I’m a self-proclaimed history nerd. I took classes on the Civil War in college for fun. I think Cronkite, a biography of Walter Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley, was one of the most riveting books I’ve ever read. My idea for a perfectly acceptable (if not particularly ideal) Friday or Saturday night is sitting on the couch learning about history via the voice of Ken Burns. I think it’s the countless ways you can approach the history of a person, place, or movement, the challenge of the storytelling, that fascinates me, and the way that all fields of study can intersect in order to try to fully understand a past moment in time.
Whenever I’ve been researching a historical post for Your Boulder over the past couple of years, I’ve almost inevitably stumbled upon a work by Silvia Pettem, who I very quickly learned is Boulder’s foremost historical researcher and writer. Pettem’s detail and human interest-driven approach to historical storytelling makes all of her pieces not only packed with information, but also fun reads, and I’m always intrigued by the characters and events she digs up and brings back to life on the page.
Pettem grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and moved to Boulder in 1965. The scope of Pettem’s historical research and writing spans across the county, from Broomfield to Nederland to Gold Hill and, of course, the City of Boulder, encompassing topics from unique local characters to unsolved murder cases and placing Boulder and its citizens in the historical context of national movements and time periods.
From columns with multiple county publications to countless books, it would be nearly impossible to capture the breadth of Pettem’s much lauded and often award-winning work recording and promoting the history of Boulder. Here are just a few snapshots of her contributions highlighting Boulder’s historical canon.
The Daily Camera
Pettem began writing for Boulder’s Daily Camera in 1977. Writing on both area history and food, Pettem’s early work at the Daily Camera was succeeded by writings at other local publications including the Longmont Times-Call and the Coloradan. Pettem returned to the Daily Camera in 1998 and has been a history columnist with them ever since. Pettem’s columns cover a vast range of subjects, highlighting some of the county’s most colorful characters and providing snapshots of what life in Boulder was like in decades past. Each column tells a story, from the fame of local tightrope walker Ivy Baldwin in the 1940s to “What Buying Local Was Like in 1950s Boulder” to her most recent column on famous local vaudeville sisters Ethel and Marion Mann, which was just published last week, and much more. Pettem’s columns remain a recurring treat and entertaining reminder of those who came before us here in Boulder.
Boulder: A Sense of Time & Place Revisited
This book that holds a special place in my heart, as it’s the first book I was gifted upon my decision to pick up and move from New York to Boulder a few years ago. Boulder: A Sense of Time & Place Revisited, is similar to Pettem’s other work, Only in Boulder: The County’s Colorful Characters, in that it’s a collection of her articles that zoom in on a variety of stories from Boulder’s past, from its mining town beginnings to its Pearl Street demonstrations and marches and many stories of local revelry and intrigue in between. While it’s not all-encompassing, the vignettes and accompanying photos in this book give an interesting, often raucous snapshot of some of the stories that were the building blocks of Boulder’s current culture.
Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe
In addition to focusing on Boulder County history, Pettem’s research-heavy process and style are also often utilized in the realm of cold cases. In her New York Times bestseller work, Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe, Pettem investigates the murder of an unidentified woman found in Boulder Canyon in 1954. Published in 2009, the book is the culmination of over a decade of research into the identity of the woman and her likely killer. Further developments in the case after the book’s publication led to a successful identification of Jane Doe, and you can read the book’s epilogue detailing this discovery either in the Kindle version or on Pettem’s website. Pettem’s other works focusing on this specific type of research include Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases, and The Long Term Missing: Hope and Help for Families, which is to be published this year.
These are just a small sampling of Pettem’s wide catalogue of historical work on Boulder County. Visit Pettem’s website for full lists of her articles and books as well as lists of her current projects and many awards.