Willoughby: Famous Aspen dogs — Bingo, Mumbo, Hobo and Bruiser
Legends & Legacies
Childhood memories have a tendency to merge over time. I combined four memories into one category — dogs and snow.
Fred and Elli Iselin had a giant dog named Bingo, a St. Bernard. As The Aspen Times noted, Bingo was “one of the most loved dogs in Aspen” and “can be seen most anytime on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Jerome or at the Ski School meeting place lazing patiently on the snow waiting for master or mistress to appear.”
Bingo appeared in movies and you have likely seen the photo of him riding up Chair One. Bingo, besides being friendly and omnipresent, was a giant dog, easy to spot with a large friendly face. He died in 1951.
Fred Iselin was the co-director of the Aspen Ski School and known for his dazzling skiing style and flamboyant personality. Elli was also a ski instructor, but later opened her ski apparel boutique, Elli of Aspen.
I encountered a famous Aspen St. Bernard, “Hobo,” Bil Dunaway’s dog, on my way to school in my elementary years. Hobo won the best breed at the Annual Denver All Breeds Dog Show in 1961. Dunaway was editor of The Aspen Times. Because I was afraid of dogs and Hobo was so big, as I passed by the Times office on Main Street on my way to school, I had to skirt around him. To assuage my fears my parents told me about how St. Bernards were famous rescuers in the Alps.
The monks in a monastery along the dangerous route through the Alps between Switzerland and Italy used dogs in rescue searches. My parents showed me the classic pictures of St. Bernards wearing casks around their necks. I didn’t know what was in them but was excited about the idea of a dog rescuing me if I got buried in snow bringing me something to eat.
Iselin made a film for Walt Disney Productions titled “Fantasy on Ski’s.” It was based on the real-life story of Susie Wirth, whose parents ran and lived in the Sundeck. She was the star. Susie and her sister, Anne-Marie, skied to town to school and the movie used that as the basis of the story. In the movie she is caught in an avalanche. Iselin used his dog Mumbo, his replacement for Bingo. Then a couple of years later Iselin redid the movie into a television movie called “Little Skiers Big Day” and used Hobo, but in the movie they called him Bruno.
My parents told me another old story about Aspen’s mining-era dog, “Bruiser.”
The story has been told and retold in books about Aspen, but it may have passed out of memory and is worth chronicling again. Unlike Bingo, Mumbo and Hugo, Bruiser was not a rescuer, he was rescued.
The story was popular among Aspen’s miners like my father because avalanches were scarier to them than working underground. Underground accidents, especially fatal ones, were usually human caused, often an error by the victim. Many mines were accessible in the winter on roads and trails that worked their way up the mountains in deep gulches where avalanches were common. Bad snow conditions were paid attention to, but traveling along the bottom of a steep-sided gulch put you in unpredictable precipitous danger.
The Bruiser avalanche was about halfway up Conundrum Valley on March 10, 1884. It buried five men including Bruiser’s owner, J.M. Thorne. The accident was not discovered until a few days later, and with no survivors all that was known was that a slide from the steep valley wall had buried the men. But 33 days later, April 12, volunteers shoveled through the snow looking for papers that would help the survivors’ families unexpectedly noticed something moving beneath them and after digging discovered Bruiser still alive and breathing. He had been buried under 25 feet of snow.
The Leadville Daily Chronicle told the story to its readers when Bruiser visited Leadville on his way to New York to live with family members of the diseased who thought it would be the best way to honor J.M. Thorne, even though many Aspenites wanted to take Bruiser into their households. The Chronicle described Bruiser as “a huge brindle dog, a shaggy, well-proportioned fellow, who could lay no claim, however to any very lofty lineage. He was a cross between a shepherd and a greyhound, and like Topsy (a reference to a circus elephant at that time), had apparently ‘just growed.’ With all the strength that lay in his great, massive limbs, and muscles like bunches of knit steel, he was kindly and gentle, and everybody liked him.”
Aspen passed the hat and created a solid silver collar for Bruiser with an engraved inscription with his name and a short version of the tale and sent it to the family.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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