Men for our mountains
December 18, 2006
They came here for a love of the mountains, and their legacy is modern-day Aspen.The story of this small town in the mountains, and how it became a world-class ski resort, is deeply intertwined with the young veterans from the 10th Mountain Division who settled here after World War II. Full of optimism and relief that they survived the war, these men returned to the mountains where they had first trained for combat, seeking a way to make a living in the budding ski industry and have a good time.What they found in postwar Aspen was the aging infrastructure of a town that had been fairly quiet and nearly abandoned by the outside world since the silver industry had collapsed in the late 19th century. Money was hard to come by, and they worked long hours to develop and publicize a ski resort while raising their own families. Many of them didn’t know if the local ski industry would ever take off, but they plugged along because they loved the sport and their surroundings.In many respects, today’s Aspen remains a town full of passionate outdoorsmen and women, scraping out a living and making sacrifices to stay in a place they love. But much has changed, and evidence of the those postwar pioneers is harder and harder to detect.The sobering fact is many current Aspen residents learn the most about the 10th Mountain Division veterans through obituaries. The former soldiers still alive are now solidly in their 80s, and while their tales have been rightfully romanticized in books and historic archives, they aren’t often told anymore.In tribute to those veterans, along with their spouses and contemporaries, we retell some of those stories here.
Aspen in the 1930s was a far cry from a bustling town – ski resort or otherwise. Residents had watched a generation of silver miners leave town in the late 1890s, when that industry ceased being lucrative. Ranchers in the valley and residents in town eked out a peaceful, modest existence, and skiing was becoming a local pastime. A number of developers had sought to create ski areas in places like the Castle Creek Valley above Ashcroft ghost town, and Swiss mountaineer Andre Roch had searched for a location for an Alps-caliber ski resort.In the mid-1930s, locals created a ski club and hosted local races. Roch Run, on Aspen Mountain, was soon served by a boat tow that cost 10 cents for an often-precarious ride up the mountain.Aspen as a ski resort was a long way from international fame, but it was about to get a solid fan base from the U.S. Army.In the early ’40s, men were joining up with the 10th Mountain Division, learning to ski and tromp through deep snow at Camp Hale near Leadville. It was a new concept for combat, dreamed up by National Ski Patrol founder Minot Dole and Robert Langely, president of the National Ski Association, in 1939. These two admired the Finnish Army’s ski troops in the Russo-Finnish War, where the troops used skis and mountaineering skills to outmaneuver Russians in winter conditions. It made sense that the U.S. Army could train soldiers in similar skills to fight against the Germans in the mountains of Italy.
The 10th Mountain Division attracted ski fanatics from around the United States, including some early ski racers (some of whom were born in Europe and immigrated). What united these men – beyond going to fight for their country overseas – was their love of skiing. According to the Aspen Historical Society, one 10th member wrote, “[they were] the only group of men in the Army who found common cause in sport.”On their days off, many of the soldiers went skiing in the surrounding mountains. Many flocked to Aspen, where Hotel Jerome operator Laurence Elisha offered soldiers a room and a steak for $1 each. Some soldiers’ wives stayed in Aspen while they trained at Camp Hale. Those weekend excursions planted the seed of Aspen’s future. Soldiers like Fritz Benedict loved the town enough to buy property before the war was even over, thus committing to settle in Aspen later.Friedl Pfeifer was another solder who took one look at Aspen during his time at Camp Hale and decided he would create a ski mountain to rival the best resorts in Europe. According to the Aspen Historical Society, when the soldiers marched over Red Mountain and into town on a training maneuver, Pfeifer wrote, “Even as the townspeople cheered our arrival, I was filled more with the beauty of Aspen than I was proud of our accomplishment. The mountain peaks looming over the town made me feel like I was returning to St. Anton.”John Litchfield and his wife moved to Aspen as soon as he was discharged from the 10th Mountain Division in fall 1945. Both he and fellow soldier Percy Rideout had taught skiing for Friedl Pfeifer when Pfeifer ran the Sun Valley ski school before the war.”Friedl wanted to start a place of his own,” Litchfield said recently from his home in Denver. “Percy and I became associated with him in the fall of 1945 after we were all discharged, in running the ski school in Aspen.”We were still pretty much broke when we came out of the service, and you looked to keep yourself going for a while until you got your feet on the ground again.”As Litchfield explains it, the ski business seemed like a natural fit for him and many of his other friends from the 10th.
“It seemed that getting back into the skiing business was a good way to get into civilian life and do something you enjoyed at the same time,” he said. Litchfield had been raised in Maine, cross-country skiing and ski jumping with the Norwegians who settled in New England. A life in the outdoors with skis strapped to his feet seemed like a dream come true.”While we were at Camp Hale, we skied during the week, and skied recreationally on the weekends – people thought we were crazy for that,” he said, laughing. “We’d go up the lift by Climax [Mine], to Winter Park, or if you wanted to ski Roch Run in Aspen, you had to take a truck up to Midnight Mine and then walk the rest of the way up.”But creating a ski resort began with cutting additional runs on Aspen Mountain and erecting the mountain’s first ski lift, known as Lift One. Tenth Mountain vet Harry Poschman had gone back to Big Bear, Calif., to live with his wife, Jony, after the war. He found temporary work in 1947 helping to construct that chairlift in Aspen, while others cut trails on the mountain by hand, with double-bladed axes.”It was good work – it got you in shape for the winter,” Litchfield said.As one of about a half-dozen 10th Mountain vets who were in town for the winter of 1946-47, Litchfield also busied himself hosting out-of-towners who came to Aspen as possible investors for the ski resort, many of them friends and acquaintances of Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke. Paepcke’s wife, Elizabeth, had first seen Aspen in the late ’30s, and brought her husband to town in 1945. But Paepcke was primarily interested in turning the mountain town into an enclave of intellectual thought and discourse, rather than a ski area.For the skiing side of the town’s development, Paepcke turned to Pfeifer. Their collaboration brought in both skiers to check out the developing resort and developers who might want to invest in property.
Aspen wasn’t exactly a comfortable place when the vets began to move into town in the mid-’40s. Plenty of old mining buildings and homes had been abandoned, and although there was a healthy community of locals, vets found themselves renting drafty homes with potbelly stoves and mining-era plumbing.”The buildings were in terrible shape,” Litchfield remembered. “Buildings that had been vacant needed to have their plumbing redone, needed to be cleaned up with new wiring. The roofs had to be repaired, and there were rodents. The town was vibrant, but there were not many people there.”Litchfield and his wife rented a house from the Willoughby family in Aspen.”The welcome we received from the local people was unbelievable – there was a sense of community that, my God, you wouldn’t believe. They’d do anything for us,” he said. “Everybody was tired of the war and glad it was over, and we were glad to be out of the service. It was a great time in our lives.”Tenth Mountain vet Bob Parker moved to Aspen in 1947 to become a ski patrolman on Aspen Mountain. He and his wife rented a rickety house in Aspen’s West End for $50 a month. Upstairs was a copper bathtub, but it was located next to a wall with no insulation. The Parkers would pour boiling water into the tub for bathing, but during winter the water would be lukewarm or colder by the time they stepped in.”I went to the hardware store and bought a pair of ice tongs,” Parker said. “The water in our toilet would freeze at night, and so I’d lift it out with tongs and throw it outside. In the spring we had a glacier made of blocks of ice.”In 1950 Harry Poschman and his wife, Jony, gave up waiting for snow in Big Bear, Calif., and moved to Aspen, where they turned the Main Street building now known as the Copper Horse into the Edelweiss hotel.
“Aspen was truly just a dinky town with dirt roads, except for Highway 82,” Jony Larrowe said recently. “The war was over, and we were all young and having first and second babies. We were all broke, so we lived on parties where we served venison and trout from fishing and hunting, and elk if you’re lucky.”The Poschmans encouraged their guests to take quick showers, since they had only a 30-gallon supply of hot water plumbed to a simple bathtub with a hose. The charge for one night at the hotel was $3.75 per person with all-you-can-eat breakfast, or $2.75 if you brought your own sleeping bag. Young men who couldn’t afford much would eat a huge breakfast (Larrowe remembers one man eating “four eggs, six pancakes, three glasses of milk and all the toast and jam”), eat potato chips, ketchup and crackers at the Sundeck for lunch, then pitch in for beer and odds and ends at the Red Onion for dinner, Larrowe said.”The important thing about Aspen then was that it was rough living, but people who came to Aspen appreciated and expected the rough living,” she said. “They expected skiing, camaraderie, powder and runs.”Even as the years went by, Larrowe remembers constant digging in the streets as plumbing was improved and extended to new buildings. “Everything took years and years,” she said. “I don’t remember any seasons that the streets weren’t dug up, and things weren’t added.”Charlie Paterson, who built and owned the Boomerang Lodge in Aspen, moved to town in 1949. He remembers seeing old miners sitting outside the post office at the Elks Building, waiting for their pension or disability checks to come in each month.”People in Aspen were very good about the new people coming to town,” Paterson said. “Aspen needed to be rejuvenated, and those were the waking years – ’49 and ’50. That’s really what’s kind of noble about those years – everybody was trying to promote Aspen.”
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Beginning a ski resort came with all of the adventures one might expect. Parker, who served on the ski patrol in those early days, says he and fellow 10th vet Shady Lane were in charge of avalanche control. The duty included throwing charges in areas where they thought there would be an avalanche, “but of course, we missed a lot of them – that was the beginning of that particular routine for the ski patrol.”In the winter of 1947-48 there were two deaths due to avalanches – Percy Rideout was with one of the victims during a slide on the back side of the mountain, and the other victim was a guest who was skiing on the face of Bell Mountain. Ski patrolmen dug that guest out before he died, but were unable to save his life.”This was a time when America was probably the most hardworking country in the world,” Parker said. “We all worked long hours. If you lost a skier, you were expected to spend the night on the mountain looking for him or her. If there was an avalanche, you were expected to dig it out. Everyone was expected to know how to ski, so our abilities with skiing didn’t matter. We were all just doing a job.”Besides running the inn with his wife, Poschman worked construction for Fritz Benedict, building houses in the summer, Jony said. He also waited tables in a restaurant owned by Guido Meyer, where the Hickory House now stands. Poschman, who died in August 2006, even served as a one-man chamber of commerce for the town, making his own brochures and pursuing ski clubs to visit Aspen.”As a lodge owner, he had to do it to survive,” said his son, Aspen resident Greg Poschman. “There were so many regular people like him in town who built houses and kept the town going. Paepcke would call the local business leaders, tell them how much money they needed to cough up to help the town, and my dad had to collect it.”Litchfield made his financial investment in the town by purchasing the restaurant and bar he renamed the Red Onion.”All of the facilities had to be upgraded – the toilets were in awful shape, and we put in a whole new kitchen and rechinked all of the brick on the outside,” Litchfield said of the building that still stands on the Cooper Avenue mall. “On opening night we had to have four bartenders; the place was packed.”Tenth Mountain vet Steve Knowlton, who died in 1998, likewise had a big influence on the restaurant and bar scene in those days, opening the Golden Horn in the subgrade space that is now Takah Sushi. He bought the property on the corner of Cooper Avenue and Mill Street for $1,000, and opened a ski shop on the first floor. Downstairs in the restaurant, the nightly entertainment was of the slapstick variety.”Dad ran the restaurant that was really more of a nightclub,” said Knowlton’s son, Jamie, who is now an Aspen lawyer. “He brought in the musicians, and it was his idea of making Aspen a nice place to come to, a place to have fun. My dad was a thespian, a people person. He wasn’t like Paepcke who was thinking about how to heal the world’s wounds by creating a think tank; he was finding a different way to contribute to Aspen.”
10th Mountain Division vets ended up all over the country, some creating ski resorts and others pursuing different dreams. Bill Bowerman became a track and field coach who co-founded NIKE. Bob Dole went into politics, eventually becoming U.S. Senate majority leader and a presidential candidate. Hugh W. Evans became a trustee for the Colorado School of Mines.John Tripp, a 10th vet who now lives in Carbondale, says he keeps in touch with vets from all over the country – New Hampshire, Washington, and Oregon. A friend from the war once asked Tripp to join him in developing the ski area at Killington, Vt., but Tripp declined.”I didn’t want to go to Vermont – at the time, I was pretty well settled in Denver,” Tripp said. “We thought about moving to Aspen once, and Vail once, but thought it wouldn’t be the place to bring up kids. My friend is still up in Vermont and skis every morning.”So what attracted these men to the mountains so strongly that they endured the tough times in Aspen? What enabled them to build the foundation of today’s thriving resort town?
“I think our experience in the army taught us hard work, attention to detail, and plus, that the concept of being in the mountains would somehow bring us through life,” Parker said. “For the most part, we were right. I think the 10th guys were particularly inured to cold weather, hard work, danger and focusing on what we were doing in order to stay alive. That helped Aspen, it helped Vail, and it helped the whole ski industry.”Parker left Aspen after a couple of years as a ski patroller, eventually becoming an editor at Skiing magazine. There he finally realized that he could build a lifestyle on his love of skiing and knowledge of journalism. Soon after, former Aspen resident and 10th Mountain vet Pete Seibert called, offering Parker a job at a new resort he was developing in Colorado, named Vail. Parker spent the next 25 years there until he retired.”Building a ski resort was challenging, and it was satisfying because we had a way to make some money,” Litchfield said. “But the interest then wasn’t getting rich. It was making money to support yourself while doing something that you enjoyed. We were people from all over the country, engaged in a common endeavor by our own choice, and you were suddenly free again – free of regimentation, free of combat, and free to live your life and to do something you looked forward to doing. Work is hard mainly if you don’t like what you’re doing.”After being in Aspen for a couple of years, Litchfield moved to Sun Valley (and sold the Red Onion a couple of years later). He fought in the Korean war and then went to work marketing chain saws, mowers and other equipment in the Midwest for 30 years, finally retiring to Denver. Now 89, he skied until four years ago.”Basically everyone loved the mountains, skied and loved the outdoor life,” Litchfield said of his 10th Mountain fellows. “I suppose that was a certain camaraderie basis for it right there, since everyone looked at things in the same way.”Jamie Knowlton echoes those sentiments about his father, Steve. His dad came to Aspen after the war with the intention of training with Friedl Pfeifer for the Olympics (he competed in the 1948 Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland) and ended up returning afterward.”I think during the war everyone lived on a shoestring and was getting by just struggling to make ends meet,” Knowlton said. “When it ended, there was sort of a new mentality that they were free to go explore and be more alive. The people in the 10th knew skiing best, so they spread out all over the country working in ski areas and resorts since it was an undeveloped industry. There was that potential in skiing to make a living and live the American dream.”Jony Larrowe said the men loved the mountains to the extent that they would do anything to be part of a new, growing mountain community.”No one talked about making a fortune, or money, they talked about how big the powder was,” she said.”I think they had a sort of desperation, a love of the mountains that made them forego life in the city,” Greg Poschman said. “They went to this decaying town, and were willing to live with a potbelly stove and hang their dry socks in front of it so they could ski the next day. But it wasn’t all altruistic – some of them were trying to get ahead.”They made sacrifices, but they were also reaping rewards. They got the first powder. In the 1950s a friend of my dad’s saw a snowcat on the mountain for the first time. He called my dad and said, ‘Come quickly, they’re packing the snow. This is the end.'”
The rest of this story is what you see when you walk around Aspen today – real estate values that show no signs of decreasing and a ski resort that adds new amenities every season to attract more skiers.”For the most part, my dad was in love with what happened to Aspen, and he wanted to see more,” Greg Poschman said. “He was in awe of the real estate values and felt he had a small part in building this ski resort. I think he was proud of it.”
Interestingly, the young Poschman notes that Walter Paepcke didn’t think skiing would work as an industry in those early days. It was the lowest priority on his list, below all the intellectual and cultural organizations he was starting.There was uncertainty among many of the men who were there at the time.”Henry Stein, one of the Chicago crowd, asked me a hundred times – did I think Aspen was going to go?” Litchfield recalled. “But we weren’t thinking about whether it was going to go. We were there because we wanted to make it go. My answer was, ‘I’m not sure at this point, but I’m happy with what I’m doing.'”No one foresaw the success of the ski resorts, Parker emphasized. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, skiing was hardly a blip on the radar screen of American sports enthusiasts.”Because of the Olympics, Squaw Valley was the first Western resort to count 5,000 skiers in one day, and the first in the east was Mt. Snow in Vermont,” Parker said. “We thought that when we founded Vail, we’d be laughing all the way to the bank the day we have 5,000 skiers. Now there are 25,000 to 30,000 in Vail, and probably 20,000 a day in the greater Aspen area.”When Aspen began to grow and change, Paterson said, it was so gradual that no one felt it was suddenly different. He said the 10th vets should be credited with leaving their businesses and their enthusiasm for Aspen behind.”They were responsible for putting Aspen on the map in the early days,” he said. “They went out there, created the energy and ‘let’s go get it.'”
“It was an ambitious thing that started from almost grassroots,” Larrowe said. “Individuals came for more idealistic reasons than now. There were no vultures waiting for big development to happen. We were just trying to make our own living – and live the life we wanted. We raised our children in the mountains out of a basic desire to move here.”A few people now living on the back side of Aspen mountain in rustic cabins may understand what it was like to make sacrifices for the skiing lifestyle, but “the rest of us are complete softies by comparison,” Poschman said.”How do we preserve that – how do we attract people who have that deep passion for the mountains, and this landscape? They have to want to live here for that, for the camaraderie of living in the mountains,” he said.Jamie Knowlton said his dad would have had some advice for Aspen’s current residents.”I think he would say, ‘Don’t lose the spirit of having fun, and being friends with your neighbors. Don’t get sucked into money as the only thing there is, because there’s a lot more to life than that.'”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org