Steamboat Springs takes in piece of history

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It may be summer vacation, but 11-year-old Kyle Kouvonsky received an American history lesson Friday.

Kouvonsky was one of an estimated 400 Steamboat Springs residents who took advantage of a rare opportunity to view an original copy of the Declaration of Independence at the First National Bank of Steamboat Springs.

"We learned about (the declaration) in school," Kouvonsky said. "I didn't know that they printed all of these copies, though. I thought there was only the one real one."

Few people are aware that printed broadsides preceded the creation of the hand-signed copy that resides in the National Archives. The copy that was available for viewing, one of the 200 original Dunlap broadsides (named after creator John Dunlap), is extremely valuable and extremely rare.

"Of the 200, only 25 are known to exist," said Mary McGuire, who travels with the copy. "But who knows? There could be one hiding behind a painting somewhere."

Dunlap, under orders from John Hancock, was the first to produce the copies on the night of July 4, 1776. Broadsides were then circulated and read throughout the colonies to "rally support from the colonists to take up arms," McGuire said.

But because the American colonies were under British control, support for independence was considered to be treason, an act punishable by death, McGuire said. As a result, many of the Dunlap broadsides were hidden or destroyed soon after their creation.

A flea market shopper discovered this particular copy concealed behind a painting purchased for $4. Sotheby's and an independent expert authenticated the broadside, and former TV and film producer Norman Lear purchased it on a Sotheby's online auction for $8.14 million in 2000.

Lear became concerned about the low voter turnout in the United States, especially among the 18- to 24-year-old age group. He founded a nonpartisan youth voter registration campaign called "Declare Yourself," which organized the "Declaration of Independence Road Trip." The broadside began touring the nation Sept. 11, 2002, and will continue at least through the upcoming election.

It is Lear's hope that by viewing the original copy, citizens -- especially teens -- will be inspired to vote.

"It has been in more than 60 cities," McGuire said. "We're probably close to a million (viewers)."

The broadside measures about 16 by 20 inches and is in remarkably good condition. A few barely noticeable stains and creases mar the document, but the copy has been restored, and the ink is still dark and clear.

"It's likely that this one is in the best condition of any of the surviving ones," McGuire said.

To preserve the copy, no photographs of the broadside are allowed. The Steamboat Today was granted an exception.

"Every time a flash goes off, it fades the ink," she said.

Officers John McCarthy and Bill Stucker stood behind the broadside as guards.

"It's an honor," Stucker said.

Steamboat Springs was lucky enough to host the Dunlap broadside for two days. It arrived Thursday for a local convention, but a vault was needed to store the document overnight.

The bank offered its vault through corporate connections, and the local accounting firm Tredway, Henion and Kerr PC, arranged for the public viewing, said Paul Knowles, a member of the bank's marketing department.

"This is huge for the town ... It's a pretty sacred document," said Knowles. "We can't pass something like that up, with it being an election year. It's a piece of history and a reason to vote."

Lear's broadside is the only one privately owned. The other 24 copies are scattered throughout the United States, and two reside in Great Britain.

"I don't know that any other copy is on public display at the time," McGuire said.

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