Imagine Aspen without the Paepckes
September 8, 2006
Imagine:Elizabeth Papecke never came here for a ski trip in the 1930s, nor did her husband, Walter; they found a different Shangri-La in another ghost town in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, and created their dream community based on a combination of culture, sports and music there.They kept their small ranching operation near Colorado Springs, the Great Books were never studied in Aspen, the monied elite did not start arriving in the early 1950s, the air strip at Sardy Field was not built until the mid-1970s.The Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House, along with any number of other examples of Aspen’s splendid days as a silver mining Mecca, continued to deteriorate far past the middle of the century, because there was no money for renovations.Billy Fiske and other members of the Highland Bavarian Corp. had built their small lodge at in the Castle Creek Valley in the late 1930s, realizing that the quality of the snow here, the beauty of the mountains, must one day be recognized as a huge recreational drawing card. But others were doing the same thing in other segments of the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere, and Aspen was just another half-dead mining remnant with snow on the hills, no ski lifts and little in the way of amenities in the town.World War II changed all that, due to the fact that the 10th Mountain Division of skiing troopers trained at a camp nearby, and came to Aspen in their off times to ski, meet the locals, stroll the towns. They liked it, and returned.Slowly, some ski slopes were cut and a ragged rope-tow ultimately was built up a lower slope, but for lack of money to refine and extend the lifts, skiers had no choice but to reach the top of the mountain in sleds hauled by modified tractors on treads.The Aspen Skiing Corp. was formed by the determined boosters, and it struggled to raise the money to cut runs down the face of Aspen Mountain, build lifts and attract skiers to sample the champagne powder that graces the valley every winter. Because it was such a distant destination, marketing was difficult but not impossible.The town languished in its long slumber. Locals, who were insular and easily irritated due to that long decline, fought with the new skiing crowd over just about any issue that arose, cooling the ardor of potential investors in the new ski industry.Slowly, new blood began arriving in the late 1950s and ’60s. The Federación Internationale du Ski, the European organizer of semi-professional ski racing, thought about holding an event in Aspen. But the remoteness of the location, coupled with the fledgling nature of the resort’s accommodations and facilities, discouraged the FIS and delayed international skiing from reaching Aspen’s slopes for decades.The slumber continued, with short jolts of wakefulness as the growing class of entrepreneurial land speculators began seeking new opportunities, the technology of ski lifts kept improving, and the air travel industry developed better planes for flying in the difficult terrain of the Rockies.By the time the money started pouring into Aspen in earnest, it was one of many such decrepit mountain towns with promise for the new speculators. Unfortunately, it was too late to save many of the quaint Victorian homes that had graced Aspen’s streets. The decades had not been kind to them, or to the burned-out hulk of the Wheeler Opera House, which was demolished along with many of the homes as speculators moved in and began to remake the town. The Jerome, which had reigned as the town’s only hotel for decades, was upgraded and ultimately refurbished entirely.Architect Fritz Benedict and his wife, Fabi, came to town hoping to carve out a niche for themselves, and bought the Red Mountain Ranch that sprawled over the hillside opposite the ski slopes. Times were tough, jobs were few and far between, and they were forced to rely on their pig farm operations for income. The pigs are there still.Without the sparkle and celebrity caché that held sway at such resorts as Sun Valley in Idaho, Aspen did not become the haven for hippies that it might have in the ’60s, and, as a result, there were no bright young minds at the ready to launch growth-control measures and hold off would-be developers.As growth inevitably occured, the ranch lands outside of Aspen were gobbled up; the fields filled with increasingly cheap new condo projects. Because of the lay of the land, as automobile traffic grew, so did air pollution, until winter days were marred by a brown cloud that rivaled Denver’s. Downvalley communities remained small hamlets, inhabited mostly by refugees from Aspen and remnants of the original ranching families.Just imagine.