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Aaron Klass, writer and director of the play “Ruin”, shows a garment he calls “two-pants”, a pair of pants that contains another pair on top. The collection based in Longmont currently spans over 250 heritage artifacts. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Ben Jenkins is a pants guy. Specifically men’s pants from the 1830s to the 1850s. He’s not sure why, but whenever he’s out collecting garments to add to The Merchant Tailor Museum, a digital museum of 19th century men’s clothing that he runs out of his basement in Longmont with his close friend Aaron Klass, Jenkins can’t resist the pants.

Klass and Jenkins met more than 10 years ago through the historical re-enactment community. They started the museum in 2019 with just a few pieces that Jenkins had acquired, and in an effort to make the articles accessible to more people digitized them through photos, construction notes, and drafting guides. Jenkins is a savvy carpenter and self-taught historical tailor; Klass is a museum professional, historian and playwright. 

Over the past six months, Klass and Jenkins have been working on “Ruin,” a mystery play set in 19th century colonial Colorado, which premieres Thursday at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. Jenkins worked on the set design and costumes, while Klass wrote and directed the play.

Aaron Klass and Ben Jenkins started their museum in 2019 with just a few pieces that Jenkins had acquired. Over the past six months, Klass and Jenkins have been working on “Ruin,” a play set in 19th-century colonial Colorado that will premiere at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Decades of research culminated in a shockingly fast writing process. “Four days,” Klass said. “I sat down and wrote ‘Ruin’ from beginning to end in four days. They say don’t ever write from beginning to end, that’s the general wisdom. But that’s how it came out.” 

All of the costumes except for one dress and a pair of trousers came from or were patterned after garments in the museum.

Connecting with Colorado

Without giving away any spoilers, the basic plot is this: A woman is camped out in the ruins of a trading fort, which has fallen into disrepair. Her husband has gone missing, and she enlists the help of a tracker and a white lawman to find him.

“Ruin” is set in 1865 in a Colorado on the cusp of statehood, full of turbulence, drama and violence. It was a Colorado that experienced a thriving fur trade and a short-lived gold rush, but also a Colorado dealing with ruthless Western expansion and atrocities like the Sand Creek Massacre. It is a Colorado that fascinates Klass, and one that he believes Coloradans should understand and engage with more deeply. 

“I feel like this period in Colorado’s history in particular can provide tools to really understand the way that colonialism continues to inform everything we do,” Klass said. For him, the research exposed the way colonialism “ordered his mind,” as he put it, especially with regard to his relationship with the land. One of the things Klass hopes to accomplish with “Ruin” is to give this time period more detail and depth, so that people can connect with it more fully. It’s also a “wild” period, according to Klass, which makes good playwright material.

Aaron Klass shows a hand sewn garment from the early 1860s. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The moral of the story

Down in the Merchant Tailor Museum, Klass pulls out a binder full of letters, checks and mining documents from the mid-1800s. Slid into one clear sheet protector is a check written by the first Colorado territorial governor, William Gilpin, who was fired for writing a bunch of unauthorized checks. The next page is documentation from an investigation of that check. 

“This document is basically saying that this was actually a good place to spend money,” Klass said. “But he wound up spending something like $375,000 in period money, which is a lot of money.” He flipped through handwritten letters sent east, and pointed out local addresses on yellowed envelopes.

Colorado characters like Gilpin have colored Klass’s imagination for more than a decade, and appear in amalgamated forms in “Ruin.” He’s spent so much time thinking about these historical characters that he’s ready at the drop of a hat to give their grand narrative. 

Men like Silas Soule, for instance, whose story has worked its way into the threads of “Ruin.” Soule was a miner and American military man, who famously refused to attack the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes during the Sand Creek Massacre. 

The night before the massacre, Soule told his company that anyone who fires upon them is a “low-lived, cowardly son of a bitch,” Klass said. The next morning, as commanding officer Col. John Chivington’s company charged forth, Soule’s company watched from afar. 

“He said to his company, ‘boys, do you know who’s village that is?’ and they said ‘no, sir,’” Klass recounted. “He told them ‘that’s Black Kettle’s Village’ — Black Kettle was one of the principal chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne, he was trying to de-escalate tensions that had been rising for quite some time in the Colorado Indian War — and one of the men said ‘Well then sir, we won’t fire a shot.’” 

Klass shows pants and garments from a museum collection at his Longmont home. The collection spans over 250 heritage artifacts, usually sent from others across the country or obtained from sites like eBay. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Klass and Jenkins started the museum in 2019 with just a few pieces that Jenkins had acquired.

Klass pulled the dialogue from memory, but like the good historian he is, his primary source is an account from one of Soule’s men who Klass has spent the past few years transcribing. “I don’t know if I’ll ever finish,” he added.

After the massacre, Soule wrote graphic letters detailing the horrors to his comrade, Ned Wynkoop, as well as his sister and his good friend Walt Whitman. These letters would later inform an investigation into Sand Creek, during which Soule testified against Chivington. Less than three months after testifying, Soule was killed on the corner of 15th and Arapahoe by two Colorado militia men. 

The men shot him and sprinted away. “Both of their identities were known and they were in uniform, but neither of them were ever brought to justice,” Klass said. “He was assassinated by the military on the streets of Denver.”

As Klass talked through the real-life characters who inspired his play, it is clear that he has written about an abundantly complicated time in Colorado’s history. 

“Ultimately, a lot of it is my meditation on whether or not it is possible to live in this context and to do the right thing,” Klass said. “And I don’t really know.”

Modern gold miners

On top of their hard-to-pin day jobs — they refer to everything as “stuff,” the museum stuff, the map stuff — Jenkins and Klass are also experimental archeologists, meaning they don’t just think about historical garments, they test them out.

Jenkins owns an unpatented parcel of land up Clear Creek on which he has mineral rights. He found it while doing map research about mining tracts. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said, referring to the parcels of land themselves more than the minerals they contain. “I don’t know how anyone would know they’re there. We just know that they exist because we are into the old time stuff.”

Klass and Jenkins have tailored themselves authentic 1850s miner’s garments, and occasionally they’ll grab a set of original, or original replicate tools, and go pan for gold. “It’s very frustrating, which is in keeping with the experience of gold miners from that time period,” Klass said. “They did not find a lot of gold.”

The people they run into are undoubtedly confused. A lot of them ask Klass if he’s Amish. But Klass likes explaining what they’re doing. Klass said he doesn’t take himself very seriously when he’s out there, but he inevitably learns things anyway, like why certain garments wear down in the same places. 

Klass shows 1850s waistcoats from a museum collection at his Longmont home. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

He pointed at the sides of three waistcoats sprawled out on the basement-museum’s center table. All have torn fabric and loose stitching at the same points on the waistline. 

“While we were gold mining, I was crouched over. When I stood up I tugged my waistcoat into place,” Klass said, demonstrating on his shirt by pulling on it exactly where the worn points are on the waistcoats. “I was like, ‘oh shit, that’s why they’re worn there.’ You can learn a lot about what you’re looking at by using it.”

Daguerreotypes in different lights

Though Klass seems to have an unending enthusiasm for the stories woven in clothes, he becomes even more excited when talking about old photographs (it’s unsurprising, but worth mentioning, that Klass is also an antiques photo dealer). “The oldest people that we can look at are people captured on daguerreotype plates,” Klass said, before diving into an enamored description of light bouncing off the real human and into the real plate, which he can really hold. 

Aaron Klass, also an antique photo dealer, shows old letters and portraits that are part of the collection. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Maybe it’s no wonder that one of Klass’s chief aims with “Ruin” is to provide a visceral connection to this period in Colorado history. Surface-level acknowledgements dot the Colorado landscape in the form of bronze plaques, mine tours and old saloon signs, but something about the tactility of old Colorado photographs helps Klass inhabit the space, with all of its chaos and complicated history.

He identifies a couple of portraits from his collection, then backs up and continues waxing poetic about daguerreotype plates. “The silvered plates are sensitized in such a way that when they capture an image, it’s negative from certain angles and positive from others,” he said. “They’re like little treasures, like jewels.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...