Books of Aspen
February 10, 2004
Take a moment and reflect on that fact that in 1881, “the initial enthusiasm for the Aspen Town and Land Company quickly turned into indifference and then hostility. This early support had been based on the primitive and disorganized condition of the camp and on the company’s promise to undertake improvements that individuals could not finance.
“With the incorporation of the town and the establishment of the county, civil authority and the powers of taxation seemed to promise a solution to early problems that now rested with the camp itself. So many citizens rejected cooperation with the company in favor of a policy of independence and self-help.”
You mean bickering with the dominate company in town goes back more than a hundred years?
Well, that explains a lot. In fact, Malcolm J Rohrbough’s excellent book “Aspen, the History of A Silver Mining Town 1879 to 1893,” sheds quite a bit of light on Aspen. When you read about how Mr. B. Clark Wheeler came skiing over Independence Pass in February 1880 to see what he could see, well the history of town comes alive.
Rohrbough’s is just one of the books in the Pitkin County Library that anyone interested in town should check out and wade through.
Another is “Take The Aspen Train” by Edward Larsh and Robert Nichols with color photography by John and Judy Hill. Now here’s a book that will warm the hearts of anyone who thinks valley light rail is a good idea. Not only does it describe how Aspen was once served by not one, but two trains, it tends to wax poetic about trains.
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And why not? For surely it was a big deal in 1888 in Aspen. The Denver and Rio Grande was the first company to reach Aspen by rail at the end of October 1887. It came up through Woody Creek and ended at Rio Grande park. In February 1888, the Colorado Midland came up from Basalt, across the Maroon Creek Bridge, which it built, and into town along Durant Street.
The book includes some classic black-and-white photos, including one from October 27, 1887, which shows a group of Aspenites standing out on the tracks, waiting for “the first train to arrive in Aspen.”
Some are still waiting.
One item about the train in Aspen’s history that I love is that it was still around to deliver the first lift towers to town. The train took out silver and later brought in the mechanism to turn snow into gold.
But before “white gold” replaced silver, town got real quiet. If you haven’t spent some time with Kathleen Krieger Daily’s and Gaylord T. Guenin’s “The Quiet Years,” then you really haven’t listened to Aspen’s history told through many voices:
“Hannibal Brown was our only black for years and years in Aspen. He had a little white house, and I don’t know when he died or when he moved away. He kind of bootlegged drinks during dances and stuff. The people would go over there for intermission and he would mix drinks. Of course, he wouldn’t set a price — you had to just leave a donation. In other words, you would know what he normally would charge, and you left something.”
This beautiful book cannot be read in bed. It is too heavy. But it deserves a place on your kitchen table and should be read over a long period of time. In it you will find a chorus of wonderful voices about Aspen’s spirit. And if you do nothing else but flip through the photos, you will understand more about Aspen and the valley.
Another indispensable book about Aspen’s history is “Aspen Skiing, The First Fifty Years, 1947 to 1997” by Peter Shelton. It is a concise little book that neatly lays out the story of skiing in Aspen.
Published in 1997 by the Aspen Skiing Company as part of the town’s 50th Anniversary celebration, it neatly captures some of the romantic grit of the early years of sliding:
“(Swiss skier Andre) Roch scouted the route (of the first ski run on Aspen Mountain), and Frank Willoughby, who had been elected president of the (Roaring Fork Winter Sports) club, led crews of volunteers that summer to cut the trail, which was 6,600 feet long and more than about 50 feet wide.
“Aspen’s lumber merchant and undertaker, Tom Sardy, remembered Willoughby coming ‘down from working all day at the Midnight Mine with a miner’s hat on, with a light, and he was up there cutting trails by himself. He was going to get that thing done! And he did a job, believe me.'”
Friedl Pfeifer’s book, “Nice Goin’, My Life On Skis,” will also add to your understanding of what it took to move the valley from the quiet years to the ski years. In one telling passage, Pfeifer writes of his efforts in August 1946 to get the ski area and related facilities off the ground with the help of Walter Paepcke:
“I talked with Herbert Bayer, our local architect, and we determined it would cost almost $100,000 to build the Sun Deck on the top of Aspen Mountain. I went to the board of directors and explained, as delicately as possible, the need for facilities, especially for our lady skiers. The company directors were reluctant to build and go deeper into debt.
“Paepcke came through again at a meeting on his front lawn. While passing around the martini pitcher he said: ‘Gentleman, the hard thing to do is get into a house of ill-repute without being seen. Once inside, you might as well spend the night.’
“Speaking in support of my idea, he said we had come this far, why not go all the way. It was put to another vote and all hands went up, martini glass and all. Bayer was hired as architect and Mr. Paepcke arranged financing of the construction. The beautiful octagon building Bayer designed, provides skiers with safe haven at the top of Aspen Mountain and incredible views of the surroundings mountains.”
The “beautiful octagon building” was torn down this Spring and a new Sundeck is rising in its place.
It was then up to Aspen’s answer to Erma Bombeck — Martie Sterling — to write a book that captured some of the ensuing wackiness. “The Days of Stein and Roses” helped the world understand a bit of what life in a ski town in the late 50s and early 60s was like:
“The (Winterskol) parade, like all parades, hemmed and hawed and backed and filled. The temperature dropped and all of us, except the children, consumed large quantities of the martinis Gerry Carr had thoughtfully provided in a gallon jug.
“By the time we got under way, Aspen’s young crowd was ready for us with enormous pyramids of very icy ammunition, and most of the parade entrants were drunker than goats. The ensuing mayhem was awesome.
“Harold Carr toppled out of the bathtub and into a snowbank on a curve. The children and Ken were pelted with unidentified flying objects, one of which cracked Fred Fisher’s hallowed porcelain (bathtub). ‘He’ll beat me up,’ choked Ken (Sterling). ‘And I’m not well.’ The Rices, Grimes, and Linges got under the quilts and stayed there, while the dogs all dove off to join the packs of gamboling hounds running amok through the streets.”
Well, you get the idea. Things were a lot looser and more innocent when Stein Eriksen still ran the ski school at Highlands.
But times grew less innocent as the battle for Aspen’s soul began. And as Hunter S. Thompson writes in the introduction to Peggy Clifford’s 1980 book “To Aspen and Back,” “we won all the battles, but I think we lost the war.”
Clifford’s books is not a feel-good, fuzzy profile of Aspen. It’s a bittersweet look that chronicles the ’50s and ’60s and then recounts the pivotal election of 1972 that put Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman in office as commissioners and elected Stacey Standley as Aspen’s mayor in 1973.
Clifford, who was a long-time columnist with the Aspen Times, is blunt in her backward look at their efforts to make Aspen a better place:
“…Shellman, Edwards and Standley wanted to re-create the small town with such pastoral touches as the mall, the parks, the trails. It was a nostalgic exercise that had little to do with facts. The facts were that Aspen had been a rough mining camp, a booming city and a dying place, in that order.
“When Walter Paepcke arrived, he made it into a gathering place for the best and the brightest. Aspen had never been the sweet small town that Shellman, Edwards and Standley were trying to re-create. “Out in the country, where they meant to preserve the wilderness, they made instead an expensive preserve for affluent Americans. In Aspen itself, they replaced an old commercial district with a kind of hip shopping center. They meant to cool the boom and re-create the small town, but they refueled the boom and made a chic watering hole.
“Their intentions were good. Their means, however vehement, were conventional. When growth is too rapid, you tighten up zoning to slow it down. When there are too many cars and too much commotion, you install a mall. When a place becomes too urban, you make parks and trails. When you are threatened by people with bad taste, you legislate good taste. But the plan went awry.”
The next book to take a look at Aspen didn’t get much cheerier. If and when Clifford read Ted Conover’s 1991 book “Whiteout, Lost in Aspen” she probably nodded knowingly throughout, as it essentially chronicles the remnants of the battle for Aspen and how it slithered into the excess and weirdness of the ’80s. Conover can be scathing:
“Even among ‘nice’ celebrities, as among other visitors, there remains a strong desire to become an insider, meaning: to have friends who are locals. Friends who are locals are indispensable in finding out which restaurants are hot, where the good parties are, and who’s cute and available.
“And local friends, used in conjunction with a personal track record (‘I’ve been coming to Aspen for 10 years, way before it was like this’), are good for deflecting the suspicion that a celebrity ‘uses’ Aspen. Some locals seem to specialize in this job of ‘pet local.’ The relationship may seem unnatural, but in fact it’s a perfect commensalism: The ski instructor (or other service-economy employee) gains the prestige of high-profile clients and companions and adds excitement to what’s basically a dead-end job, and the celebrity gets some local credibility and a feeling that he or she is part of the scene.” Just the kind of passage you want to read just before the holidays, eh? Overall, one puts down “Whiteout” thinking Ted might have had a better time if he went skiing a bit more often.
Finally, if you’re looking for a shortcut to reading through Aspen’s history, check out the latest entry — “The Story of Aspen” by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes. Published in 1997, it covers the silver mining years, the ranching and small town years, the early ski and culture years, the lighthearted years and the glitz years — with great stories, profiles and photos.
Each one of those eras can still be found and felt in town. You just gotta look around, and maybe do a little light reading to bring them all back home.
“The story of Aspen could very well be the story of who pushed out whom,” wrote Hayes in her book. “The silver miners pushed out the Indians. The ski bums pushed out the silver miners. The millionaire second-home owners pushed out the ski bums. And now it is said that the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.
“It seems there is always someone bigger, more powerful and richer, who wants to call Aspen his own.”