismatic hippie preacher Wade Blank, who led a group of 19 disabled heroes. In 1978, the so-called Gang of 19 abandoned their wheelchairs to shut down Colfax and Broadway for 24 hours to protest discrimination. It’s a fantastic chapter in Colorado history —, make that American history — because it led directly, admittedly by fits and starts, to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Jacobson: I’m a sucker for historical tours, cathedral tours in Europe and Victorian mansion tours in the U.S. I was actually a volunteer docent at Hiwan Homestead in Evergreen for a few years. It always astounds me when people say history is boring.
I’m fascinated by it! But one day I realized my brain was “filling in the blanks” while I was reading. The truth is, most histories are just a recitation of facts; if you don’t have a big imagination and an innate ability to relate past events to our current world, they are kind of boring. I get some inspiration from Sarah Vowell, whose history books are a real hoot. Still, plain vanilla is the norm for history.
I recently had a conversation with a publisher who was interested in my upcoming book, “Prudery, Polygamy, and Politics,” but ultimately turned it down because she said it’s “too racy.” I mean, really? Racy is good. People like racy!
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Jacobson: I really, really, really wanted to profile Emily Griffith. Her Opportunity School was and still is a tremendous asset and an inspiration. She was a champion for immigrants, and now as much as then, immigrants need champions.
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Emily was murdered, which was such a tragic end for a woman of tremendous accomplishment. But try as I might, I couldn’t get her story to ignite in my imagination. It was such a disappointment.
On the other hand, I really, really, really did not want to profile Adolph Coors. What a jerk he was. But the image of him dumping 560 barrels of beer into Clear Creek on the eve of Prohibition was just too compelling to ignore. It’s a story they don’t tell at the beer tours in Golden.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Jacobson: I was over 90% done with my on-site, in-person research when the COVID quarantine was imposed in 2020, but there were a handful of places I wanted to revisit in person for the travel guide sections, a trip to Aspen being one of them.
At first I decided to hold off until the quarantines lifted, but as months went by with no end in sight, I had to settle for relying on memories. Plus the internet, of course. I did eventually take that trip to Aspen, and there was really nothing I saw or learned that would make me change anything.
Still, I wish I could have finished 100% of my research in person before publication.
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Jacobson: My favorite comment came from a reader who said, “I never knew Colorado history was world history.” It’s true! I visited Finland recently and guess what, they’ve got curb cuts and wheelchair ramps. The accessibility movement started here, in Colorado, at the corner of Broadway and Colfax, when Wade Blank and the Gang of 19 shut down the intersection for 24 hours.
Then there’s Golda Meir. Love her or hate her, she had a huge influence on world history when she was Israeli Prime Minister in the 1970s. While she only lived in Colorado a few years, she always said that this is where she got her political awakening.
As for strong negative reactions, I’ve been mostly surprised by how few I’ve heard. I really expected, maybe even hoped, that people would criticize the book for being too “woke” or whatever, but that hasn’t happened.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Jacobson: I try to avoid all advice about “process.” Am I supposed to be the writer who gets up and bangs out 2,000 words every day before lunch? Or the one who goes on a bender and then agonizes over one sentence for a week? It’s so confusing!
I’m at a point in my career and my life where I just do what needs to be done. For my first book, a literary novel called “Small Secrets,” I actually wrote in a real office set-up. A desk and a chair, with an ergonomic keyboard. Very professional. And I was just making it all up!
For “Colorado Phantasmagorias,” I sat in a recliner with my computer in my lap and my notes on a tray. Some days I write a few thousand words. Other days I bake bread.
When I get writer’s block or just can’t figure out the best way to communicate something, I go on a hike. Hiking is so helpful that I almost put a thank you to Jefferson County Open Space in the acknowledgements for “Colorado Phantasmagorias.” Ultimately, I decided that would be too cheesy, but I am grateful for all our hiking trails.
SunLit: What exactly is a phantasmagoria?
Jacobson: That’s an old-timey word for a hallucination. It was also the name for a spooky light and shadows show popular in the 1800s, a kind of magic lantern or early movie.
Readers comment that phantasmagorias is such an unusual word, but The Denver Post described the new Meow Wolf Convergence Station as phantasmagorical, which is perfectly apt.
In my book, the characters see visions of the future, which they believe are hallucinations, or phantasmagorias, and then a genie appears to time travel them to the present where they experience their legacy.
SunLit: Why did you include the travel guide parts?
Jacobson: I want my readers and their families to get out of the house and experience how the past has shaped the present. It’s fun to walk in the footsteps of these influential Coloradans and see “where it all happened.”
One of the reasons people think history is boring is because they think history is over and done with. Actually, the past lives right alongside our present. It’s fun to see it, hike through it, and eat it.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Jacobson: Here’s the start of “Prudery, Polygamy, and Politics: The Very Weird World of Dr. Mattie Hughes Cannon”:
The first woman Senator elected in the United States was Martha Hughes Cannon.
She was a physician.
And a polygamist wife.
Number four of six.
Her opponent was . . . wait for it . . .
She beat him by four thousand votes.
From that opening page I go on to put Dr. Mattie’s life into the context of Victorian America, which was a lot sexier and more progressive than we’ve been led to believe. There were religious sex communes all over the country. There were more women physicians in the 1890s U.S. than at any time up to the 1970s.
Utah, back then, led the way on women’s rights. Politicians were as randy and scandal-plagued then as now and paid as big a price, which is to say, not that big a price. My take on Victorian social history and Dr. Cannon’s story is all true, but I salt it with plenty of snark. There’s no genie in a geode or time travel, but it’s a fun read.