Willoughby: A census snapshot of Aspen, 1950 | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: A census snapshot of Aspen, 1950

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Norway Lodge added to lodge capacity in 1950.
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo

The 1950 census showed Aspen gained a couple hundred residents, growing to 904. Pitkin County numbers showed a drop down to 1,629 from 1,841. But the big changes in that year were not population gains and losses.

Aspen hosted the FIS championships. It had hosted the nationals in 1941 in its attempt at establishing the town’s ski-racing reputation. After the Aspen Skiing Co. opened, it returned to hosting races and courted the FIS to gain international as well as national prestige. Runs on the mountain were enlarged, and the town prepared for a large crowd.

The events were spread out over two weeks. One was a jumping exhibition. There were still racers who had competed in both jumping and downhill events. A crowd of around 3,000 showed up to see Christian Pravda from Austria do two jumps of 172 feet. The hill record was over 200. Usually, jumping is also scored by form, but this was an exhibition, so only distance was noted. Stein Eriksen, representing Norway, jumped 154 and 158 feet.

The biggest drawing events were the downhills with an estimated 6,000 crowding the finish lines. Zeno Colo of Austria won the men’s, and he also won the men’s giant slalom. Eriksen managed 11th in the downhill but managed third in the slalom. Most women’s races were dominated by the Austrian team — as an example, five of the top six in the slalom were Austrians.

An American caught Aspen eyes, Andrea Mead (Lawrence). She was only 17 but had a younger start, making the 1948 St Moritz Olympics team at the age of 15. She was sixth in the slalom and ninth in the giant slalom. She competed in three Olympics and was the first American alpine skier to win two gold medals in the same Olympics. As a side note, she who skied almost until her death in 2009 skied without ski poles when she wasn’t racing. Both Meadsheand Eriksen lived in Aspen in the 1960s.

The FIS was a huge success for Aspen with radio and media coverage. For skiers, it was similar to hosting the Olympics for attention.

1950 was a also milestone year for another business, but in this case, the end rather than a beginning. A couple months after the FIS, the Midnight Mine shut down its ore production, laying off all but a maintenance crew. It had been the largest employer in Aspen for decades with a crew as large as 54. The company did not run out of ore to mine; it was like what happened when companies moved their manufacturing to China for low wages and no environmental constraints. 

The Colorado Mining Association published a report that showed 73% of all metal mines operating in 1940 in Western states had closed, and the remaining ones were being operated on a limited or standby basis. Currency devaluation and tariffs drove down the price of lead and zinc — two of the major products of the Midnight.

Aspen was catering to tourists. The newest lodge that opened was the Shadow Hill, on West Main and 4th, built by Frank Meyers, who worked for MGM and was attracted to Aspen after filming the “Devil’s Doorway” the summer before near Maroon Lake. The mainstays that lasted longer include Hotel Jerome, Prospector Lodge, Toklat Lodge, Norway Lodge, and Prince Albert Inn.

Most of the restaurants were short-lived, like Blue Deer Restaurant, Goldies Crystal City Inn, Ski and Spur, and the Miner’s Den. Mainstays that lasted for years were the Red Onion and the Golden Horn. New that year was Edie’s in the Elks Building with knotty pine walls, run by Clarence Rader and his wife, Edie, famous for her pies.

1950 was the first year of the Aspen Institute. Following the 1949 Goethe Convocation, Walter Paepcke formed the Aspen Institute and organized a 12-week program for the summer of 1950. It included music and a lecture series.

The Denver Symphony performed, but much of the music was provided by musicians who continued with the Festival, including the Juilliard String Quartet, the two-piano team of Vronsky and Babin, and harpsichordist Fernando Valenti.

The lecture series included Mortimer Adler doing his great-books seminars and other lecturers like famous conservative speaker and politician (and wife of the publisher of Time-Life) Clare Boothe Luce.

1950 was not just the beginning of a new decade. It was, for Aspen, the beginning of a decade of dramatic change.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.