Keith Brown’s story: Creating Vail
March 3, 2014
Editor’s Note: The last surviving members of Vail original board of directors are Harley Higbie, Keith Brown and Jerome Lewis. We sat down with Keith Brown for a few Vail tales, which he shares in part two of this two part series.
VAIL — It’s one thing to build a ski area and quite another to run it.
“Getting Vail built and operating in one year was a miracle,” said Keith Brown, one of the few surviving members of Vail’s original board of directors.
Brown, Harley Higbie and George Caulkins were all with Caulkins Oil and spent most of 1961 running around the U.S. with an 8-mm film, showing potential investors where their new ski area would be. It also showed pictures of Piney Lake, but they figured that was close enough.
“It’s been a great story and a fabulous part of all our lives. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
Keith Brown, Vail original
“We (he and Higbie) raised a little, but nothing like George,” Brown said. “It is very doubtful that Vail would be here today had it not been for George. He really did change our world.”
They raised the money, and the town and ski area were built in one summer. It cost all the money they had, and not a dime was coming in.
“From the very beginning, we were afraid we weren’t going to make it. We got the money and got it open, but we were still touch-and-go,” Brown said.
One day in January 1963, Brown was on the road raising money and decided he’d check in. Kit Sherry handled Vail’s phones in those days. When she answered, Brown asked how it was going.
“Good. We sold 15 lift tickets today!” Sherry said brightly.
When Vail opened, a lift ticket cost $5. Brown knew that 15 lift tickets for $5 each equaled an ocean of red ink.
“For the first five to seven years, we hardly got to ski. We were trying to make Vail survive,” Brown said.
They kept raising money for eight or 10 years to keep the company afloat, Brown said.
At first, Denver people didn’t buy in and Aspen people were just plain mean, Brown said.
“They thought it was a stupid place to build something, but eventually they came around,” Brown said.
It was 1976 before the ski area stopped hemorrhaging red ink. Until then, generous investors and real estate sales kept the lifts turning, Brown said.
“It was years before anyone was sure Vail would make it,” Brown said. “Without the real estate, we couldn’t have made it.”
All things new
Brown’s daughter, Susan Brown Milhoan, was 9 years old when he asked his wife, Carol, “What do you think about investing a little money in that new ski area?”
Caulkins, one of the world’s great salesmen, had pitched the Vail vision to Brown and Higbie.
“When Caulkins pitched it, I didn’t want to be left out,” Brown said. “I had to struggle to come up with it. My dad had died and left me a little bit of money. He’d have cut my throat if he knew I’d put it in something as silly as a ski area.”
That was 1959, and they drove to visit what would become Vail. The Brown clan stayed in a small yellow house where Red Sandstone Elementary School is now; it was the only house around.
Everything all the time
Everyone did everything, and the stories kept coming. Ski school director Morrie Shepard was also the fire chief. Brown handled real estate and all the utilities, including the sewer system.
“They called me the Head Turd,” Brown said laughing.
Caulkins, Higbie and Brown formed Vail’s first gas company, a central propane system with a massive tank from which everyone got their propane.
Vail’s second winter it got so cold the propane wouldn’t flow and people were freezing.
Bill Burnett, of Minturn, was one of the area’s only plumbers and worked tirelessly to help get Vail’s fluids flowing. When the propane froze, Burnett and his brother Pete crawled under the massive tank and heated it with blow torches to get it running.
Keith Brown and Harley Higbie have been friends for 60 years, and built the first two homes on Vail’s Mill Creek Circle. Harley and his wife, Lorraine, still live in theirs. Keith and Carol split their time between Southern California and their retreat up Lake Creek.
“It’s been a great story and a fabulous part of all our lives. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Brown said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.