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Some objected to skiing

Tim Willoughby
Special to The Aspen Times
Willoughby CollectionStacks of felled aspens caused a stir when Aspen Ski Club members first cut Roch Run.
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“What are they doing to our trees?”

The first challenge to Aspen’s fledgling skiing aspirations was raised in summer 1937, when the Ski Club began clearing trees for Roch Run. Older residents remembered scarred slopes formerly denuded by miners, healing with groves of aspen. Club members volunteered weekdays after work and on weekends. Most of a younger generation were confronted by elders who were not convinced that starting a ski business was more valuable than their pristine view of Aspen Mountain.

TV commentator Tom Brokaw traveled through small towns and cities for his new documentary, American Character Along Highway 50. When he was asked during an interview how he went about taking the pulse of those communities, he claimed that he could find locations where people of opposite viewpoints gathered within a few minutes of entering a town. Even in 1930s-40s Aspen, the “why would you do that?” crowd hung out at the corner drug store. Rexall’s, on the corner of Galena and Hyman, was across the street from the post office that occupied the bottom floor of the Elks Building. After picking up their mail, a gaggle of men congregated daily to buy the daily paper, gather gossip and trade tirades. They especially liked to discuss “that Tommyrot called skiing”.

Jimmy Parsons, his partner Kenneth Hansen, and the idle old men in their circle were suspicious of the Aspen Ski Club’s intentions and skeptical of the economic potential of skiing. Like many others who have faced change, they complained about every step. For them, Aspen was doing just fine as it was. Although the Depression continued to constrict the economy like a bad boa, Aspen was surviving. Workers from the Lincoln Gulch water diversion tunnel came to Aspen on the weekends to spend their wages. There were CCC projects. The Midnight and Durant mines provided weekly payrolls. Mining was the base industry – always would be.

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The doubters should have gotten a clue by recognizing that the driving force behind the Ski Club were members of the mining business. Nonetheless, the division occurred mostly between generations. Aspen natives born after 1900 were reaching the age when their dreams and ambitions confounded their elders. The skiing craze was sweeping the country and Ski Club members saw opportunities for a small town stuck in its past. Most youths saw a dilemma: change the town or move.

The 30 original Ski Club members countered the curmudgeonly crowd. They represented a cross section of the community: downtown business proprietors, surrounding ranching families, miners and a few souls who just caught the ski bug. Many sat on the sidelines, but those in favor far outnumbered those against.

An initial test of “skiing vs. status quo” arose when the club hosted a major race: the 1941 Alpine Nationals. The construction of the first ski tow and club facilities plus other expenses were funded by passing the hat and through lift-ticket sales. Even so, staging races incurred additional costs. There was no practical way to collect fees from spectators who walked from downtown to the mountain, so the club proposed collecting a gate fee at the entrance to town, where cars crossed the Castle Creek bridge. The drug store crowd howled “foul,” and took their complaint to the City Council. Fred D. Willoughby, the mayor, and other council members were pro-skiing, so the outcome was not in doubt.

A sizable crowd attended the race and businesses benefited. Naysayers continued whining, but slowly Aspen’s future passed to the younger generation.

By 1947 the Ski Corporation operated for-profit skiing. Newcomers, many 10th Mountain Division veterans, tilted Aspen’s balance from a mining town toward a tourist town. Even then, change had its detractors. An elderly woman, quoted in the paper, outlined the now-familiar objections to growth, “It will be nice but, again, it won’t be so good, either. We like to have people come to see our town. It’s a beautiful little place in the mountains in the most wonderful mountains in the world. I’m sure of that. But, when so many people come here, like they are now, things get sort’a cramped and everybody gets in too much of a hurry.”


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