Founder of Aspen’s Red Onion dies at 93
June 15, 2011
ASPEN – John Litchfield, founder of the Red Onion restaurant and one of the men who helped transform Aspen into a destination ski resort, died last Friday evening at a Denver nursing home. He was 93.
His longtime friend and a fellow member of the 10th Mountain Division, George Loudis, said those who know Litchfield will remember him as a man who was always vying to be the best at everything.
Loudis, a Denver resident, said he helped Litchfield during the last years of his life, driving him to the store to get various things he needed. Loudis is a few years younger than Litchfield.
“He had the Red Onion in the early days of Aspen,” Loudis said. “There was a whole crew in Aspen from the 10th Mountain Division after World War II. He was always trying to get to the ‘top of the heap.’ He was a very strong-minded person.”
No memorials or funeral arrangements in Colorado are planned. Litchfield will be cremated and his ashes will be transported to Maine for a memorial with relatives, Loudis said.
Litchfield was born in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on July 21, 1917. From the age of 4, he was an accomplished skier, and went on to be named the best junior skier in Maine.
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That success on the slopes carried over to his college years at Dartmouth. In 1937 he was a member of the first U.S. Alpine Ski Team, which participated in the Pan American Games in Chile. He was named to the 1940 U.S. Olympic Ski Team, but the games were canceled due to the onset of world war.
An Aspen Historical Society biography states that Litchfield was a ski instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho, before joining the Army in 1942. Following officer training school in Fort Benning, Ga., he hooked up with the famed mountain division as it was being formed at Camp Hale, near Leadville. According to the Ski Museum of Maine, Litchfield earned a Bronze Star for valor in combat during the division’s campaign in Italy.
Following the war, he moved to Aspen and became a co-director of the newly founded Aspen Ski School, along with Friedl Pfeifer and Percy Rideout. He is said to have helped build the original Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain in 1946. He also opened the Red Onion in the summer of 1947, converting it from its former use as a saloon, historical society documents state. He also joined the Denver Chamber of Commerce and helped promote winter sports.
Aspen Times employee Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, whose book “The Story of Aspen” recalls the early days of the community, mentions that Litchfield was present during the dedication ceremonies for Aspen’s first ski lift in January 1947. He followed Pfeifer, an Austrian native and one of the founders of Aspen Skiing Corp., in an exhibition of high-speed racing for the occasion. Aspen was beginning its second life, “going from a silver mining town to a ski town,” Hayes wrote.
Soon Litchfield moved back to Sun Valley to teach skiing, and eventually becoming director of the ski school, but retained ownership of the Aspen restaurant. As he was being called back into the military in 1951 to serve in the Korean War, he sold the Red Onion to John Sihler.
The Ski Museum of Maine notes that he returned to Colorado after that war, and his skills “were put to use by Hollywood when he performed as a stand-in for Jimmy Stewart in the movie ‘Mortal Storm.’ In that film, he skied down a mountain, chased by machine-gun-firing Nazis.”
A biography from the September 2002 issue of Skiing Heritage Journal states that Litchfield lived in Denver in the 1970s. He raced regularly as a senior, often winning or placing in major events. At the age of 70, he retired and became a recreational skier.
The Aspen Historical Society holds a collection of Litchfield’s personal and professional papers, maps, letters, photgraphs, medals and awards, in the original order that Litchfield requested. LItchfield is a member of the Colorado, Maine and U.S. skiing halls of fame.
Litchfield was married and divorced twice. Attempts to reach one of his relatives for more information were unsuccessful.
Loudis said that Litchfield was mostly unhappy in the last years of his life because his body and health wouldn’t allow him to do the things he liked to do.