Tony Vagneur: Land rich, cash poor not a bad way to live the Aspen life

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

If you read much about Aspen in magazines or other national rags, you get this “glitter gulch” syndrome pounded into your senses, wondering if maybe you didn’t step off the curb wrong after leaving your favorite watering hole. I mean, bulls— can only pile up so high before it starts to run over the top of your boots.

It’s been that way since the early 1880s, as the eastern press trumped up the potential of mines in Aspen. It’s not like we were mining coal or copper, either. No way, we were mining a precious metal, silver, next to the godliness of gold in the eyes of those 19th century prospectors.

Newspapers are considered to be great troves of historical significance, and to an extent they are, but unfortunately, they usually only address happenings of the famous or infamous, the upper or middle class, or the major events that affect a community. The stories of those times are mostly about the price of silver or its industry, what famous actor was coming to town, upcoming plays at the opera house, dances at the pavilion on Hallam Lake, or which upper-crust woman had hosted a lovely dinner party.

While all this was going on, doing the dirty work down in the trenches were the working classes who generally held the place together. In a mining town such as Aspen, the upper class provided the money to get the ball rolling —­ the working class provided the labor that made it happen. And there weren’t many newspaper stories about those hard-working people, folks one writer termed the “invisible class.” It’s pretty much the same today.

Back in those days, it took everyone in the family to get the job done and to make enough to pay the bills, whether you were partnered up or single. Aspen was comprised mostly of single men who labored hard every day, so there was a deep need for boarding houses, folks to wash clothes, rooms for rent; someone had to make lunch for the men headed to the mines. Such jobs were usually accomplished by women — competent and successful businesswomen smart enough to advertise their services and keep their own books. Don’t even think about prostitution in this regard, for that was on the other side of the street, for a different, also astute and business-minded kind of woman.

Women’s roles in the workplace have considerably expanded, but do you think it’s much different today for either sex? How often do you hear that people, men and women both, have to work two or more jobs just to pay the rent, hopefully putting a little away for spring break? Listening to comments at the end of a winter or summer season from those who provide tourism services makes it clear that Aspen is no wonderland experience for the worker bee.

When I was a kid, it got hammered into my head that we were land rich and cash poor. Not by family, but by many of those rude newcomers who obviously had a little more stash than we did. On the whole, they also thought they were smarter than us, simply because they were clever enough to move here, I reckon. It was an attitude most of the old-timers found laughable, partly because if the newcomers were so much smarter, how come we’d been here all along, making it work?

My dad didn’t have time to play catch with me, nor did we do most of those other father-son things you read about. Instead, we rode mountain trails and the cattle range together, put up hay and fed cows as a team. We worked hard and our favorite non-ranch activity was reading. We shared rainy afternoons and below-zero days poring over various tomes and subjects in the encyclopedia.

He apologized once for not taking us on family vacations — there was too much work and not enough money to do such a thing. We were like almost every other farming or ranching clan around the valley. A visit to Glenwood Springs or Grand Junction was about as far as we ever got as a family.

To me it didn’t matter — I spent more important time with my dad learning the ranching business, which by extension, meant learning numerous natural life lessons that many other people don’t get exposed to or understand. Besides that, there was always ski season.

Yeah, Aspen may be “glitter gulch,” full of opportunity for ostentatious displays of self-indulgence by a lot of people, but to many of us, it’s just what it’s always been — our home.

Tony Vagneur is a fourth-generation Aspenite who writes here on Saturdays, He welcomes your comments at