Gustafson: Who we are: 50 years between two snow seasons |

Gustafson: Who we are: 50 years between two snow seasons

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Sharing a collective sense of history helps seal the emotional bonds that are essential in creating a healthy community. Yes, Snowmass has a history, and as spectacular as our mammoth discovery has been, I’m only reaching back through our human connections to the valley.

There is a reason that many folks in Snowmass fondly reminisce about the sense of community that was created here in 1967 when this village was formed into a resort and community in unison.

Exactly 50 years ago, taking a dusty drive along the dirt road that connected Highway 82 to the upper Brush Creek Valley would have landed you in the heart of a ranching community dramatically different from what we have here today. In March 1967, this was a rural valley, home to seven salt-of-the-earth families who based their livelihood on cattle and sheep grazing. In those early years, the pioneering lifestyle of the Brush Creek Valley required residents to work together — community was a necessity.

The Aspen ski industry was in full swing by the early 1960s, but Snowmass still appeared an idyllic scene straight out of “Little House on the Prairie.” And then along came Bill Janss and his ambitious associates, who saw this majestic valley and all its skiing potential. Once they had the Aspen Skiing Co. thoroughly titillated, they teamed up to capitalize on this natural gem and everything changed almost over night.

The original Janss “vision” was admirable. Bill was a dreamer with integrity, who aimed to plant the seeds for the growth of both a resort and a community, and he believed it would cohesively prosper in the bosom of mount Baldy, soon to be christened Snowmass Mountain.

During one single nine month gestation period, beginning in April 1967, creative developers, passionate ski industry experts, enthusiastic entrepreneurs, local ranchers and hippy dreamers all rolled up their sleeves — no, not figuratively — and labored through the summer with a “do it and get ’er done” mentality. Collectively, this rebellious group brought to life a resort between two annual snow falls. And by Dec. 16, 1967, both a full-scale ski resort and close-knit community had emerged.

It isn’t any wonder that the threads that bonded together participants in those early-day-efforts have endured the tests of time. Over the next decade the village enjoyed a boom of instant success.

Named “Snowmass-at-Aspen” from the start, and just a hop, skip and jump too far from its famous, more glamorous older sibling, Snowmass Village had its growing pains and has continued to grapple with an adolescent-style identity crisis.

Those who were settling in here, our forefathers and -mothers, took heavy personal ownership and care in laying the groundwork for a distinctive and successful ski resort. The family-oriented appeal we now hold dear, didn’t happen by accident, it was nurtured by the families who called this place home.

“Community” evolved here in many ways. The original Snowmass Wildcat Fire Department emerged when resident volunteers came together to control a hotel fire after the Aspen-based Fire Department was delayed by 40 minutes. The collective local effort to come to the rescue led to discussions about creating a village government independent of Aspen.

Small establishments enjoyed a welcoming incubation period in which everyone could invest and partake in the available amenities: Bob and Laurie blazed the trails, John made music, Doc made magic, Rob made stew, Hildur taught, Ruth covered it all in the Snowmass Sun, and everyone wore multiple hats from mayor to bus driver to bartender. After some maturation, a bit of controversy and some back-room meetings, the residents decided to organize and break away from Aspen’s political apron strings, and Snowmass, incorporated in 1977 as a town, beginning to shape its own destiny.

Community events were held simply to bring people together … and it worked. Over time group conference business rounded out the economy and Snowmass began to see two seasons of tourism. Guests enjoyed the local antics and organic energy brought on by silly festivals. And there was a sense of humor back then, never taking things too seriously.

In spite of the potential liability, on-mountain themed parties and crazy stunt skiing competitions like the Ski Splash and skijoring were wild and gained national attention. Events like Western Days, Mardi Gras, Banana Days and Oktoberfest were well attended, and locals still reminisce about dancing on the tables at the Timberline.

Snowmass started the first years of the Food & Wine Classic in the valley, inspired Jazz Aspen Snowmass and brought the early professional ballet companies here, as well.

Over time though, it seems the enthusiasm for fun and for the sake of community may have given way to financial profitability. Hands are now often tied by regulations and conflicting goals; developers becoming the main impetus for forward motion. The ability to emotionally invest has become less available.

Perhaps we are becoming too stagnant? Or maybe our only mutual goals have now become too focused on profitability.

We seem to be importing more and more instead of incubating and sustaining our own local efforts. Newcomers who haven’t yet connected with the local historical roots and believe the only way forward is to build and modernize are encouraging creeping suburbanization, diminishing the character which attracted them here in the first place. Things like our beloved Village Market are replaced by developers who manipulate us for a few years before they sell out and move on. Our restaurant and shop owners struggle to compete with chains. And events seem to target only visitors, losing the incentive for the shear fun of community events.

Experts are brought in to help guide us in developing our identity, and they then head back East to write down their interpretation of what we should become, returning to tell us who we are.

Maybe we need to stop asking ourselves what the town can do for us and hearken back to JFK, asking ourselves what we can do for our community. We can build an emotional connection from within and perhaps the physical spaces may then follow.

Even our 50th anniversary celebration is under siege; we should participate before it is hijacked as a marketing ploy with the goal of 90 percent occupancy at the heart of the party. If the message behind the 50th anniversary celebration is purely to market the next winter season, I feel we miss the opportunity to celebrate just for the sake of fun.

The original Snowmass sense of community was forged as our founders worked long and hard to pull together a ski resort while playing just as hard, enjoying their success. Through those shared endeavors the community was born. We should certainly be celebrating the beginning of our ski resort, but we should also be celebrating the roots of our community. Why not take this 50-year mile marker and use it as the catalyst to bring ourselves back to life?

We now have nine months to prepare a 50th anniversary celebration, and look what we were once capable of doing between two snow seasons. You cannot bring back, extract or recreate a passionate sense of community when the only interests are monetary. A community can’t be built with only bricks and mortar. But we can throw a party just to celebrate, and I believe the community rewards will follow!

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at

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