Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Coming off the singles line at the gondola, I was suddenly thrust into the midst of a cabin lecture about Aspen’s history, conducted by one of those people who seem to know everything. As she explained how Walter Paepcke “saved” the teetering ghost town of Aspen, I was tempted to speak up, but to do so would have contorted the idyllic looks on the faces of her adoring cohorts. It’s a twisted trail we took to get where we are today, but being a ghost town wasn’t part of it.
To look deeper than the woman in the gondola, it is well-documented that Paepcke, a businessman from Chicago, through the urging of his wife began to look upon Aspen as a good place to “get away from it all,” a location that could be molded into a vision reminiscent of the thinker Plato, a planned community if you will, a spot where busy corporate executives could rejuvenate “mind, body and spirit” in a relaxing atmosphere.
It would be foolish to argue against such an appealing inkling unless one is concerned about social-class distinctions, for in any shade you wish to color it, that was an elitist idea. Oh, I know you can argue that if given the synergy produced by a conclave of the brightest and best minds of the day, great ideas could and might have lasting impact on the world.
To implement Paepcke’s concept, a certain amount of genius had to be employed, for if word of his strategy leaked prematurely, the price of real estate would skyrocket and his plan would become unaffordable. Through the assistance of local judge William R. Shaw, Paepcke quietly put together a sizeable string of Aspen properties, enough to begin execution of his plan. The Paepckes carefully selected those whom they invited to share in their newfound nirvana, and the horses were off, so to speak.
There were a couple of snags along the way, things that couldn’t be ignored. For one, there was an existing population of hard-case survivors already in town, folks who weren’t thrilled with Paepcke’s big-city tactics, and who fought him on several fronts. Music, art and grand ideas were OK, but most of the locals had been on the short end of the monetary stick for a long while and were starting to like the tourist income that fishing, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and skiing were beginning to attract. It was unlikely that any of them were going to hobnob with great minds or play first violin in the orchestra. And, don’t forget, tourist Elizabeth Paepcke first visited here in 1939.
The Aspen Ski Club had been in existence since 1936 (originally the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club) and already had established a certain modicum of expertise in that realm. And besides, Austrian immigrant and 10th Mountain Division veteran Friedl Pfeifer had convinced the town fathers to put him in charge of the boat tow and related activities. In anticipation of grand things to come, Pfeifer had founded the Aspen Ski Corp. but didn’t have access to the kind of money needed to make his dream come true. And a brilliant idea he had: Put in a chairlift rather than the common European tram at a fraction of the cost.
Re-enter Walter Paepcke, a visionary but also a pragmatic businessman, and as revolting as the idea of ski bums residing in his cultural haven might have been, winter revenue would be welcome. Paepcke took over the fledgling ski company, allowing Pfeifer to retain control of the ski school, and began selling shares to investors. Early on, it became clear that some arrangement needed to be worked out to attain access over the many mining claims on the proposed ski area. Aspen stalwarts D.R.C. Brown and his brother Fletcher owned many of them anyway and soon were on board with the Ski Corp., as it was always affectionately known.
A lot happened in the 1940s, but “saving the ghost town” of Aspen was not one of them.