Craig woman chronicles the lives of the Yampa Valley
Craig — They came to Craig by wagon, by train, by automobile.
They raised families, went through heartache and joy, worked hard or idled at the saloon. Then they passed on, only to disappear into history.
But Craig resident Phyllis Bingham decided it was important to remember. So, she started writing down their stories, one weathered obituary at a time.
“I call my work ‘Not Forgotten,'” Bingham said, glancing at a faded copy of an 1892 obituary. “There are so many people who have been here and left : but they had a part in building Craig.”
For 19 years, Bingham has been painstakingly copying obituaries from the newspaper archives, housed in the Museum of Northwest Colorado and Moffat County Library’s Craig branch.
Stacked on the shelves in her crowded craft room, she has filled 21 notebooks full of old obituaries and historical stories she finds interesting.
In those notebooks are lives that were reduced to brief lines in the various newspapers that chronicled Craig’s history – their hardships and triumphs, a snapshot of life in the valley.
In one, a man died after his horse fell on top of him. After World War I, whole families were lost to influenza. There are babies who died at birth, and transients buried without a gravestone.
One such death was Mrs. Alice Daniels, who in 1892 “passed away at her home 15 miles up Fortification Creek. She was afflicted with consumption. Mrs. Daniels was a loving mother, a devoted wife. Her endearing ways : won her the love and esteem of all.”
There wasn’t anything dramatic about Daniels’ passing. But Bingham collects all their stories, famous or not.
Their lives are important too, she believes.
“They have a right to be remembered,” she said. “I think the people who worked hard and made this place what it is shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Bingham’s fascination with past lives started during a family trip to Telluride in 1988.
She and her family stopped in the county museum, where she idly picked up a book on cemeteries.
“I thought to myself, ‘How morbid,'” Bingham said. “But (after looking at it), instead of it being morbid it was very interesting. It told me a lot about people and how they lived.
“Then I wondered if we had anything like it back at home.”
After her vacation, she promptly visited the Craig library, where the librarian offered to let her pore through the old newspapers.
That’s when Bingham came across her first obit, culled from old cemetery records, on M.J. Banks, the first person to be interred in the town cemetery in 1876. She was buried in a coffin made from wagon boards and marked by a crude stone.
“It didn’t give much background,” Bingham said. “But I wanted to read more.”
She began visiting the archives two or three times a week, four hours at a time. At first, she carefully copied each obituary by hand. Then, she made photocopies to type at home on an old typewriter.
Some of the obits were so faded Bingham used a magnifying glass to read the print. Others were full of information and easy to copy.
Bingham already had raised her four children, along with 25 foster children, with her husband, Vince. So, her project became her full-time job.
“I would stop by whenever I could,” Bingham said with a smile. “It got to be kind of an obsession.”
Eight years ago, her son, Dan Bingham, set her up on a computer, which she now, at 76, is slowly mastering.
“Heaven help me, I’m learning the computer,” she laughs.
As people got wind of the project, they would call her to tell her about Craig residents who had died in other towns. So, she’d write down their stories, too.
She also began to receive calls from folks looking for information. They wanted to know about long-gone relatives and stories from the past. She was happy to help, looking through her books for their names.
“They tried to pay me, but I wouldn’t take it,” she said. “It makes me feel good when I can find what they’re looking for.”
Bingham is hoping to complete an alphabetical index to her project. She also has a few more years to record – 1938 to 1988, to be exact.
Health problems have slowed her down, but she still hopes to cover those missing 50 years.
Bingham has always been proud of her own family’s long history in Moffat County – her grandfather and father, Bill Spetter, purchased 640 acres north of town, which she still owns.
Now she has donated the “Not Forgotten” obits to the museum so others can discover their family histories. It’s a way to give back, Bingham said.
“Everyone doesn’t have a chance to go through the papers,” she said. “I think it makes it easier for people to find lost loved ones. I feel like I’m doing something for my community.”
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