Buzz Cooper reflects on family’s past, present and future in Aspen
His great-grandchildren are sixth generation resident of town
Stirling “Buzz” Cooper hasn’t lived in Aspen full-time since he was a teenager in the 1940s, but he still feels a special connection with the town — thanks to his family’s past, present and future.
Cooper is a third-generation Aspenite with one of the more unique stories of how his ancestors arrived. His grandparents, Fred and Francis, came on the train while Aspen was still booming as a silver mining town.
“1892 I guess it was,” Cooper said one morning this week during an interview in a suite at the Mountain Chalet, where he was staying for his visit. “What’s interesting from a historical viewpoint is we have a letter from my grandmother dating the afternoon that the train brought them to Aspen. Most people can’t note it quite that close.”
His grandparents were farmers from White Rock, Kansas, but got inspired to move to Colorado to open a branch of the Keeley Institute, which touted a popular treatment method for alcoholism at the time. Fred Copper opened his treatment facility where the Isis Theatre is now located. It’s a safe bet that Aspen had plenty of hard-drinking miners and other laborers, but they weren’t keen on taking the cure.
“The Keeley Institute didn’t last long at all,” Buzz said. “It wasn’t successful.”
Fred and Francis moved to Aspen with their young sons, Theodore “Ted” and Ed. As an adult, Ed bought a general store and named it Cooper Bookstore. When he got older, Ted, who was born in 1883, bought into the business with his brother.
The bookstore had a little bit of everything. They framed pictures, sold sheet music, carried sporting goods and fishing supplies, and they were the hot spot for fireworks for Fourth of July.
The store also had a newsstand. After the silver crash of 1893, Aspen went into a long decline known as The Quiet Years. The newsstand attracted just about everybody remaining in town to stop into Cooper Bookstore.
Ted bought out Ed sometime around 1920. There wasn’t enough business for both of them to make a living, Buzz said.
Ted married Lilian, who came to Aspen from Cincinnati, in 1926, and they eventually expanded their family as well as their business holdings.
“I was born in 1931 in Aspen, in a log cabin that my father built,” Buzz said. “It burned down a couple of years after I was born.”
Young Buzz helped out at the store and had a grand time exploring the abandoned mining works and other buildings that were plentiful throughout Aspen.
“It was very pleasant,” he said. “I enjoyed out of doors. My favorite activity was roaming in old mining mills and mining buildings, riding bicycles around town, shooting off fireworks.”
One customer at Cooper Bookstore stuck out for him.
“The family joke was one of the old miners would come in daily,” Buzz recalled. “The Denver Post was a nickel, I think. Nobody liked to work with him because it took him a long while to get a nickel out of his purse. So they would put me up to sell the paper to him.”
The Coopers also started one of the first tourist accommodations in the modern Aspen era.
“My mother got tired of working in the Cooper Bookstore under my father’s command,” Buzz said. “She was a businesswoman herself. She decided that she wanted to start a hotel. We had three or four sheds in (what is now) the Difficult Campground area.”
His mother had her two brothers come out from Cincinnati and convert a goat shed, a cow shed and a garage on their property 3.5 miles east of Aspen into small cabins. The cabins were popular week-long rentals for fishermen. The Coopers added to the property, which took on the name Aspen Park.
“We had nine cabins at one time,” Buzz said. “Of all the cabins, the only one that survived was the one my mother designed.”
That building, known as the lodge, still stands. A family by the name of Waterman also started tourist accommodations in Aspen about that same time.
Chris Cooper, Buzz’s son, said Fred Cooper (Buzz’s grandpa) was an early promoter of Aspen as a tourist town.
“We’ve got letters to the paper from him saying if we build a road here, we’d be a first-class tourist destination,” Chris said. “I don’t know that it was received favorably at the time.”
The Cooper Cabins, also known as the Aspen Park Cabins, were rented out into the 1950s. Buzz designed a map for guests at the cabins. That 1956 map, which has all the essential landmarks and attractions of the Aspen area, is part of a current display at the Aspen Historical Society.
Buzz said his dad liquidated Cooper Bookstore at the end of World War II or shortly after. He sold the space to Slim’s restaurant, which was located around the corner.
In addition to helping at the store, Buzz worked as the custodian at the Methodist Church. Laborers were scarce because so many men were fighting in WWII at the time, he said.
Buzz said his father also taught him how to recognize silver ore. His dad worked a mining claim out of Castle Creek Valley. Buzz got to know the backside of Aspen Mountain well as a teenager and took an interest in mining.
One of his schoolmates was Jim Markalunas, who still lives in Aspen. They were in different grades but in the same room of the small school.
“It was the smallest class that ever went through the Aspen school, nine or 10 (students), I think,” Buzz said of his specific grade. “I used to say that when I left town, 10 percent of the class disappeared.”
When the war ended, Buzz’s older brother returned from military service. Their mother wanted him to go to college, so he attended the University of Denver. Buzz also ended up moving to Denver in 10th grade and graduated from North High School.
Buzz attended Denver University and joined the military after college. Upon his discharge, he returned to Aspen to teach school for a year. He butted heads with some of the administration when he upheld the rule that students couldn’t attend national ski meets if they didn’t maintain a “C” grade or better in classes. The school board president’s daughter didn’t have a passing grade in Cooper’s math class, so he didn’t sign off on her attending the ski meet.
“That was during the Sputnik era,” Cooper said. “They were worried about the Russians getting ahead of us.”
The school board president allowed his daughter to attend the ski meet anyway, sparking an uproar in the tiny town that resulted in letters to the editor and even a newspaper story. The Denver Post picked up on the flap, contending that Cooper was “grousing” over the issue.
Cooper moved on to the Denver Public School system the following year and taught there until his retirement. He and his family always returned to the Aspen Park property for summers from the 1950s to when they sold the property in the early 1990s.
One of Buzz’s sons, the late Stirling Cooper Jr., moved to Aspen as an adult, becoming the fourth generation of the Cooper family in town. He was tragically killed in a canyoneering accident in Utah in 1999. Brandon Cooper, Stirling Jr.’s son, lives in Aspen and is the fifth generation in his family to do so. His daughters are sixth generation Aspenites.
Chris, who lives outside of Boulder, said his own sons jump at the chance to visit Aspen when they can.
“It’s still kind of the core place for the family,” he said.
After his retirement, Buzz eventually moved to Glenwood Springs and spent considerable time around Aspen. He worked tirelessly with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to get a trail in the Little Annie area dedicated in Stirling’s memory. Buzz did much of the work on the trail himself. He hiked the steep terrain and used pick and shovel to scratch out the trail well into his 80s. The Stirling Cooper Open Space was formally dedicated in September 2016.
Buzz now lives in the Phoenix area.
“I have Parkinson’s, glaucoma and hearing troubles, but I’m walking around,” Buzz said.
His family gathered in Aspen last weekend to celebrate Buzz’s birthday.
“My 90th birthday is on Sept. 6,” he said. “We figured it was close enough, we’d have a gathering of various family members and friends and call it the nearly 90th birthday.”
He has always maintained his connection to Aspen, wherever he lived. His grandparents were among the first people buried in Red Butte Cemetery. He is pleased the Coopers still have a presence in Aspen.
“It’s my hometown,” he said.
Rest areas and recreation facilities along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, including boat put-ins, trails and the paved bike path, have been routinely closed to nonpermit public use during flash flood watches.
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