‘Hippie lawyer’ recalls Battle of Aspen

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
After filing Colorado's first civil rights lawsuit during the "Hippie Trials," Joe Edwards ran for Aspen mayor in 1969.
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times |

“Their Generation,” an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.

A few minutes after arriving in Aspen, the 15-year-old hitchhiker was arrested. He had climbed Independence Pass with plans of thumbing his way to San Francisco. Instead, he was sentenced to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail.

It was 1967, and the local police magistrate, Guido Meyer, wanted Aspen free of hippies. With the City Council’s blessing, Aspen police arrested six more for vagrancy or undesired transience.

One of those arrested became the lead plaintiff in Colorado’s first civil rights lawsuit, filed by Joe Edwards, a 28-year-old with a law degree who had never been in court. Up against a team of city-hired attorneys, Edwards asked for a preliminary injunction in federal court, which would have put an end to the harassment.

During the hearing, Edwards asked Meyer about an article in The Aspen Times, where the magistrate was quoted as saying he wanted to run the hippies out of town for disturbing local business.

“Guido Meyer — he was true to form,” Edwards, 73, recalled from his Missouri Heights home last week. “I asked him this question … and he just went off: ‘Those dirty hippies! They’re all over the place, and they’re filthy, and they haven’t washed, and they smoke dope!’”

Appalled by Meyer’s outburst, the judge found that the hippies’ constitutional rights had been violated. But because the cops had ceased the harassment, the judge denied the injunction. Instead, he gave his private phone number to Edwards and told the cops that if there were any further incidents, he would issue the injunction. From then on, Edwards was regarded as Aspen’s hippie lawyer.

“My father, who was a lawyer, too, told me not to take this case … because the business community would hate me, which is exactly what happened,” Edwards said.

While Edwards fell out of favor with older, more respectable Aspenites, he gained traction with the younger ones. In 1969, he got a call from journalist Hunter S. Thompson telling him to run for mayor.

“About 2 or 3 in the morning, he woke me up,” Edwards said. “He called me up, and he started mumbling like he did.”

Thompson had spoken with the Citizens for Community Action, formed by Jim Salter, Bob Lewis, Robin Molny, Fritz Benedict, David Michaels and Dr. Harold Harvey. The group endorsed Edwards, but thinking he might be too radical, it also endorsed Republican Eve Homeyer, who won the election by six votes.

Edwards claims the county clerk deliberately delayed mailing out absentee ballots, which resulted in late votes from his following, made up mostly of ski bums and bartenders surfing in California during the offseason.

“If you counted the ballots that came in late, I would’ve won that election,” Edwards said. “And we almost sued them about it, but we were sort of out of energy and out of money, and we let it go.”

The following year, Thompson ran for Pitkin County sheriff, winning in Aspen but losing by 465 votes at the county level. Thompson would detail the race in the Oct. 1, 1970, issue of Rolling Stone, with the article “The Battle of Aspen: Freak Power in the Rockies.” The man who beat Thompson, Carrol Whitmire, resigned six years later amid mounting criticism for mismanagement of his office.

Aspen clamps down on development

As momentum shifted, progressives won seats on the Aspen City Council, and Edwards earned his own as Pitkin County commissioner. Joining him to make up the majority on a three-seat commission was Dwight Shellman, also linked to the Citizens for Community Action. Together, Shellman and Edwards helped shoot down the 1976 Olympics in Denver, the only city in the world to turn down the games after a winning bid. By passing a resolution that halted county funding for downhill ski racing in Aspen, they caught the ear of Denver.

“They wanted to build a bunch of housing out on the (Aspen) golf course for the Olympic athletes,” Edwards said. “It looked like a bunch of Russian tenement housing.”

Serving until 1981, Edwards is credited with creating a countywide trails and bicycle master plan. He also was behind the North Star Ranch acquisition as well as construction of pedestrian malls in Aspen.

Regarded as his greatest accomplishment as commissioner, Edwards reshaped zoning in Pitkin County. At maximum density, the county’s 55-unit-per-acre allowance would have supported a population of 400,000 people. Shellman and Edwards helped reduce that allowance to one unit per 10 acres.

“And that pissed off a lot of landowners,” Edwards said, adding that his and Shellman’s presence on the commission influenced the decision to expand to five members.

Edwards said the downzoning preserved the original character of the valley, when it was “nothing but farms from Glenwood to Aspen.”

“Every town in the country, you drive in, and you come through a sprawl of Walmarts and McDonald’s and used-car lots, and then you kind of get into the town,” Edwards said. “You come into Aspen, you don’t see that, and that is not an accident.”

After his time on the commission, he and his wife, Linda, whom he met in Aspen, had a mid-life crisis. They took their two daughters, ages 9 and 13 at the time, on a sailing trip through the Caribbean, returning three years later in 1992, when they bought their home above El Jebel.

An eye-opening trip

Edwards, who stopped practicing law in 2005, still remembers his first significant experience in Aspen. It was a summer camping trip in the early ’60s. Two girls with long, blond hair and blue jeans were driving an Army jeep with a husky and a German shepherd in the back. Edwards, who was living in Houston at the time, remembers them laughing at each other as they drove off.

“People just looked like they were having a hell of a good time,” Edwards said.

After that trip, Edwards would later find himself divorced and living alone in Houston. The girl he married out of high school had run off with a neighbor, so in 1967 he took leave from his engineering job and fled to Aspen, where he earned money flipping burgers at Highlands Ski Area.

“I was taking ski lessons and learning to ski, and I just never went home,” he said. “I called my roommates (in Houston) and said, ‘Sell my furniture.’ They said, ‘We already have. You were behind in rent.’”

Edwards said Aspen was “classless” in those days. No rich and no poor. No condominiums and no second-home owners, only a vibrant town filling up with college-educated kids. Today, he estimates that 65 percent of homes in Pitkin County and Aspen are owned by nonresidents.

“When I ran for mayor, my poster said, ‘Save Aspen, or Sell It,’” Edwards said. “They sold it.”