Divided by Politics, a Colorado Town Mends Its Broken Bones

It’s hard to say precisely when Silverton, Colo., started to come apart, but the town election of April 7, 2020, might be a good moment to begin the story.

That was when a young, progressive New York lawyer and adventure skier named Shane Fuhrman beat the longtime fire chief Gilbert Archuleta, part of Silverton’s old guard, by 10 votes to become the new mayor.

To supporters, mainly of his generation, Fuhrman, 42, represented progress. After working at top finance firms in Manhattan, he had returned to his native Colorado and renovated the old Wyman Hotel on Greene Street, not in the mountain-town Victorian style of the Grand Imperial a block away, but as an elegant, hip boutique inn, with rooms going for as much as $385 a night.

To Fuhrman’s opponents in the former mining town of 796 residents, he was the incarnation of the T Word, Telluride, and the A Word, Aspen, with their staggering housing prices, luxury outposts and billionaire denizens.

Their skepticism turned to anger 14 months into Fuhrman’s tenure when he declared that the council would stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance until further notice. He said he was concerned about a town trustee who had received threats for not participating in the pledge, but that didn’t stop his critics from standing during a council meeting and shouting their allegiance to Old Glory as the mayor glumly watched.

Soon, Fox News broadcast a “Fox & Friends” episode from the Grand Imperial Hotel in which Mayor Fuhrman’s critics questioned his motives.

“There was a feeling like the mayor was monopolizing Silverton,” said Cole Davenport, a Marine Corps combat veteran who opened his cannabis dispensary on Greene Street in 2019.

Death threats poured into Fuhrman’s office. City Hall was shuttered for safety’s sake. An effort to recall the mayor was begun, a deeply personal affront in a tiny town where there is no anonymity even in a trip to the one grocery store. Silverton split along familiar political lines, with pickup trucks suddenly flying giant Trump signs.

The skirmish was a sobering rebuke to those who believe that if Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, could just live and work together, the forces of division pulling the nation apart would find no purchase. But as in the country at large, it seemed the town would become hopelessly divided.

Then, a kind of miracle happened. Silverton came back together again.

A town built on division.

Silverton in September 1940. The mines provided livelihoods for townspeople until the last one closed in 1991.Credit…Russell Lee, via Library of Congress

Silverton, nestled 9,318 feet above sea level in a shallow valley of the majestic San Juan Mountains, is by no means Anytown, U.S.A. From Durango, more than an hour away, one road leads in from the south, with hairpin turns and breathtaking passes. Aspen forests shimmer in gold in mid-October, but the snows that can close U.S. Route 550 for days started falling before Halloween.

The town’s roots were planted in 1860, when miners tapped the Sunnyside silver vein. The government pushed out the Southern Utes by treaty in 1874, and the rush was on. Fashionable citizens built graceful Victorian hotels, shops and homes along Greene Street, still the only paved road in town, while miners and prostitutes crowded into boardinghouses and bordellos on Blair Street, which ran muddy and rough a block east. Silverton became known as the Queen City of the San Juans.

“Our town was built on social division and classism,” said DeAnne Gallegos, who heads Silverton’s tourism outreach and its Chamber of Commerce, and the public information office of rugged San Juan County, in which Silverton is the only municipality. Her grandparents came for the mines, which supported livelihoods in town until the last one closed in 1991.

What saved Silverton was tourism. The town’s population nearly triples in the summer, catering to visitors passing through by car, hiking in from the Colorado Trail and Molas Pass, or disgorged by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, from which some tourists claim Bigfoot was spotted in October.

A hundred or so seasonal residents nudge up the population in the winter, drawn by helicopter skiing and backcountry hike-and-skis on the ungroomed black-diamond trails of Silverton’s peaks.

“We like that it’s rough around the edges,” said Klem Branner, the 51-year-old, Danish-born founder of Venture Snowboards on the edge of Silverton.

And yet the town is growing, little by little, with an influx of educated young professionals, lured from Denver, the suburbs of Milwaukee and even New York. Silverton’s new preschool houses 21 babies and toddlers, and 87 students attend the town’s state-of-the-art K-12 school, which offers experiential learning and progressive education. Housing prices are creeping up and the threat of chain stores looms as an omnipresent worry.

The factors that divided Silverton will be familiar to even the casual student of America’s partisan divide. Less educated workers and “old-timers” — baby boomers with links to the mining past — felt left behind, manipulated and even persecuted by the new liberal, educated millennial professionals imprinting their ideas on Silverton with little or no consultation, according to their critics.

“We used to be close-knit,” said Gary Davis, a retiree and part-time volunteer at the San Juan County Historical Society who came to Silverton a quarter-century ago. “Then the newcomers came and tried to change the town into what they wanted it to be.”

A new mayor arrives at City Hall.

In retrospect, Shane Fuhrman and his political rise seem almost preternaturally designed to bring Silverton’s generational tensions to a boil. Fuhrman grew up in Colorado and Oregon but went to college at Skidmore in upstate New York and law school in Brooklyn and worked at top finance law firms in Manhattan.

To those who find his Wyman Hotel renovation a bit froufrou, he counters that he created a dormitory in the back with beds for as little as $75, and that a Montucky Cold Snacks tall boy sells at the bar for two bucks. “Tasteful growth” is how a supporter, Daniel Clute, put it.

But Silverton residents also point to the bulldozers leveling the land that Fuhrman bought, after his election, for buildable housing lots that many could just as soon do without.

Grumbling turned to bitterness in May 2021 over the brash, noisy four-by-fours that tourists liked to ride into town. Aesthetically minded Silvertonians found them awful, “like living in a Mad Max movie,” Branner said. But many small-business owners, largely Republicans like Gigi Raine, whose Mountain Memories sells photos of the Rockies and other mementos, were convinced they were a lifeline.

With what supporters of the vehicles insist was little warning, Fuhrman and his allies on the board of trustees banned them.

Around that time, residents just returning to in-person town council meetings after the pandemic noticed that another young progressive on the board, Jordan Bierma, who opposes nationalism and tribalism in all forms, was not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. For weeks after, Fuhrman said, Bierma was harassed, and his wife was yelled at with their baby in the park.

Jordan Bierma, a Silverton trustee, said he “respectfully” turned off his camera during Zoom meetings in which he chose not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. He and his wife were later targeted for harassment.

The mayor decided the pledge was the problem. On June 14 — Flag Day, of all days — Fuhrman declared that its recitation would be suspended until further discussion could resolve his concerns.

“Any other unilateral decisions we need to know about?” an indignant council member, Molly Barela, asked him.

Not long after, a group at a council meeting used the comment period to angrily stand and recite the pledge on their own. A clip made its way to Fox News.

“That’s my fault, I’m being 100 percent honest,” Albert Heirich, 63, conceded in the lobby of the Villa Dallavalle hotel, which he and his wife manage. He confessed that he had sent the clip to Sean Hannity as a display of “true patriotism.” Heirich also peppered town officials with inflammatory letters and emails.

“When people were making bomb threats to town hall, I felt awful,” he said, “because that wasn’t my intent.”

Dayna Kranker, a 40-year-old town trustee who moved to the small town from a downtown neighborhood in Denver, summed things up this way: “The town got Trumped.”

“We weren’t immune to the nationalization of all things, and the politicization of all things,” said Dayna Kranker, a Silverton trustee.

“Fox & Friends” interviewed Barela and two other townspeople, introducing them as “proud Americans” who were “standing up for their country.” Representative Lauren Boebert, whose vast House district includes Silverton, declared Fuhrman an “anti-American disgrace.”

The board of trustees soon resumed saying the pledge, but the threats against Bierma accelerated, most from out of town, he said. Kelli Fries, the town clerk, said she was forwarding so many death threats and violent phone messages to the sheriff that town hall and the visitors center had to be closed. When the Proud Boys promised a visit, Fuhrman left town for 10 days or so after San Juan County sheriff deputies told the mayor the threats on his life were credible and he didn’t have the resources to protect him.

“That was rough,” Fuhrman said. “It almost ruined Silverton for me.”

Then Davenport, the weed dealer, Raine, the knickknack seller, and Floyd Barela, a brewery owner and the husband of Molly Barela, moved to recall Fuhrman, Bierma and the mayor pro tem, Sallie Barney.

Still clearly shellshocked, Barney sat on her couch in Silverton in October, her two daughters playing in earshot, her husband guiding heli-skiers in Patagonia, and contemplated how to explain the personal damage done that summer.

“It wasn’t fun,” she said, with no trace of irony. “I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”

Brokering a peace.

Silverton retains a connection to its historic roots even as a new generation arrives. Its new preschool houses 21 babies and toddlers, and 87 students attend the town’s K-12 school.

What the world was seeing that pandemic summer was a town pulling apart. Unseen were the first efforts to restore peace.

Well before the trouble started, Community Builders, a nonprofit in Glenwood Springs, Colo., had been hired by Silverton to draft a new 10-year master plan for the town. The Compass Project, as the effort was known, would evolve from a prosaic task into a prolonged effort to heal the community.

One summer night, Melody Skinner, a retired sheriff’s dispatcher, was invited by two men from Community Builders to a meeting of just three citizens at the Benson Lodge on Greene Street. She entered the hotel’s work space and encountered a county commissioner named Pete McKay. Having taken opposing sides on town issues in the past, they eyed each other and both declared they could not sit down together.

Instead, Skinner, 66, went off alone with Clark Anderson, Community Builders’ executive director, to talk over the town’s future — and vent her feelings of disorientation, anger and grief.

“We’d had big rows before, but this one was vicious because of the national political spectrum,” Skinner said, referring to the era of Donald J. Trump. “Trump had opened the spigot of being openly mean and just bad to other people.”

Community Buillders would try to shut off that spigot by bringing residents together in the smallest of groups, away from microphones and public spaces, to see if they could find a common vision for Silverton’s future.

Since its formation in 2016, Community Builders had worked throughout the Mountain West on economic development and town planning projects. It navigated the divide between citizens who wanted an expansion of tourism around the resort town of Crested Butte, Colo., and those who wanted more limited growth. In Taos, N.M., the organization tried to bridge the social divisions splintering the “legacy” Hispanics whose Spanish forefathers created the picturesque town, the “white hairs” (Anglos who turned it into a chic artists colony), the Native Taos Pueblos and the Latino workers.

In Silverton, Anderson found the bitter politics of the Trump era in a town that had prided itself on neighbor helping neighbor.

“Silverton’s always struggled with community tensions; it probably always will,” he said. “But the tenor of our leadership at the national level and the voices we listen to on the news, on the radio, online, they have tremendous influence, more than they used to.”

Clark Anderson and his organization, Community Builders, helped broker peace in the divided town. When he was told he had become a big celebrity there, he said, “Being a big celebrity in Silverton is like being taller than my grandma. But I’ll take it.”

Community Builders asked questions that were intentionally open-ended: Why do you love to live here? What are your hopes for the future and your life here? What are your fears?

“That approach gets at something more visceral than, ‘What do you want to see in the downtown?’” Anderson explained.

Over a year and a half, virtually every resident of Silverton took part. Branner, the Venture Snowboards founder, still marvels at the impact of those meetings.

“The only thing they could have done to get more was go door to door and make people show up at gunpoint,” he said.

It turned out that newcomers and old-timers, millennials and baby boomers pretty much wanted the same thing for Silverton, to let the town grow slowly but keep it cohesive and self-supporting. Fears of rampant growth were largely misplaced: Tourism was way up, but residency was barely climbing, and new businesses were opening, but worries over Starbucks and McDonald’s seemed overblown once laid on the table.

“People are afraid of what they don’t know, and their tendency isn’t to go into the cave that they’re afraid of but go around it,” Anderson said.

The Coffee Bear, a favorite hangout, became something of a Compass Project headquarters, though Holly Huebner, the cafe’s owner, conceded that not everyone in Silverton felt comfortable there.

“We got labeled the Millennial Coffee Shop,” said Huebner, who grew up in Massachusetts and bought the cafe in September 2020.

Through painstaking conversations, the temperature began to drop, the groups grew larger and common ground was re-established.

The new climate was apparent on Oct. 12, 2021, when voters cast their ballots on whether to recall the mayor. The news crews were gone. The town hall was back open. Fuhrman survived, with 263 rejecting his ouster against 214 who wanted him out. The trustees, Bierma and Barney, survived by slightly wider margins.

Community Builders’ work wasn’t finished. When Anderson arrived in town, he was told a center of dissent was the firehouse, where the volunteer fire chief of 35 years, Archuleta, stubbornly took pot shots at Mayor Fuhrman’s management style.

Gilbert Archuleta, the longtime fire chief, lost the mayoral race to Shane Fuhrman in 2020 and became one of his critics.

Archuleta wanted nothing to do with the Compass Project and publicly objected to the way Community Builders was hired, with $40,000 put up by the town, $40,000 from the state and $17,250 raised by Community Builders from the Gates Family Foundation.

“I was saying, ‘This guy has to follow the same rules as everyone else,’” he said of Anderson as he washed down his truck behind the fire station that bears his name. “They said, ‘You don’t understand. These guys are coming in to save us.’ Well, nobody’s coming in to save us.”

Anderson leaned on an intermediary who implored Archuleta to open his doors. What followed were a half dozen meetings at the firehouse stretching into 2022 to go over matters of affordable housing, snow removal and trust.

“In the end, everyone was pretty much in agreement,” Archuleta conceded.

On April 12, 2022, the firefighters held a happy hour and taco bar at the station to unveil the master plan.

“We just stopped listening to each other.”

The 77-page document does not jump out as extraordinary, but the process that produced it was, Silvertonians say.

“We were desperate,” Gallegos, the head of tourism outreach, admitted. “We could have never done that by ourselves. We wouldn’t have known how.”

Even Heirich, the curmudgeonly conservative who had tipped off Fox News, got involved. His view wasn’t popular — he opposed building affordable housing in town because, he said, “it’s part of mountain culture to sleep on the couch” in group houses, not rely on government.

But he publicly apologized to the town for his behavior, attributing his contrition in part to Community Builders.

The Compass Project “helped shift the power dynamic in town,” said Bierma, the trustee who had declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “When we don’t give voice to some of our community members, it gives them that perception of, ‘Maybe I don’t have a say.’”

In retrospect, much of Silverton’s discord was tied to the Covid-19 pandemic, the retreat from common spaces and the advent of Zoom calls, with their alien feel.

Covid “pushed people back to tribalism,” Jim Harper recalled in October. Harper, a self-described “hard-core, right-leaning independent,” was standing on Greene Street waiting for tourists to disembark from the vintage steam train his family operates between Durango and Silverton.

“Whether it was locally or on a national level, we just stopped listening to each other,” he said contritely. “Silverton is a microcosm.”

Davenport, the cannabis dispensary owner who started the mayoral recall drive, also has apologized, calling his petition “the great mistake.” But his role in it hasn’t been easy to live down. Davenport agreed to meet a reporter for dinner and a frank discussion — but in Durango, more than an hour from his shop.

Cole Davenport, a cannabis dispensary owner, initially felt that “the mayor was monopolizing Silverton,” but came to regret his role in the recall movement.

On a Tuesday evening in mid-October, Anderson stopped by town hall to see how the peace was holding. Silverton’s town administrator, Gloria Kaasch-Buerger, was planning a new round of “learning sessions” with citizens and was pleading with Anderson to help at least with the first few sessions.

“I don’t want to say you’re a big celebrity here, but you’re a big celebrity here,” she said, to which he replied, “Being a big celebrity in Silverton is like being taller than my grandma. But I’ll take it.”

There are still skeptics who think the Compass Project will soon be forgotten and the town will resume its brawling. The coming election season, with Trump likely on the ballot, could be enough to pick the scab.

“I’ve been here long enough to see people come to town in their fancy clothes, with their business cards, then leave town, and all they did was spend our money,” said Davis, the Historical Society volunteer, standing outside his house, its roof of soil, rock and scrub giving it the feel of a bunker.

Heirich agreed that the strife dividing America could easily return to Silverton — “This town has a love of grudge,” he cautioned — but he had kind words for a mayor he once threatened and accused of bullying.

“Overall, I think Shane has been a positive force,” Heirich said. “He made a lot of amateur political errors that cost him, but you know, if he wasn’t who he was, all that New York lawyer stuff, I think people would really see the good he’s done.”

Tourism is a big business in Silverton, but the town’s residential growth has been steady.
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