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Aspen Times Weekly: The sounds — and signs — of summer

by Jill Beathard

Forty-six years ago, Reed Harris founded the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing so his son, Ricky, and other deaf children could discover the great outdoors the same way that their hearing peers could. Not long after that, the camp began to hold picnics as fundraisers, and soon a local kid named John Denver was performing at the event. The fundraiser grew to draw more than 7,000 people and was considered the event of the summer in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The picnic hasn’t taken place since before Denver’s death, but this year, in an effort by the camp to bring back a successful fundraiser and re-integrate itself into the community, the Deaf Camp Picnic will rock the mountainside again.

Harris, along with his partners Tom Sardy and Lt. Gen. William Martin, founded the Aspen Camp in 1967, according to the camp’s website. Longtime local Twirp Anderson was driving trucks for a mine near Ashcroft for Harris at the time, and Harris approached his employee about providing music for a picnic fundraiser at the T Lazy 7 Ranch in 1969. One get-together had already been held, according to Anderson, and Harris had heard his band, The Hustlers, play at the Red Onion before they broke up.

“I got a group together, and we started playing music,” Anderson said. “Well, from that time on, God I don’t know, for another 15 years, I was responsible for getting the bands and getting the sound equipment.”

Not only that, but Anderson and the other mine workers volunteered on weekends to construct the camp’s facilities. Seventeen acres of land in Old Snowmass was donated — by the Pabst family, according to Anderson — to the camp, and the first building, which still stands on the grounds today, went up in the summer of 1969, Anderson said.

The first few picnics were held at the T Lazy 7, but in 1973, the concerts were moved to the meadow on the camp’s grounds, just below the buildings. That was the year John Denver joined the bill.

“We had these picnics all the time, but when we first started … John wasn’t a famous guy, you know, he was just kind of a kid around town with a guitar,” Anderson said. But by 1973, Denver had recorded “Country Roads,” and he was beginning to become a household name.

“When John came that year, why it became obvious that we weren’t going to have enough room,” Anderson said. “So we moved up to the bottom of lift No. 5, called Campground, so we could accommodate more people and the parking lines too. We needed a lot more parking and a lot more space.”

Puppy Smith cooked for the picnics from the beginning. During the early ones, Anderson estimated there were less than 100 people in attendance, but for the last few at the bottom of Lift 5, Smith told him he fed 7,500 people.

“By that time he had a regular army of all these people,” Anderson said. “They’d go out there and set up all these cookers. … They would cook for three days.”

The last highly attended concert had John Denver, Jimmy Buffett and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as several local bands, on the bill, Anderson said.

“You see how my thing changed, is once these guys began to come, I had to arrange for bigger sound systems, and then I started getting calls from all over the country because people knew that the stars were coming,” Anderson said. “Then they wanted to get on the bill too. Of course I had to turn them down because other than the stars we tried to keep it a local event and just mainly have the local people.”

Doug Rhinehart photographed the Deaf Camp Picnic from 1978 to 1980.

“I thought it was a fabulous community event,” he said. “It was always something that people looked forward to in the summer. It was a big deal.”

Rhinehart recalled the local acts Easy Pickins, Bobby Mason, the Grown Men, and the Android Sisters performing for the crowd gathered from throughout the valley.

“It was just a very fun, family event that brought the community together, and it was for a great cause,” Rhinehart said.

A man named Budge Bingham ran the parking, according to Anderson.

“Not only did they run out of parking there at the bottom of 5, they had cars lined up halfway to the deaf camp,” Anderson said.

The Beck family was highly involved with the camp and picnic from the start. Harris was a family friend, and Pam Beck performed administrative tasks for the camp during the early years, according to an excerpt on the event’s website written by her son Doug.

“My mom worked so hard for so many years on this project,” said Debbie Kendrick, Beck’s daughter. “I spent my childhood selling raffle tickets, helping with food and picking up trash and enjoying doing it because the community was behind this project and the kids that would one day benefit.”

Glennis Beck took over the administration of the picnic after Pam stepped down, Kendrick said.

The picnic was the principal revenue for the Aspen Camp in those days. Anderson worked with it until the stars got so big that he couldn’t count on them being available, he said.

“The picnics just kind of went by the wayside,” he said.

Anderson’s not sure when the last picnic was, but he said it was a few years before Denver died. Some people have said that the picnics ended with Denver’s death, but Anderson said that’s not quite right, although Denver did do a benefit concert for the camp on the rodeo grounds in August of 1997.

“The revenue from that did go to the Deaf Camp,” Anderson said. “But the Deaf Camp Picnic as I describe, they ended quite a while before that.”

Originally created as a summer camp, the Aspen Camp added a winter program in the 1970s and changed its name to Aspen Camp School for the Deaf to reflect the changes in its programming, according to the camp’s website. Kids started attending in 1972. In 2008, the name was again changed to Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. That same year the camp began providing year-round programming.

However, in 2009, the camp was close to shutting its doors. Former Aspen resident Mike Adler, who also helped with parking and other labor at the picnics, received a letter — just three months after being diagnosed with cancer — saying the camp could no longer sustain itself financially.

“I went roaring up the road the next day and said ‘the hell you are!’” Adler said.

Lesa Thomas became executive director of the Aspen Camp that year. Thomas has roots with the camp: Her husband worked there in the late ’70s, building the stage on the grounds in 1978, and her daughter attended in the ’80s and ’90s.

“When I got here in 2009, I knew that the camp had some issues,” Thomas said. “At that time, we had a change in the board in 2010, and the board took it upon themselves, especially Mike Adler and Lisa Wyly, to make a difference. Since then we’ve really shined I think.”

In fact, in 2009, the camp hit a low point in number of attendees. Now it is serving more campers than ever, with 961 attending in 2012 and more than that already this year.

In the summer, most campers stay for one- or two-week sessions. Summer activities include backpacking, camping, and ropes courses. Winter camps provide participants the opportunity to ski or snowboard and try other winter sports. Most of the camp’s programming is structured for deaf or hard of hearing children, but it also serves parents and families of deaf children, people who want to learn sign language, deaf adults and children of deaf parents. The Aspen Camp is also the only year-round facility serving deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals of all ages. It recently opened its grounds for other organizations and the general public to use for functions.

The Aspen Camp also provides employment and internship opportunities for deaf individuals.

“The majority (of summer interns) are deaf or hard of hearing,” Thomas said. “Almost every position has a junior attachment. And so we work with several schools for the deaf, and so that’s where we get our staff for the summer.”

Adler is a big reason the Deaf Camp Picnic is returning this weekend.

“The deaf camp was looking for ways to raise money,” Adler said. “I thought, ‘why don’t we do that again?’”

The picnic is intended to raise funds for the general operations of the camp. Since this is the first event after such a long hiatus, the goal is just to break even, Thomas said.

“Our intent was to provide something that the community would enjoy, to help the camp get back into the community and for us to break even,” Thomas said. “And it’s our intention, if it is successful, to move forward with another one next year.”

Campers in attendance this week will get to attend the picnic from 2 to 4 p.m. on July 20. Thomas said she decided not to let them stay longer than that because of the alcohol being served.

Like other young attendees, the campers will be able to go through the kids zone, which includes bouncy houses, hula hooping with Betty Hoops, face painting and hair braiding. On top of that, they will get to meet the band members and sit close to the stage in the ADA section, where they’ll be able to feel the music.

“It’ll be fun for them cause that’ll be during Bobby Mason’s time and Starwood, and they’re loud and rock ‘n’ roll kind of stuff,” Thomas said.

With so many people attending the picnics and helping out in other ways, the Aspen Camp used to be a project of the community, in Adler’s view. The Aspen Rotary Club supported the camp when it was founded in 1971, and now it is involved again, supplying most of the volunteers for the picnic, Adler said. Adler has said that many people in the valley today don’t even know about the Aspen Camp, and he’s hoping the event will raise awareness and support once again.

“I just think it’s really worthwhile,” he said.

jbeathard@snowmasssun.com


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