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Isabel Mace

Trevor A. WaskhoSpecial to The Aspen Times
Isabel Mace (Lois Abel Harlamert )
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At 10 a.m. on Jan. 30, 2006, in her 87th year, Isabel Mace, the silent giant of Toklat, died. This is her story.Isabel Mace’s roots are generations deep in the southern Indiana community of Corydon, where she was born Isabel Pfrimmer Hays on Sept. 13, 1918. She enjoyed a well-grounded childhood of opportunity. Her father was an attorney and a dairy farmer who nightly read to her books of great literature. Her mother was a college-educated homemaker, a music teacher and a very early advocate of healthy living via natural, organic foods. Isabel followed her older brother, Clay Blaine Hays Jr. to Grinnell (he then went on to the University of Indiana for a law degree so he could join the family practice). Her younger brother, Samuel Pfrimmer Hays, graduated from Swarthmore with a B.A. in psychology and continued on to Harvard for a Ph.D. in history. Sam was the chairman of the department of history at the University of Pittsburgh from 1960-73. Family histories, legacies and connections were a significant part of Isabel’s life.Isabel received the Golden Eaglet Award, the highest honor from the Girl Scouts of America, in 1937 for her outstanding efforts in community service and personal achievement. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, in 1941.At Grinnell, Isabel met her husband of 52 years, Stuart Aitken Mace, a native of Denver. They were married in 1941, shortly after their graduation and just weeks before Stuart’s draft orders were issued. Isabel later reflected that she simply let fate take her by the hand. After the war they settled for a very short time in Boulder so that Stuart could resume his studies in plant genetics. Instead, with their growing family, they came to the Aspen community in January 1948 at the invitation of Aspen revivalists Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. The Maces personified a self-reliant, post World War II generation that renounced the then contemporary American dream for simply life in a sleepy place.

Along with her late husband, Isabel pioneered modern day Ashcroft, eventually bringing snow plows, telephone service, school buses and electricity. In a rare moment of regret, Isabel later proclaimed that “bringing the power line up this valley was the worse thing we ever did.”They settled in the Castle Creek Valley among the weathered remains of the silver-mining ghost town of Ashcroft, 9,500 feet in elevation and 11 miles south of Aspen. Ashcroft was a six-mile dog-sled trip to the nearest pavement when the Maces built their home and business, named Toklat, there in 1948. Toklat evolved to become ground zero for community sentiment, among the most original and most enduring businesses of the ski era Aspen.The Maces’ operations at Toklat were continually shaped to suit the changing times and their changing needs. In 1949, they established Toklat Husky Kennel and Toklat Wilderness Lodge, offering day-long and overnight dog-sledding trips into backcountry huts and accommodating up to 16 guests in their small lodge/home, also a licensed restaurant. In the mid-1950s the Toklat huskies became famous, capturing the imagination of a generation, when they starred on the popular show “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”The Maces’ independent way of life demanded a union of strong interdependence. Isabel offered the stern backbone of Toklat, holding it all together with a quiet efficiency. On any given day, it was not unusual for her to care for and feed five children, a small staff, a household of guests, a hundred huskies and a Hollywood film crew. A simple and resourceful woman, she ground her grains, “darned on darns” as June Kirkwood said, and learned to orchestrate a month’s worth of meals on a shoestring without duplicating a menu. Few women of her day worked harder than Isabel Mace.Beginning in the early 1960s, first in Aspen and later in Ashcroft, the Maces opened a series of distinctive restaurants incorporating Isabel’s wisdom of natural foods and Stuart’s flare for unique flavors. The roast goose is remembered by legions. By definition, the Toklat meal was the antithesis of fast food. The Toklat restaurants were easily among the first to intentionally promote and offer organically grown foods.

Isabel was a passionate teacher of her kitchen craft. A second-generation advocate, she endlessly practiced and preached her support of and belief in natural, organically grown foods. Serving food with a conscience, Isabel searched far and wide to obtain suitable ingredients, and in the process she loosely organized an early natural food cooperative involving family, friends and source suppliers. Isabel published a cookbook, “Recipe Requests from the Mace Kitchens,” in 1994 and republished it in 1999.A family business, Toklat succeeded through ingenuity and effort. Over several decades, Isabel coordinated a cherished mail-order business offering among other things sourdough starter, exotic tea blends, baked grains and jams and jellies homemade from berries hand gathered in the area by family and staff. The Maces also collected and sold fine handmade crafts, many made by Stuart himself, or of other indigenous origin. Toklat’s endlessly creative offerings evolved in the late 1970s into Toklat Gallery, a Mace business that continues today in Basalt.Between the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, Isabel contributed to the various efforts of the Malachite Small School and Farm in Gardner, an organization founded by the Mace family to promote sustainable agriculture methods.Isabel stood for all efforts to preserve and protect the special place in which she lived, as well as all wild places beyond. Additionally, she supported the movement toward establishing the Ashcroft ghost town as a national historic site.

Less is still more. Small is still beautiful. Hers was a way of life, passionate with purpose, difficult by design and proud on principle. She will be remembered as a woman who worked tirelessly for her family, her home, her community and a better world with much contemplation and without complaint.Isabel Mace left her mark. She was a selfless and humble woman of strong conviction who never put herself forward for vanity or for praise. For much of her life, she worked quietly in the shadows of her legendary husband; however, she will be remembered as the giant upon whose shoulders he stood. Together they raised five fiercely independent children in rustic simplicity, and together they made an immeasurable impression on the community of Aspen and on the tens of thousands who joined them for a meal at their hanging tables.Isabel died on a beautiful snowy morning from a life lived long and well. To the end she continued to floss though she knew her time was limited, she cleared her plate until the very end, and she never forgot the purpose of food – to nourish the body, mind and soul. Stuart died in 1993. Their eldest son died in a mountain climbing accident in 1986. She is survived by her brother Sam, three sons, a daughter and six grandchildren. At Isabel’s specific request there will be no memorial service. She will be cremated and her ashes will be spread by her children and grandchildren.Over the past several years, Isabel spent a great deal of time sharing stories about the extraordinary life of the Maces in the Castle Creek Valley. These stories will soon become a book. The desire to preserve history runs deep in Isabel’s family. To assure that this type of tradition is continued and that other stories will also be preserved and published for future generations to share, please make a donation to the Isabel Mace Oral History Project at the Aspen Historical Society, 620 W. Bleeker, Aspen, CO 81611.


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