Tony Vagneur: Roaring Fork real estate evolving or devolving? |

Tony Vagneur: Roaring Fork real estate evolving or devolving?

Tony Vagneur

Real estate in the Roaring Fork Valley has always been prime, and contentious. Ask a Ute what he thinks of the white man’s intrusion into his forefather’s bucolic lifestyle and he’ll give you an honest answer. “We paid dearly to have the white man steal our land; it cost us a way of life, and for a time, our hearts.” For the white man, that was the first real estate boom in the valley.

Ever since, we’ve been portioning off that native land into various geometric shapes, giving title to it, and charging money for either buying it or having the privilege of owning it. The first settlers of this town divided up the original settlement of Ute City into small lots available to themselves; B. Clark Wheeler, a bustling bully, came rumbling along, appropriated their land and changed the name of the little mining camp to Aspen. (He also tried to steal the water, but under threat of serious bodily injury or worse, soon gave up that idea.)

Real estate has come a long way since then, even though the reality hasn’t changed much. Buy and sell; some make out, some don’t. Back in the 1880s, there wasn’t much to be said about Aspen real estate — every available inch was taken up and owned by someone, including the ranch land outside of town and those arriving here generally were looking for riches, not wanting to spend them.

Realtors did exist, naturally, although it wasn’t generally their prime reason for existence. Ads from the time list real estate dealers as also being in the fire and other insurance business, selling mines and mining stock, loaning money, selling investments and securities, and acting as collection agencies. Enough to keep imported cigars in the humidor, I reckon.

From 1900 through 1945, mention of real estate was generally under property being sold for taxes due Pitkin County. Those long overdue amounts ranged from $.39 to several thousand dollars, most generally in the range of $10 to $90. Those were the years when some people today say stupid stuff like, “My dad could have bought the whole town for $200!” Yeah, well why didn’t he?

Italian immigrants from Val d’Aosta bought up most of the agricultural land between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, turning the valley into a farming and ranching mecca, a period demonstrating a remarkable ability to conserve and make a living from the land. Envious politicians of the 1970s and 80s took to calling such holdings “fiefdoms.”

The business of Aspen today is real estate, but from 1900 until around 1968, the biggest economic generator in Pitkin County was agriculture. Seems odd, doesn’t it, we’ve gone from hunting and gathering to farming and ranching to skiing to real estate. What’s next, do you suppose?

During those quiet years, dubbed the “Golden Years” by Aspen native Albert Loushin (RIP), some real estate deals were taking place, although still not like you might imagine. From 1940 to 1945, it seems like an unusually high number of local property owners died, leading to legal notices in the paper titled, “Final settlement and determination of heirship.”

In 1945, the Brand Building, known then as the Brand Garage, owned by Lettie Lee Brand, was sold to E.E. Jackson, an out-of-towner. Jackson said he planned on fixing it up, but didn’t have much else to say. Neither he nor Lettie Lee could have predicted where it would be today.

Friedl Pfeifer, founder of the Aspen Ski Corporation, bought the Frank Cerise ranch, about a mile west of town, in 1953. It would later become the Buttermilk base area.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, things picked up. A 1959 ad, “Small lodge in shady part of town . . . operator has bigger fish to fry.” Not sure I’d want to touch that one. Or, “Four-bedroom Victorian near the school, being fixed up with genuine new floor-to-ceiling walls. $10,000.” How unique.

The advertising essence then was pretty straight forward, no bulls—. Somewhere along the way, selling land, homes and condos became no longer about selling property, but about selling “the dream.” We have something you can’t get anywhere else, and your life will be forever changed. “But you will pay dearly for it” is the unspoken, loudly proclaimed undertone.

Only in contemporary Aspen can real estate ads get away with calling irrigation ditches “year-round streams,” or exclaiming that unkempt ranches with run-down fences are “Turn-key equestrian” operations. Water rights suddenly become “senior” water rights, when the fellow down the creek likely has a priority over said right. If your land has been subdivided, a “senior” water right might possibly give you enough to brush your teeth, but don’t count on much more.

It’s a monster we created in our rush to limit growth, but perhaps it’s better to live with such an ogre than to resemble the Eagle River Valley. Wait a minute, have you looked around lately?

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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