Around this time of year, I start thinking about cherry pie. More specifically, cherry pie topped with real whipped cream. The reason is George Washington. Our first president’s birthday is Feb. 22, and where I grew up, in Ohio, it was a holiday, so schools and workplaces were closed and restaurants featured cherry pie on their menus.

The cherry pie, of course, comes from the story of Washington, as a youngster, cutting down a cherry tree and being forgiven by his father because he admitted to the transgression.

(“I cannot tell a lie, father. I chopped it down with my little axe.”)

A great way to teach kids a little history with a moral lesson as well. The problem is that it never happened. The story was the creation of one of Washington’s early biographers.

Fake news, indeed.

The discussion surrounding the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project in the waning months before the inauguration reminded me that over the years a number of people have rewritten history, some being more successful than others at getting away with it. Without getting into the details, 1776 sought less of a focus on slavery and the role it played in the development of this nation. The 1619 Project looked at ways slavery shaped this country well before the Revolution. The 1776 Project indicated a particular interest in “patriotic education” meaning educating young people to instill a love of country, and not necessarily including some of the negative aspects. I would guess the cherry tree story would be included.

There’s always been a tendency to tell stories so that they reach the conclusions that we wish, rather than adhere strictly to the truth. We see this in our Leadville history, which raised a few questions over the years. For example did Henry Houdini ever perform at the Tabor Opera House? We’d like to think so. Many say the trapdoor on the stage was built to accommodate his act. But there is no proof that he ever appeared there.

When Oscar Wilde appeared at the Tabor, there was ample coverage in the newspaper before, during and after with Wilde, himself, describing the appearance. But so far nothing has been found in the early papers covering an appearance by Houdini although many have looked for it in the old bound volumes. So did it happen or not? Or do we simply wish it had happened?

Do we want Jane Kirkham to be a stagecoach robber who was shot and killed during one of these attempts on the old stage trail? Do we want to believe her husband, a law enforcement officer, then discovered her double life and buried her just where she fell? It’s a great story. But her death was not covered in the early papers and there is no mention of her husband ever working as a law enforcement officer here. In fact the only proof that Jane Kirkham existed is her tombstone which still stands on the old stage road.

Newspapers have a responsibility to ferret out the truth and then tell it.

Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fail on purpose

Back in the late 1800s, the Leadville Chronicle had an editor named Orth Stein whose talent with words went beyond describing the happenings in Leadville during its early years. You’d think there was enough going on then to fill the pages of even a daily newspaper, but Stein added stories of his own creation. Newspapers back east were only too happy to pick up his tales of a ship embedded in Battle Mountain 500 feet below the surface or a crystal cave in the mining district filed with gold. After three years here Stein moved on. He was charged with murder in a dispute over a woman, but not convicted, and there were lesser charges for forgery and more petty crimes. He died in 1901.

In his book “Olden Days in Colorado,” Publisher C.C. Davis seems quite taken with Stein, whom he hired, recounting some of the tall tales appearing in the Chronicle, despite the fact that some of Stein’s fiction was taken as fact by his readers.

One of Stein’s most lasting tales concerned the sea serpent in Twin Lakes, and despite no actual proof, there have been other “sightings” of this creature over the years. When I first came to this area, a couple of people mentioned that Twin Lakes might have its own “Nessie.” Perhaps it’s time for the Herald to issue a disclaimer on behalf of our sister paper about the sea serpent story.

It’s interesting that tales such as the chopping of the cherry tree have had such long lives; ironic that a tale about the virtue of telling the truth should turn out to be a lie.

In any case, Presidents Day superseded Washington’s Birthday as a national holiday in the Uniform National Holiday Act of 1971 (sounds kind of authoritarian, doesn’t it?), and states, like Ohio, which had celebrated both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, settled on the one day off. And in case you hadn’t noticed, Presidents Day, which was Monday this week, no longer comes with ample portions of cherry pie and whipped cream.  

Martinek can be reached at marcia@leadvilleherald.com.

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