Year-round white stuff |

Year-round white stuff

Tim Willoughby
A pile of rejects outside the Marble Mill, 1958. (Willoughby Collection)

Aspen’s winter white is internationally famous, but even locals do not often notice Aspen’s white stuff of summer. This white stuff didn’t fall from the sky, it was surreptitiously deposited one truckload at a time in the 1950s.

The Yule marble formation at the end of the Crystal River valley is the purest white rock found anywhere. Beginning in the 1890’s, vast quantities were quarried for buildings, monuments, tombstones and decorative features. The 56 ton block used for the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier is the most famous stone quarried there. Because of its size it was one of the hardest to extract. The largest single contract for marble in the U.S., requiring 1800 stones from 15 to 30 tons each for the Lincoln Memorial, came from Marble. On the west coast the Huntington Memorial in Pasadena, California, was built of Yule marble.

Distance from market cast profitability in doubt, even though the marble was of the highest quality. Vermont Marble Company bought the operation, but after delivering marble for the Colorado state office building in 1941, the company shut down. Vermont Marble ceased paying taxes on their properties, abandoning any thought of future quarrying. They left behind the world’s largest marble milling buildings, made of marble, and 80,000 tons of scrap marble in varying stages of production. Some were polished and ready for sale, others quarried but not shaped. Pieces that broke during milling were saved for smaller possibilities. Miles of marble lined the railroad tracks, dumped as ballast, after exposure to the elements rendered it useless.

Residents of Aspen ‘discovered’ marble in the 1950’s. Experienced with salvaging opportunities offered by mining towns, locals naturally appreciated the tons of marble along the Crystal River rail line, the crumbling mill buildings and the quarried unmilled reject piles.

Marble of all shapes and sizes abounded for the taking. A few strong backs and the back end of a jeep or pickup truck got you the world’s prettiest and purest white rock. Some incorporated blocks as doorsteps and in rock gardens, others simply enjoyed owning a memento of Colorado’s past. Youthful rock hounds had to choose between pieces too heavy for them to carry and smaller broken pieces that highlighted crystalline beauty.

Early scavengers hauled large pieces, some polished, for outdoor picnic tables. The seemingly endless piles of rock were not organized, but it never took long to find a few pieces of the right size to piece together any project.

For those escaping the conservative conformist 1950’s Aspen was an artist’s haven, a low rent Mecca. Yule marble was ideal for sculptors. Artists like Carl Jonas produced both abstract and representational work. On a drive through Aspen, you could see their works outdoors: some in progress, some for sale, and some purchased and publicly displayed. Winter white on white hid them from public admiration, but the sculptures stood out starkly against summer’s colorful background.

Aspen’s most photographed marble collection was the sculpture garden at the Aspen Meadows. Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus inspired arrangement of the geometric shapes created an unintended memorial to Marble’s miners and mill artisans.

After a succession of owners bought the quarry for delinquent taxes, the mill area of Marble was fenced to stem the looting. Broken pieces, building blocks and flawed rejects were crushed and sold for garden walkways.

Although the quarry is back in operation you don’t have to travel far to visit year-round white stuff. One of earth’s most stunning natural materials can be found by simply poking around a few of Aspen’s older houses.