Tony Vagneur: The Aspen myth, then and now |

Tony Vagneur: The Aspen myth, then and now

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

People come and go, and what we’re left with hasn’t changed much over the years. If you get correspondence from people who once lived here, it’s fairly clear that most of them would like to still be partaking of the magical myth that fuels so many memories.

After the silver crash of 1893, many of Aspen’s miners headed to Creede, where they hoped times would be better. Travelers from Aspen, visiting friends, or receiving letters from the same, soon learned that there was a lingering envy, a jealousy even, toward those lucky enough to remain. “Ah, if only Aspen could return to its former glory,” went the musings of both those remaining in town and those on the outs.

Aspen’s heritage as a cultural center came early, when the few women in town insisted on a grand Thanksgiving dinner for the population of mostly single miners. Later, in a surprise twist, the men, hundreds strong to the 19 women, staged a surprise Christmas dinner for the ladies. Then, as now, undiscovered talent emerged from the shadows: Chefs, musicians, artists, poets and storytellers, all clad in miners’ clothes, stepped up to provide whatever was necessary.

The stage for the Aspen of today was set. The Theatre Comique, entertainment center of the period, opened in 1881. Jerome B. Wheeler built the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome in 1889, both practical monuments to himself, which were destined to become monuments to the incredible history of Aspen. Electric lights and world-famous entertainers found themselves ensconced in early Aspen. The Aspen Literary Society, founded in early 1880, continued through the quiet times and is still in existence today.

Enter Walter and Pussy Paepcke, bent on making Aspen a cultural center for well-heeled corporate businessmen, independent thinkers, philosophers and musicians. Clearly, the culture part wasn’t an original idea, but the approach was unique. Attention to “Mind, Body and Spirit,” a trilogy aimed at those who could afford (in terms of dollars and time) to bathe in such inward self-indulgence, became the mantra of the Paepckes’ thrust, regardless of whether they intended it that way. It was a relatively innocent manner of thinking and economic improvement that couldn’t foresee the rampant greed and conspicuous spending that would eventually follow.

Lurking behind the Paepckes’ curtain, like a John Philip Sousa marching band, was Friedl Pfeifer’s unstoppable dream of turning Aspen into the ski mecca of the world. Say what you want about the differences between culture and athleticism, but there’s an undeniable synergy there that produces dynamite of the most delicious kind. Aspen, undeniably, has been the obvious beneficiary of the incredible energy that resulted.

The 1970s ushered in a new age, maybe that of Aquarius, but certainly one of psychedelics, booze, weed and nose candy. And derelicts and land developers. Everywhere, there were musicians, writers and laid-back raconteurs of tremendous talent. Mostly marginal ski bums, they arrived in hordes, like lemmings to the sultry, seductive wiles of saltwater, interesting people all, who whether by accident or careless design, changed the face of Aspen once again. Real estate prices spiraled upward, and the tail began to wag the dog.

The Aspen of today struggles with a shaky hangover from the past, unsure if all the “getting” really got us much. A saner, more laid-back town is beginning to shape itself in the wisdom of attaining “the understanding” before losing our minds over “the getting.”

From the first prospectors clambering over the mountains to get here, leaving families and homesteads behind, it is what it’s always been, impossible to ignore.

Curses attributed to Ute Indian chiefs and princesses only serve to bolster the magic and wonder we feel, certain to a person that we’ve had the best of what Aspen has had to give, no matter when that was.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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