Their Generation: Grass was never greener for Cherie Oates
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Aspen more pleasant or more dedicated to the town than Cherie Oates.
If anyone has grounds to be disgruntled about the changes the town has gone through, it would be she. Her family roots on both her mom and dad’s side of the family go back to Aspen’s silver mining era in the late 1890s. She shrugs off the physical changes in the town. It’s “all the wonderful people I’ve known” who have made and continue to make Aspen special, she said.
Oates, 72, had a unique upbringing in Aspen. Her dad, Edmund Gerbaz, worked a family ranch along with his brothers in an area known as Gerbazdale, about 10 miles downvalley from Aspen. However, Cherie’s family lived in Aspen on South 7th Street, in a house inherited from her mom’s side of the family. The family of her mother, Albina (Tekoucich) Gerbaz, was part of the Slovenian contingent that moved to Aspen in the late 19th century. The house remains in the family. Cherie’s only sibling, Jim Gerbaz, lives there.
Cherie had the best of both worlds in the 1940s and ’50s — she had easy access to the family ranch but lived in town. She recalled her dad driving to work every day in a 1947 Jeep.
“He was the first commuter on Highway 82. He really was,” she said with her trademark laugh.
The southwest side of town was nearly abandoned at the time. The skeleton of a house charred by fire stood for years. There was only one other house on South 7th Street beside the Gerbazes. Her route to the Red Brick School, where she attended first through 12th grades, took her over neighborhood boardwalks, through backyards and even into the house of a mining widow with a soft heart and delicious baked goods.
Oates said that during summers her dad would bring in a horse from the ranch that she would ride. Neighbors told her she could ride right through their yard, quite a contrast to today when many homeowners don’t even know their neighbors.
Across Castle Creek on the Marolt Ranch were her goods friends the Marolt girls — Peggy, Judy and Vicky. There was no pedestrian bridge, so getting together to play came with adventure.
“We’d just wade the river,” Oates recalled.
Oates is a third-generation Aspenite on the Gerbaz side of the family. Jeremy Joseph Gerbaz and his wife, Cecile Mary, got married in the Aosta region of Italy in the early 1890s and soon after sailed for the United States to make a better life. The family has records of them passing through Ellis Island. They spent a brief time in Detroit before surfacing in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“They purchased the Gerbazdale Ranch in 1896,” Oates said.
The family had nine sons who helped run the ranch, which grew to about 1,200 acres after other purchases. They owned it well after Jeremy died in 1947. The Gerbazes sold their sheep in 1967 and sold the land a short time later.
Oates is a fourth-generation Aspenite on her mom’s side of the family. Her maternal grandmother’s parents settled in Aspen during the mining era. Her grandparents, Joseph and Lena Tekoucich, homesteaded a ranch in what is now the South Hayden Road area, recently developed with expensive homes off Castle Creek Road. They had plans to turn aspen wood into coke in ovens that are still evident on the property, but that didn’t work out. Fortunately they had dairy cows to fall back on.
“That’s how they survived, by selling milk,” Oates said.
Sticking in Aspen is in her blood. Her mom and dad’s sides of the family stood firm despite the tough times of Aspen’s quiet years. They never considered searching for greener pastures. Oates is grateful. She considers her childhood a “charmed life.”
She recalled Thanksgiving gatherings at the Gerbaz Ranch. They would have summer picnics at Montezuma Basin, southwest of town at the base of Castle Peak. The large mining mill and former boarding house were still standing. Miner Bill Tagert looked after the facilities.
Oates also loved multi-day packhorse trips. One route featured a trip up to Maroon Lake for a night of camping, then a trip over Buckskin Pass to Snowmass Lake for a second night out, then a third day down to what was a campground outside of what became Snowmass Village for a third night under the stars before returning to Aspen via the Government Trail.
Oates was just as adventurous during winters. She had uncles — Ed and George Tekoucich — who were expert skiers even before World War II, so she grew up with an affinity for the sport.
“The first lift opened when I was six,” she said. She recalled the dedication ceremony for the original lift No. 1 in January 1947, which attracted the Colorado governor and other dignitaries by train.
Aspen was proclaimed to be “The Winter Sports Center of America” after the construction of the lift, but Oates doesn’t recall the town changing all that much that winter. The change came in 1950, when Aspen hosted alpine skier racers from 14 countries for the World Championships. She remembers all of the flags and ceremonies creating unparalleled excitement in the old mining town.
She and her classmates would get out of school too late for lift rides on weekdays, so they would hike up Slalom Hill on the lower slope of Aspen Mountain for at least two runs.
“We loved it,” she said. “We would ski, ski, ski. I still do.”
On weekends, regular skiers would have “lift coats” that they would put on for the ride and send back with the operator at the upper terminal. The coats resided on a hook at the lower lift shack.
Oates said she loved competing as a ski racer, traveling with team members like Buck Deane to far-flung resorts such as Steamboat and Winter Park. There were no organized sports as part of school, so skiing was a great outlet for competitors.
Oates graduated in 1959 as part of a class of 25. Up until 1954, there had been just 12 kids in her class, she said, but the growing resort attracted additional families. The Woody Creek school was also folded in to Aspen.
After graduation, Oates went to Colorado State University and earned her teaching degree. During summers and breaks, she would work at Elli’s of Aspen to save money for a coveted trip to Europe with a couple of her female friends. The Aspen ski and clothing shop carried Bogner suits and was known for providing the latest fashions. Her dad agreed to provide one dollar for every dollar she saved.
Cherie spent one year at the University of Colorado pursuing her master’s degree in 1964, but she returned to Aspen to teach first grade during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 school years.
In August 1967, she married Lennie Oates, a young attorney who established his practice in town the prior year. They had known each other on ski outings when both were at CU, but they hadn’t dated, Cherie said.
The Oates had three children and Cherie retired from teaching to raise them. She also kept busy with a variety of jobs and civic endeavors. She worked as a teacher’s aide, helped at preschool, worked at Performance Ski Shop and for 10 years worked in Aspen Valley Hospital’s Home Health program. She would visit elderly residents in their homes, providing care that helped them stay in their own homes for a longer period than if they were totally on their own. It was particularly rewarding, Oates said, because many of the people she helped she had known while growing up in Aspen.
All the while, she’s retained her love of the outdoors. She regularly slaps skins on her skis for uphill trips on the local slopes. She visited numerous backcountry huts throughout the state with the Colorado Mountain Club. Her pleasant demeanor belies tenaciousness on a mountain bike. She participated in the Leadville 100 ride in 2003 and 2005. Her best time was 12 hours, 15 minutes in the brutal century ride.
“I so wanted to get in under 12 hours,” she said.
She and Lenny passed on the love of the outdoors to her kids, Jeremy, 43, who recently retired from the military after 22 years and is now a consultant; Sarah, 41, an attorney who practices with her dad; and Cody, a teacher at Aspen Country Day School.
Oates said she couldn’t imagine a life living anywhere but Aspen.
“I would have done anything to stay here,” she said. “It’s just in your blood.”
For all that she’s given back to the town, Oates is being inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame in January along with Tom and Carolyn Moore. She is grateful but humble about the recognition.
“Whatever I’ve done, I’ve loved,” she said. “It didn’t need to be rewarded.”
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The soil that Owl Creek Road was built on has been shifting, slipping and ever-so-slightly sloughing toward the Sinclair Divide, causing a dip in the road above that would have kept on dipping were it not for the subterranean work that has reduced the two-lane road to one lane for most of the last month, according to Pitkin County engineer GR Fielding.