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Saddle Sore: Restoring order in the Aspenverse

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The winds of change blew quickly over Aspen back in 1893, leaving a gray area that historians have difficulty grasping with any confidence. “The Crash of ’93,” with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, was a lesson hard learned and one we should never forget. If you rely on the federal government for subsidies, the fickle meanders of politics will eventually crush you.

All things considered, the crash was the best thing that could have happened to Aspen. It all didn’t die overnight, so say the stragglers, but really it did. We still, even today, have a hard time letting go.

A tragedy some say, but that’s doubtful. The air began to clear, patches of blue could be seen, the noise and air pollution almost died off, forests began to regenerate, and a whole outflux of people left town, on to what they considered greener pastures, such as the gold mines at Cripple Creek and beyond. What had become not much more than a typical 19th century industrial city began its transition back to what we like to think of, with our modern-day parameters, as a “mountain town.”

And the “Crystal City of the Rockies” was replaced by a quiet almost ruin of a town, struggling to find its new identify, surrounded by a wilderness that itself was healing from the rape of the land, a town fortunate to leave behind the heady pace of the 1880s and early ’90s.

Some like to refer to it as the Quiet Years, and they were quiet, but from the folks who actually lived here during those times, a more apt description might be the “Golden Years,” as coined by my friend Albert Loushin. The water in the mountain streams cleared, a labor of love helped to restock the fish, elk were reintroduced to the landscape and the pace was more about accepting what one had and living one’s life rather than trying to always see what was around the next corner.

Elizabeth Paepcke first came here in 1939. What she saw was enough to entice her to return, making Aspen a part of her life’s work. If anything, it had to be the quiet within the town that first attracted her, where the loudest sound was the whistle of the train, announcing the arrival of the mail. No one had a Realtor’s sign up, except William Shaw, Pitkin County judge, who operated discreetly behind the scenes.

If you had a lot or a little, nobody really cared, for the object was to stay warm and dry in the winter and to explore the wilds around town with a fishing pole, picnic baskets loaded to the gills for get-togethers with neighbors or friends and camping trips to places such as Willow and Capital lakes in the summer. Even then, tourists from the big cities, mostly Denver but other points, as well, were envious of the Aspen lifestyle. There just wasn’t much of a way to make a living here, and that kept newcomers out.

Skiing changed all that, but for a while the quiet continued, the noise louder but almost imperceptibly amplified. But the sea change was on — longtime residents and natives alike were marginalized, and although it took some time, real estate values went upward with a dedication that made a lot of people better off than they’d ever been before. But there was a trade-off. Many people took the money and ran down to Basalt or Carbondale; others to Idaho, Montana or California. It got more difficult to find your old friends in any one regular spot, and the newcomers became more and more demanding, unknowingly bringing their big-city baggage with them, insisting it be instituted in Aspen.

And now the financial papers and real estate brokers are telling us that for 2016, Aspen home sales are down around 40 percent, depending whom you talk to. There’s a multitude of reasons for this, from uncertainty about the presidential election to stock market crashes in China, but it may be even more mundane.

Those rich kids, those whose money came to them quickly, who didn’t have to build it over the generations, those people who paid exorbitant prices for Aspen real estate, had a comeuppance during the latest recession. They’ve seen that Aspen properties can dip with the times, and these very same people have grown up and have become more prudent about their behavior. The money stream is tightening, as well. They’re still likely to buy a well-priced home, but investing easy money in pie-in-the-sky priced houses has become passe.

Which, if we’re fortunate, means the bloom is coming off the rose, the throwing of money at cold mega-mansions is easing and people are looking less at ostentation and more at quality of life. With any luck, we might be able to reclaim a portion of those “Golden Years.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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