Volunteer curators help organize ski treasures in storage
December 26, 2007
GOLDEN, Colo. ” What the blank-looking warehouse in a grubby industrial strip off Interstate 70 holds depends on perspective. It’s either the ultimate skier’s treasure vault of rare and wonderful relics, or the ultimate mess and ever-growing collection of clutter.
Maybe it’s both.
The 2,300-square-foot space houses the little-known Colorado Ski Museum Resource Center, an out-of-the-way overflow for the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame in Vail, where all the goodies from 140 years of skiing heritage are squirreled away for safe keeping.
Legions of ski boots, from ancient, cracked leathers to Olympic champion plastics, stack to the ceiling. A forest of skis almost fills the room. Piles of boxes block aisles. There are gondola cars and rickety single-chairs from old ski lifts. The first snowcat sits in the back, waiting for a carburetor, not far from a jumble of parts from the first tow rope in the state. Cabinets brim with vintage brochures and maps to ski areas that no longer exist.
“You want medals? There’s a drawerful. Patches, stickers, passes to old resorts? That’s this drawer,” Fred Brewer said on a recent visit.
The longtime Colorado Springs ski historian drives up to the resource center once a week with friend Pat Pfeiffer. Both are volunteer curators who have spent years trying to give the collection, which until 2002 was crammed in storage in Vail, some semblance of order. There’s still work to do.
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Brewer pulled open a drawer and a Nazi bayonet rolled across the bottom.
“I’m not sure, but I assume that’s a 10th Mountain Division war souvenir,” he said.
There are boxes stacked to the rafters. Many have never been opened.
“When we first got this place, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. We thought we could never fill it. So much for that,” Pfeiffer said as she sat in the upstairs office, where she and Brewer work at desks pushed together like a scene out of an old detective movie.
Pfeiffer became interested in ski history when she and her husband owned the Pikes Peak Ski Area in the 1960s.
“It’s just so cool when we can track down some of this old history,” she said.
She was sorting through yellowing clippings piled like leaves in front of her.
“The task at hand today is to clear out some dead wood,” she said.
Donations arrive all the time. If the resource center is going to live up to its name as a place for research and preservation, there’s work to do.
“There are 9,500 items listed on the computer in our collection,” Brewer said, looking up from his own piles of papers. “The ultimate goal is to be able to find everything. I’m not always successful.”
He padded down a narrow aisle to check whether hats from the 1999 Vail World Alpine Ski Championships were really stored in box 99, like the master list said. They weren’t.
“So at least I know they aren’t there. That’s a start,” he said.
Progress is slow. Brewer said he sorts through about 20 lost items per visit.
The history of skiing in Colorado is the history of Colorado. It starts with the earliest miners and evolves into a modern urbanites’ pastime. No other cultural icon embodies the state as much as the skier screaming through fluffy powder.
“There’s just such a passion for it. It’s such a big part of our identity,” said ski museum curator Justin Henderson.
Looking at the collection, though, the history of skiing seems to be more about a series of bad ideas getting replaced by slightly better ones.
The first skis in the state were up to 14 feet long, hand-carved by Scandinavian miners in the 1860s, and weighed about 25 pounds.
“They used ’em like snowshoes to get around, but eventually they started racing on them,” said Jimmy Dunn, the volunteer who regularly rubs the 140-year-old skis with tung oil to keep the wood moist.
From there, skis gradually became smaller, thinner and lighter.
Dunn pulled out a pair of never-used Groswold skis ” the first skis with metal edges, made in Denver in about 1935 from a single piece of shaped wood.
Then Dunn rifled through until he found a pair of white army surplus skis like the pair he learned to ski on in 1949. He went on to patrol at Colorado ski areas for more than 30 years, seeing skis change from wood to plastic to a complex composite.
Innovations came and went. A boot made almost entirely of heavy zinc in the late 1950s didn’t last long. Plastic boots, introduced in 1964, did.
Some ideas died only to be reborn. Dunn pulled out a pair of shaped skis from the 1960s when most ski edges were straight as an arrow.
“People wouldn’t buy ’em,” he said.
Now they’re the norm. He reached for a pair of skis from the 1940s. The twin-tips made them look more like modern park skis than the long planks used 60 years ago.
“These are called Goon Skis. Even back then, people were messing with trick skiing,” he said. “It just took a while to catch on.”
When Dunn first arrived at the resource center in 2002, the skis lay in a big heap on the floor. Now they stand in chronological order, each one clean, oiled, and with a tag explaining its origins.
Meanwhile, new skis and boots keep coming in.
“History is constantly being created. It’s never going to stop. It can be a daunting task,” said Henderson, one of two full-time employees.
He visits the center about once a week. It is run almost entirely by amateurs.
“Without volunteers, the museum wouldn’t be able to function,” he said. “We wouldn’t have the Resource Center. We wouldn’t be able to preserve a lot of this history. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
The museum’s 3,000-square-foot exhibit area in Vail displays a fraction of the collection. The museum also has exhibits this winter in Georgetown and at Denver International Airport, but Henderson said he wants to get exhibits into other ski towns around the state.
In the meantime, a small avalanche of artifacts flows in from former Olympians, ski areas and the attics of old-timers who have been linking turns since the days of leather boots.
The museum gets old posters, pictures, skis and poles. Stacks of films lean precariously on a shelf.
One rare donation: snowboards. The warehouse includes about 12 ” a number a longtime snowboarder could probably beat just by rifling around his garage. None is particularly rare. Granted, the museum was slow to come around to boarding culture. Though the sport has been in Colorado for 30 years, snowboarding was just added to the Colorado Ski and Snowboarding Museum’s name this summer. But Pfeiffer said, “The boarders seem to hang on to their stuff. We don’t see it much.”
Henderson said that may change as boarders get older and, like skiers before them, clean out their attics.
Until then, volunteers say they have more than enough to keep them busy.
“I’ve got boxes and boxes I need to go through,” Pfeiffer said. “But when I get to them, I’m not sure where I’ll put them. We need five more filing cabinets, at least.”
She shrugged and looked back at the pile in front of her.
“It is pretty cool, though. If we can keep on the way we are going, we’ll have the greatest collection in the country.”
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame: http://www.skimuseum.net/