You know you’re “old Aspen” when you left in 1943.
Gerald “Gerry” Grover graduated from Aspen High School in the spring of 1942, worked at the Koch lumberyard for a bit, then got drafted to fight in World War II. Duty forced him to leave the town he grew up in, never to return except for an occasional trip to visit his grandmother, Bertha Feist.
Grover, 89, a resident of Grand Junction, has nothing but fond memories for the town where his roots on both his father’s and mother’s sides of the family go back to the silver mining era.
His grandmother came over Independence Pass on a stagecoach when she was a young woman. Her brother, Harry Koch, owned a sawmill and lumberyard that bore the family name as well as a livestock feed store.
“He was mixed up in a lot of stuff,” Grover said. “He had a lot of money.”
Their dad, Grover’s great-grandfather, Edwin Koch, was a surveyor who helped lay out Aspen in its early days as a silver camp, according to Grover.
Grover is uncertain how his dad’s side of the family ended up in Aspen. His grandparents, Edward and Fannie Grover, along with Fannie’s brother, Emmitt Gould, were early operators of the Mesa Store, which still stands on the west end of Main Street. They grubstaked miners with supplies at their general store, Grover said.
His dad, also known as Edward Grover, was born in the residence above Mesa Store.
Gerry was born in a small, Victorian house on West Hallam Street, which still stands. His dad worked in the Highland Mine, which the Grovers’ extended family owned through multiple shares.
“It was a beautiful place for a kid to grow up,” Grover said of Aspen in the late 1920s, throughout the ‘30s and into the ‘40s. “When I left for the service, there were only 700 people. Aspen was a quiet place.”
He recalls kids walking down streets of the West End, throwing rocks and breaking windows of abandoned homes.
“We had all the freedom in the world,” he said. “Nobody cared what you did and didn’t do.”
For a young kid in Aspen, that meant exploring the old mines, of course. He recalled a friend organizing a trip into the Smuggler Mine when Gerry was about 15. There were four or five boys but only one light source. Sure enough, it gave out.
Fortunately, Grover said, they had his dog, King, along. The large mutt accompanied Gerry everywhere. They figured out that King could see better in the pitch black of the mine. Grover grabbed his dog’s tail and the boys locked hands. King inched them out of the mine to safety.
Birthday parties were always big events while he was growing up. A property up Castle Creek Valley was flooded each fall to create ice for a skating rink. Grover said lights were turned on at the base of Aspen Mountain during evenings to illuminate a ski racecourse.
“I had two main things — my skis and my skates,” he said.
Big gatherings were held at the Aspen Community Church. His Grandma Feist headed the Ladies’ Aid group for years even though she wasn’t a member of the congregation, he said.
They had extended family gatherings during holidays at Harry Koch’s house. His grandpa Feist, who owned a bakery on Francis Street, was in charge of the cakes and candies. Grover said he remembered watching his grandpa pull taffy and make other candies at the bakery. They were forced to close their business during the Great Depression, he said.
Gerry’s dad worked an air hammer at the Highland Mine, where they pulled out lead, silver and zinc. “They got the zinc. They didn’t want it,” Grover said.
His parents moved to California for a few years during the Depression to find work, but they returned to Aspen when he was 9. He always considered Aspen his hometown.
Gerry graduated from Aspen High School in a class of 12, including Frank Dolinsek, a lifelong Aspen resident who recently passed away. Grover recalls working at the Koch lumberyard after graduation because there was a shortage of workers. The gig didn’t last long. He was drafted in 1943 and reported to nearby Camp Hale for training with the 10th Mountain Division. A colleague triggered a rock slide during a training exercise and Grover suffered a severe knee injury. The mountain troops shipped out while Grover was recuperating and he was reassigned to Camp Lee, Va. He received training as a medical official in three different camps before he was assigned to a hospital in Hawaii. He was transferred to Okinawa just as the famed Pacific island battle was winding down.
“It was like ‘MASH’ — same thing,” he said of his deployment, referring to the TV show of a military mobile-medical operation in the Korean War.
After World War II ended, Grover’s unit served in Japan, where his active duty ended.
The war brought changes. His parents had moved from Aspen. Though his grandmother Feist still lived in the old mining town, there was little else for him to return to.
“I wanted to come back to Aspen but I couldn’t find anything here,” he said during a recent visit to the town.
He got a job with the Veterans Administration (now known as Veterans Affairs) in California and soon after transferred to a VA facility in Grand Junction. He was a chief technician in radiology for 35 years.
Grover has visited Aspen about once a decade in recent years. He doesn’t like all the changes or the hustle and bustle of the tourist trade, but he lacks bitterness. It’s just not the Aspen he remembers.
During a visit on a sun-drenched day in September, he went by his family’s old house at 530 W. Hallam Ave. He knocked at the door but nobody was home. He wanted to see the interior one last time. The grand Victorian where his grandparents lived on Francis Street remains a couple of blocks away from his childhood home.
He saved his fondest memory for the lobby of the Pitkin County Courthouse. There, he shows an accompanying reporter his name on a plaque honoring the young men that Aspen sent to war.
“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Grover said.