Willoughby: Expectations of previous generations may challenge progress

Tim Willoughby
Legernds & Legacies

Several times during Aspen’s history a younger generation drove a new wedge through an old paradigm. Each time the older generation met the new idea with skepticism, and resisted change. In general, progress creeps forward a few small steps at a time, a watershed builds, and then innovation leaps to acceptance. And a single generation may offer both progress and resistance.

Margaret Willoughby, my grandmother, illustrates this principle. Born in Denver in 1872, she grew up during the time when women organized to secure their right to vote. She supported the Temperance Movement and suffragettes. On the other side of national progress, she fought a battle in her own home over plumbing.

Sometimes even the obvious is not obvious. To people potty-trained during the previous century, an outhouse offered a sanitary solution for life’s needs. The small buildings stood a distance from each of Aspen’s beautiful Victorian houses. After Margaret’s husband died in 1943, her daughter Frances cared for her. Frances asked for an indoor toilet. But Margaret resisted. She felt such an object inside the house would not be sanitary. While Frances took her mother on a short trip, my father arranged to install a toilet and sink in the house.

Around the same time in Aspen, a larger generational battle ensued. The Aspen Ski Club had cut runs on Aspen Mountain and opened up for business. When the club formed in 1937 most members ranged between 25 and 30 years old. Mining provided the base industry, although most people recognized the ore would not last forever. Tourism had taken a place in the local economy for many years, but that sector had not been growing. In addition to fall hunting, and summer fishing and outdoor recreation, skiing brought in a new season of profit.

Generally, Aspen’s miners did not live as long as did non-miners. The town’s elders, many of whom had lived in Aspen since the 1890s, dominated the business community. Their stores survived because they owned the buildings and hired few, if any, employees.

The elders could not envision that skiing would contribute significantly to the economy. They saw the sport as a fad for a few, who would not fill their businesses. When the Ski Club sliced runs through groves of aspen trees that had covered the mountain, the elders expressed outrage. They had watched those trees return after various needs of the 1890s had denuded the landscape.

When the club tried to raise funds for its nascent project, they ran into the widespread Depression plea, “short on cash at this time.”

The war effort pulled generations together for the duration. But after the war, the Aspen Skiing Co. formed. Tenth Mountain soldiers who had skied Aspen during their stay at Camp Hail moved in and opened new businesses. A rapid generational change swept through Aspen. A town dominated by youth replaced the previous standoff between generational populations. And these youth had matured rapidly during war.

Men in their 30s and early 40s took on elected positions, fraternal leadership, boards of all kinds, and business groups. Young outdoor enthusiasts filled the visitor rosters. Rather than a crazy fad for a few, skiing provided family recreation and profitable business opportunities.

The status quo did not last long. The generation that soared through the Roaring 20s, survived the Depression, and fought a war encountered children of the late ’60s. Surely the old-timers recognized a theme from their own youth, “the times they are a changin’.”

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