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Treasure trove: Nina Heald Webber’s extraordinary donations to Fort Lewis College

By Andrew Gulliford

Special to the Herald

Colleges love donors, and Fort Lewis College is no exception. Center of Southwest Studies at FLC has many friends and donors, but a standout contributor is Nina Heald Webber, whose gifts have included 4,500 historic postcards, 100 lantern slides and dozens of souvenirs and tourist items from Durango and the Southwest.

She has given for posterity a large and diverse collection – everything from 250 matchbooks depicting local businesses to 300 decorative silver spoons. She has gifted FLC with plates and bowls painted with Colorado’s distinctive Columbine flower motifs and found rare ephemera from Durango, including sales posters and circulars. Many of these images can be found on Center of Southwest Studies’ website.

Special plates and glassware were made for local drugstores because tourism has always been a part of the San Juan Mountains.

“I think some of the spoons and souvenir china are important because they are irreplaceable,” Webber says. “The nice china came from Dresden, Germany, or the United Kingdom. The colors are unusual and strong, such as purple trim on a pale golden yellow background.” She adds that the best china was manufactured before 1915 or World War I.

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For Webber, collecting is in her blood. Born into a successful manufacturing family from Worcester, Massachusetts, she says, “My family, my grandparents, my cousins, everyone collected. I like postcards because I’ve always had a camera and I’ve used it.”

The Heald Machine Co. was one of industrial America’s success stories and essential to American dominance in both world wars. With 3,000 employees working three shifts during World War II, the company’s machine shops became the first in New England to receive the coveted Army-Navy E Award for excellence in quality production.

“My father was a visionary, a brilliant businessman,” Webber says. “He always took photographs, developed his own black-and-white prints and was one of the first photographers to print his own color shots.” Her family passed on to Webber an eye for visual images and also a belief in philanthropy and giving back to the communities in which she lives.

With homes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and in Naples, Florida, Webber has acquired postcard collections for those areas, too, and has helped with books about the Cape Cod Canal and tourist scenes of Naples.

She came to Durango in 1982, bought a house at Edgemont and encouraged by her daughter, Deb Allen, started to donate to FLC when I was director of Center of Southwest Studies. It has been a lasting friendship ever since, with Webber giving FLC thousands of postcards of the area, purchasing a scanner with hardware and software to help Center of Southwest Studies reproduce images and providing numerous students hundreds of hours of valuable experience cataloging her collections. She has made 78 distinct donations since 2002.

“Collecting has been one of my great joys. I’ve met people connected with historical societies and museums. They’ve become friends. I’ve gotten to know antique dealers and had a wonderful time. I went to postcard shows when they were popular and now have help in dealing with eBay,” Webber says.

Nik Kendziorski, archivist at Center of Southwest Studies, couldn’t be happier. After buying hundreds of items related to Durango, Telluride, Ouray and Silverton, he can now ask Webber to focus on other areas of the Four Corners, including Shiprock, Bluff and Monument Valley. The center has the Durango Collection of rare Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanic weavings, donated by Richard and MaryLynn Ballantine, and Webber has contributed by purchasing postcards and photographs that show weavers at work.

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At 86, with beauty, grace and poise, Webber reflects on a long and satisfying life. One of her favorite words is serendipity. She loves finding Southwestern items in junk shops and garage sales across the country. She smiles and tells me, “Collecting has given me confidence and opened doors. It’s nice to know that you’ve left certain parts of history intact for others to see and use.”

A Nina Heald Webber Dedication Text Panel from the center explains that, “One useful aspect of this collection is that it documents changes in structures, cities and landscapes – and the viewer can see many of these images online.” Six volumes cover the history of American postcards – from the earliest period (the 1890s through World War I), through the white border era (1915-1930) including linen postcards (1930-1944) and photochromes (1945 to the present).

If a photographer made a postcard from a Southwest Colorado scene, the center probably has it. The public benefits from the Webber collections and so do FLC students. “During my time as an intern at the Center of Southwest Studies, I have learned a great deal about the ways in which a collection is processed, specifically the Nina Webber collection,” says history major David Anderson. “Gaining this firsthand experience is important for my future career in archives or in museum work. This collection contains numerous documents and artifacts from the Southwest that can be useful to students conducting research as these items are primary sources for a project.”

In 2004, The Durango Herald Small Press published Southwest Sampler, a book using Webber’s postcards from Durango, Telluride, Ouray, Ophir and Silverton. In the foreword, she wrote, “A defining moment in my postcard collecting occurred when I spied a card showing the summerhouse in which I grew up, a postcard printed in the early 1900s showing our residence with a horse and buggy in front of the house. I knew I was hooked.”

Since then, not only has the Webber postcard collection expanded, it has also seen extensive public use. Though Webber is a private person with a warm smile, she delights when the public shares her love for local history. She wrote in her foreword: “The real satisfaction has been to create or add to historical collections at secondary schools, colleges, historical societies and museums. Learning how to preserve, organize and display postcards has been fascinating. It is very important to me that my various collections be made available to the public, whether for research, investigation or simply to entertain those wanting to see what their town looked like ninety years ago. What started for me as a hobby has become a means to share with the public my ‘windows to the past,’ which are priceless memories of previous eras.”

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Some collectors keep their collections in shoeboxes in a closet, in the back of a barn or in an attic trunk. Nina Heald Webber has shared her thrill of collecting with residents on Cape Cod, in Florida and, most importantly, here in Durango at FLC. As photographs have given way to digital scans and written statements are now text messages, our means of communication may exist in an electronic cloud, but that material will be hard to archive.

Thanks to Webber, a century from now, we’ll know what tourist souvenirs came from the San Juans and the Four Corners. Thanks to donors like her, FLC continues to fulfill its mission to provide research materials on the Southwest. Thank you, Nina, for your gifts, your generosity and for sharing your passion to preserve the past.

Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Email him at andy@agulliford.com.



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