The Unsung Masters Series: Belle Turnbull

Updated: Mar 16


Motivation: Two ladies joined one of my walking tours last August. They were very much interested in the Breckenridge history about Belle Turnbull and Helen Rich. Most interest focused on the poetry of Belle; they were in the process of writing a play and musical about her work. Unfortunately, I was able to tell them little beyond what they already knew. I was able to take them upstairs in the Welcome Center so they could peruse the display there. I jumped at the chance to read this book, and believe the insights and stories would fit well in a proposed second historical walking tour post WWII.


Review:

Life overview: Born in 1881 in N.Y, she moved to Colorado Springs with her family when she was 7, was graduated from Vassar, returned to Colorado Springs and spent her working life teaching English at the Colorado Springs High School. She was Department Head for several years. She retired and, accompanied by her life partner, Helen Rich, moved to Breckenridge in 1938 and resided at 317 North French Street. She died in 1970. She and Helen retired to Breckenridge when the town had receded from mining prosperity; the population was a mere 300; and the future prospects for the town appeared dire. Why she and Helen choose Breckenridge is unknown, except that Belle loved the mountains and choose to write about their splendor and the harm mining (primarily the dredge boats) did to the environment. One interesting off-topic detail is that Belle became a great cook in Breckenridge. She always cooked on a coal and wood stove, believing the results superior.


front cover of the book
Belle Turnbull - The Unsung Masters Series

Focus of her poetry: She published three poetical volumes – Goldboat (1940), The Tenmile Range (1957), and Trails (1968). Excerpts from these three volumes compose the book’s first three sections. Succeeding sections center on her unpublished works; critical reviews; and her prose biography of Ben Stanley Revett. Belle credits Revett for inventing, building, managing and investing in early dredge boats. It is evident in her text that she acquired a deep knowledge of dredge boat construction, operation, and danger for the workers.

Prior to publishing Belle’s work, the editors describe the enormous amount of primary-sourced, richly-detailed work documented in her papers (located in the Denver Public Library). Although the volume of papers is slim, they illustrate organization, methodical adherence to historical events, and academic rigor.


Obtaining Recognition: Turnbull was known as a relatively obscure regional poet before the 21st century. That has changed. Increasingly, she is considered a rare, esteemed original American poet.


Reviewer observations on Turnbull poetry: I thought that the first poem quoted in this book was completely incomprehensible!

To quote:

The tail of your eye, your nostrils know the ombre

Of what was here. You know a stand of timber,

Stout, have purple cones ambered with resin

That roared along this chimney. And you know

The smell of gold in a hole, perverse and somber.


However, I am untrained in symbolism, metaphors, meters and syntax of poetry. My impression improved. My favorite narrative poem is Goldboat. Published in 1940, it is her most popular work during her lifetime. It tells the story of a plan for a dredge boat, the realization of the boat, the personal conflicts around the building and operation of the boat, and its subsequent demise. She portrays corruption; insufficient training, lack of finances, and a romantic contest between the “back East woman” and the “Rocky Mountain” lady.


In (“Words About a Place,” Ten Mile Range, 1957) and page 84 of this book, I was particularly moved by this description of a mining cabin:

The logs have been sealed away and overlaid.

Paper on paper. You long to peel the stuff,

The flowered, the plain, the dearbought dim brocade,

Down to the muslin, down to the old buff,

Down to whatever is left of a man dead,

A bit of wool maybe dyed with butternut

Caught in the mitered corner, a hair of him shed,

Or sweet in the wood the name of a girl cut.

There’s not a man or a ledger to tell his name.

Or whether his bones are on the range or the plain.

Here in old years his bones and brain were.

Every time a nail strikes into the chinking,

Into the hollow of time, it will set you thinking.


The Ten Mile Range evokes the mountain’s intemperate cold, wind and snow, ruthlessness of the atmosphere, predicaments of miners and mountain women, and government’s unsuccessful attempts to rule the mountains.


I close with a brief poem from one of her uncollected and unpublished poems (page 122). I believe it summarizes the personality, collegiality, and presence of Belle Turnbull.

What is your religion?

To tend my house, my body, and my spirit:

this is beauty.

To live as best I may with those whom my life

touches; to nourish them and to be nourished by them:

this is love

to contemplate, to search, compare, to winnow:

this is wisdom.


Belle Turnbull: On the Life & Work of an American Master is available for purchase from Amazon.


The home at 317 North French Street contributes to Breckenridge's National Historic District. It is individually eligible for listing on the State and National Registers.


Book Review Written by Jill Slater

Review of Belle Turnbull: The Unsung Masters Series

(edited by David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines)

January 2021