To live in Southwest Colorado is to live with history, as evidenced by relics scattered throughout the San Juan region that span the centuries, including remnants of ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and the rundown cabins and shafts of the mining days.
To some young people, those things are irrelevant.
For Harris Abernathy, one of the newest and, at 28, the youngest member of the La Plata County Historic Preservation Review Commission,both his work and education are founded on history.
This year, because of a piqued interest from citizens willing to serve, the commission introduced two new members, including local geographer and preservationist Helen Ruth Aspaas and Abernathy.
A self-described woodworker and horseman, Abernathy spent his first six years in Durango engaged in decidedly old-fashioned pursuits, including temporarily guiding outdoor adventurers on trips using pack animals and restoring historic structures.
“Historic construction and restoration is a great opportunity to have a tangible connection with the past,” Abernathy said. “You do that with your hands, you experience it with your senses.”
A native of the historic, 500-resident town of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, Abernathy moved in 2011 to Durango, where he spent that summer and the next repairing historic cabins in the region assigned to him through the Denver-based nonprofit HistoriCorps.
His projects included the Granite Peak Guard Station, about five miles south of the Continental Divide in the Weminuche Wilderness. Presumably built by the U.S. Forest Service between 1907 and 1913, rangers still use the cabin as a temporary refuge for officials patrolling the backcountry.
Abernathy helped restore the Tabasco Cabin, the last standing structure at a former gold mining site near the peak of Cinnamon Pass.
He also led the effort to restore the Harris Ranch behind Purgatory Resort, a two-room cabin, stable and corral obtained by the Forest Service in 1991 through a land swap with a New Mexico family.
Placed on the La Plata County Register of Historic Places in 2010, the cabin was thought to originally have been a toll station for a route between Rockwood and Rico, and later became a summer house for ranchers pasturing their cattle throughout the 1900s.
As a field leader, Abernathy oversaw the cabin’s stabilization when he was 22, helping to rebuild the foundation, chink the walls and turn up artifacts, including horseshoes, nails and keys, in the process.
In Abernathy’s native central Tennessee, which has a long Civil War history, everything has an “old vibe,” he said. It’s horse country, and it’s spotted with 19th-century plantations.
Abernathy’s mother and father, though they held jobs in secondary education and law, respectively, held historic interests of their own, which, apparently, were genetic.
“One of my earliest memories was of my parents deconstructing an old home when I was four. The Shelbyville (Municipal) Airport was expanding, and an old antebellum house was in its way,” Abernathy said. “My parents bought it to demolish it and then rebuild it. The rebuilding didn’t happen, but the demolition did, and I remember running around in this old house.”
While working on the Harris cabin, Abernathy met Fort Lewis College history professor and Historic Preservation Review Commission Chairman Andrew Gulliford, who convinced him to pursue the newly created public history degree at the college with a focus on preservation. Abernathy was one of the program’s first graduates.
Abernathy has since moved on from HistoriCorps, put down roots in Durango and now works in Mancos, designing and framing residential homes by timber-framing, an old form of construction in which large log posts and beams are fitted together without nails or screws.
“We got to talking and I was impressed with his explanation of his work, the use of new wood to repair log sills,” Gulliford said. “Not too many people know how to do things like that.”
Gulliford said Abernathy will bring to the commission a “hands-on understanding” of historic building stabilization and how to keep old structures standing with techniques that won’t compromise their historic integrity.
“In my decade as chair of the commission, I now think we have our strongest and most broadly representative set of board members,” Gulliford said.
On the commission, which wants historic preservation to have a significant place in the county’s forthcoming comprehensive land-use plan, Abernathy said his future projects might include an inventory of the area’s historic barns, and a study of prospectors’ use of pack animals when the mining industry was in its prime.
His age, he said, could be an asset to the group.
“I see a gap between the current generation of historians and where we (younger generations) are at,” Abernathy said. “There’s not much of a feeder into those types of jobs and endeavors today, though the previous generation is eager to hand it over.”