History alive in words, memories

Perry recalls county's past, points to books to learn more

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— Mary Jean Perry has roots in Routt County. While sitting at her desk in the tiny, two-room Toponas Public Library adjacent to her home, she has a perfect view of King Mountain, which is named after her grandfather, Preston King.

Perry recalls her past as if it was yesterday, thanks in part, perhaps, to an entire shelf of books from or about people and places in Routt County.

One of the books, written by her aunt, is about her own family's history in the county.

Her grandfather was a civil engineer who first surveyed many of the roads and railways seen in Routt County today, including Rabbit Ears Pass. Though Perry was born in Tooele, Utah, she grew up in Steamboat Springs and has spent most of her life in Toponas. In her 76 years, she has accumulated a vast knowledge and understanding of her surroundings.

Like most longtime Routt County residents, she can name each and every mountain, butte and landmark in the area but she also has a great deal of insight on politics and community.

"Community doesn't mean a place with stop signs and boundaries, it's has to do with a common idea," Perry said.

Perry said that some have tried to say Toponas is not a community, but she will tell anyone it is one of the strongest communities there is. "It's kind of like one big family," she said.

The Toponas community has not changed much since her days of growing up during the depression, Perry said. Unlike many cities and towns, people still gather at the community center to discuss politics and community issues.

"Everybody voted then," Perry said. "Many do now but it's not everybody."

She said the people of Yampa and Toponas are more closely related to each other than other areas of Routt County, because they are tied by the common bond of agriculture. The two towns were once mainstays for spinach and lettuce growing.

Perry was raised by parents who kept a vast book collection on "tiers and tiers" of shelves that covered a wall in their living room. From those shelves, Perry read about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and other adventurers.

During the Depression, while many goods were rationed, Perry said her family couldn't afford much, especially for entertainment. So their weekly routine became Friday-night visits to the Steamboat Public Library. The big attraction was the "funnies" in all the magazines.

"We didn't even care they were advertisements," Perry said.

Perry and her family would sit in the library for hours reading. But one day, Perry discovered a "magician" worked at the library, and little did she know, her life would never be the same again.

The magician was actually the librarian, Mrs. Colley, but she was magic to the young Perry because, "if you wanted a book, she knew exactly where it was."

Though Perry said Colley was a great influence on her, it was her mother and her vast book collection that most influenced her to become a librarian.

"From the time I was little, even in Utah, I knew what I wanted to do," Perry said.

Now Perry is the sole librarian at the Toponas Public Library, which she owns and operates herself, and works part time at the Yampa Public Library.

There, she keeps many books and videos about Routt County and local state parks and wilderness areas.

Perry will tell her story in her own words at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center as part of "Circles of Wisdom," a lecture series that invites some of Routt County's longtime female residents to share their stories with the next generations.

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