Paul Beck witnessed Aspen’s transformation while he grew up in 1930s and ‘40s

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The late Paul Beck, left, and his older brother Glenn ride a horse with what family members believe is Shadow Mountain in the background. The Becks grew up with adventure around every corner in Aspen in the 1930s and '40s.
Beck family courtesy photo |

An Aspen native whose family roots ran back to one of the first grocery stores in town died last month after battling a lengthy illness.

Paul Stuart Beck, 81, lived through Aspen at its extremes. As a child, he and his brother Glenn played in the shell of the burned-out Wheeler Opera House. Over the decades, he watched the town evolve into the internationally famous resort.

In between, Beck had a variety of experiences — helping cut some of the first ski trails on Aspen Mountain when he was younger, harvesting potatoes on the ranches of his grandparents, teaching winter-survival skills as well as skiing and rock climbing at Camp Hale while serving in the U.S. Army, returning to Aspen Mountain as a ski patroller, hauling ore out of the Pitkin Iron mines at the head of Castle Creek Valley and working on Puppy Smith’s crew in the Aspen Streets Department.

Glenn Beck, Paul’s older brother by three years, described their youth as nearly idyllic.

“It was a lot of fun living there,” said Glenn, who lives in California.

Their great-grandfather, Thomas Beck, came to Aspen around 1891 and opened a grocery store in the Wheeler Opera House building, just two years after the structure was built. It appears that he owned the business until about 1910, when their grandfather took it over. John Alton Beck operated the grocery until about 1940, then passed it down to his sons, including Charles Alton Beck, the father of Paul and Glenn.

The boys used to hang out at the store while growing up in the 1930s and early ’40s. Glenn said the store was on the east face of the building, adjacent to the alley and in the basement. The opera house as well as the second-floor offices were in poor condition, Glenn said. He and his brother used to explore the building with their friends. They found a passageway that popped them out under the stage.

Glenn recalled all the windows were broken in the opera house and pigeons ruled the roost. The boys had a rope tethered so they could swing from the balcony to the stage.

The opera house was restored to its former grandeur by the time Glenn graduated high school in 1948. He said his class of 18 was the first to have their graduation ceremony in the facility after its restoration.

Glenn said boys growing up in Aspen in the 1930s and early ’40s had almost a limitless number of abandoned buildings to play in. There were houses and big barns in town that had fallen into disrepair. The Becks lived at 101 E. Hopkins Ave. as boys.

They also liked playing in the old mine workings, particularly the two tipple facilities at the base of Aspen Mountain. The tipples were used to load ore into train cars.

Enormous chimneys poked out from the Holden Lixiviation plant on the banks of Castle Creek.

“They were super scary if you climbed up on them,” Glenn said.

It is no longer apparent how many mines existed at the base of Aspen Mountain and higher on its slopes. The Durant Mine was one of the few still operating, he recalled.

“The mountain was honeycombed with mines,” Glenn said.

The boys’ maternal grandparents had a ranch in Snowmass Creek Valley, which they would visit by traveling over Watson Divide. They spent a good share of their summers there, milking cows and tending to fields of potatoes and grain.

Glenn said the Beck boys, like nearly every other child in Aspen of that era, made good money harvesting potatoes in the fall.

“You almost closed the school because we all picked potatoes,” he said.

Even during the Quiet Years — after the silver crash of 1893 and before the modern resurgence after World War II — Aspen offered a lot of opportunity for a child that wanted to work, Glenn said.

“The day school was out, you were supposed to have a job somewhere,” he said. Labor was particularly in high demand and short supply during World War II, he said.

Despite their age difference, Glenn and Paul worked many of the same jobs. After the war, the Aspen Skiing Corp. was busy widening trails and creating new, tamer ones because runs such as Corkscrew intimidated many visitors. Glenn said the Beck boys were among summer crew workers that helped widen Spar Gulch and clear Little Nell.

The Becks had big family gatherings at the holidays and went on mountain picnics with family friends, such as the Magnificos, the Elishas and the Stallards.

Paul and Glenn served as alter boys at St. Mary Catholic Church.

“When I grew up, that church was so poor they couldn’t even afford to heat it,” Glenn said. The boys were responsible for firing up a coal oven before Sunday services. It barely raised the temperature to a tolerable level, Glenn said.

The boys’ father sold the grocery store to Albert Bishop when Bishop returned from active duty in the war in 1945. They also sold their house to Bishop, and the Becks moved to Fourth and Main streets, across from the Mesa Store. Their father became the postmaster.

Glenn spent little time in Aspen after graduating in 1948. He went to the University of Colorado and served in the navy during the Korean War, then got his graduate degree and pursued his career. Paul entered the army in 1957 and served at Camp Hale for two years, according to an obituary prepared by the family. When he returned to Aspen, he worked a variety of jobs.

Paul’s son Gary said his father worked on the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol until 1968. Gary recalled visiting the patrol shack and playing cards with the crew.

Paul was a truck driver who delivered ore from the Pitkin Iron mine above Ashcroft to the company facility at Woody Creek. Glenn said Paul also oversaw the garage for Morrison Knudsen, the company that handled the ore transport.

“He always liked mechanical things, Paul did. He was always taking things apart and putting them back together,” Glenn said.

Paul also operated one of the first snowmobile shops in Aspen. He was a longtime member of the Elks Club and would frequently be found at the joiners’ tables at Hickory House and, later, Two Rivers Cafe in Basalt.

Paul and his wife of 53 years, Glennis, bought 40 acres of the ranch that was in the Becks’ mother’s family and moved to Old Snowmass in the mid-1980s. They moved to Grand Junction in 2005 for health reasons.

Gary said his liked to stay in touch with people he grew up with in Aspen even after many of them moved away. “He truly loved the old-timers’ picnic” that Art Pfister threw each fall at Buttermilk.

Gary’s son Louis said he will remember his grandfather for making people laugh and taking the time to visit with people. Paul’s nurses at the Grand Junction hospital said he made their tough jobs easier because he was so pleasant, Louis said. Paul also was on a first-name basis with all the waitresses at Two Rivers Cafe.

When asked why Paul stayed around Aspen most of his life, Louis said, “I’d say the people more than anything.”

Gary said Paul was visited by many of his friends as his health started failing.

“My dad got to attend his own wake,” Gary said.

Paul died Feb. 23. Glennis died two days later. Their birth dates were also two days apart, though in different years. A memorial service is being planned for August.