Willoughby: Famine, perdition, skiing — many reasons to move to Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Famine, perdition, skiing — many reasons to move to Aspen

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.
Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

Tourists are attracted to our town, its amenities, and its surroundings. But why did we move here? Some, like me, were born here, or our parents brought us here when they chose Aspen, but there are many reasons for others. The roads to Aspen, over its history, point in many directions.

For some, the journey began in another continent and took more than a generation. Irish immigrants left their country during the Great Famine, the potato blight. In the decade beginning in 1845, over 2 million left either from starvation or because they were evicted from where they lived. A million died.

Most coming to America headed first to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. But the West was a great lure, especially for the next generation, and Aspen offered opportunities that the Eastern cities couldn’t.

Sweden had similar difficulties with over a million departing. Crop failures in 1887 contrasted with advertisements for cheap ocean-liner tickets and homesteading. An extended family story illustrates Sweden’s complex economy. Men in many families were conscripted for the military, but they had to provide their own horse, and for some, a ticket to America cost less; homesteading in Montana, even though little was known about how difficult it would be to farm there, seemed a better choice.

Much of the world was transitioning to the industrial age. Large families on the farms had a basic-existence reality, and since the eldest inherited the farm, siblings found immigrating enticing. The Civil War had the same effect in the South; the agricultural economy could not support all.

For many, the initial stage was to continue farming, to homestead, a chance at a future with almost free land. But many homesteads were marginal, tough to even produce enough to feed the family.

Aspen, and the mining West, offered non-farm labor opportunities. Aspen, home to early miner union successes, offered employment that could support a family. A growing town means expansion of local businesses, another opportunity — both for wage earners and for entrepreneurs.

There were many towns in the West that had similar opportunities, and many moved from one town to another broadening their experience and increasing their income. But would you rather live in 2-mile-high Leadville or Aspen?

Modern ski-industry Aspen attracted some from war-torn Europe. Some of the early ski instructors were from Austria escaping the Nazis. Others came after the war. Aspen was on the rise, but their home towns faced the challenges of an economy recovering from war.

A more modern category of newcomers were attracted to Aspen. They were not from failing farms facing famine, but they came to get away from where they were. Some wanted to escape from urban environments to the Rocky Mountains. Some were taking a break from jobs they were not enjoying or from college, attracted to the low-demand life of the ski bum, ski days, and pay the bills working for lodges and restaurants.

In the ’50s, during the McCarthy period, some escaped scrutiny of political and religious discrimination, finding Aspen welcoming.

There were those who wanted to see the world, but to them, that meant living in the most popular places: New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, and Aspen.

Another escape-to-Aspen category was also family-based — but no necessarily sibling order or, though just as challenging, family expectations. Those facing parental disapproval if they did not take over the family business or be the third-generation attorney or doctor needed the expansive Aspen altitude to find a life that they chose for themselves.

Every city and town has its reasons why people leave or come. Aspen has an above-average short longevity for those who stay, but the reasons they came contribute to the milieu of what attracts new residents.

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.