Vail Tales: King George
Ryan Summerlin January 27, 2013
VAIL, Colorado – Lots of people get credit for Vail, but if it wasn’t for George Caulkins, there might not be a Vail.
“No one deserves more credit than George Caulkins,” said ski filmmaker Warren Miller. “Even on that one day the first winter when Vail only sold six lift tickets, George still believed in Vail.”
Money makes things happen, and if you’re trying to find money, you look where it is. Caulkins needed to look no further that his circle of friends, which included an elite group of celebrities, socialites and businessmen. Sometimes he’d drop a name, just to see what would happen.
A close friend once whispered that mentioning so many famous people might create problems.
Caulkins’ eyes sparkled and he answered, “You’re right. That’s what the Duke of Windsor told me.”
“The world’s best salesman was George Caulkins. George persuaded the young and beautiful Ellie to marry him after only two dates,” said Stanley Rumbaugh Jr., who bought into Vail in 1963. “I felt obligated as George’s best man to purchase one $10,000 unit. I only wish I had felt more obligated. Without George’s salesmanship and friends, Vail would not be in existence.”
Putting together Vail’s original partners was a little like putting together a band. You know a guy who knows a guy and, before you know it, music happens.
By now, the story is familiar. In March 1957, Earl Eaton took Pete Seibert to the top of a nameless mountain.
Later that year, Pete got together with Jay Robert Fowler, an attorney in Denver. They got together with John Conway, who put together the deal to buy the 500-acre Hanson Ranch in the Gore Creek Valley. Jack Tweedy and George Caulkins got involved. Harley Higbie and Keith Brown were working with Caulkins in the oil industry and joined the fun.
They calculated it would cost $1 million to put Vail together, and someone would have to raise it.
Tweedy turned to Caulkins and said, “George, you’ve been raising money for the oil business.”
So Caulkins, Brown and Higbie created Caulkins Securities Company to raise the money.
Seibert joined Caulkins on the road. Armed with an 8mm projector, a movie about Vail – which did not yet exist – and their powers of persuasion, off they went in Caulkins’ Porsche.
Caulkins’ first stop was Wall Street, where he hit some bumps in the road.
“In 1960, a ski area in the Rockies had no appeal, particularly on Wall Street,” Higbie said. “He went to his buddies in New York and was turned down flat. It looked pretty bleak, trying to raise money for this crazy idea.”
Caulkins was a man with imagination and could accept risk, traits he’d soon need.
By March 1962, they’d raised 70 percent of their $1 million. Seibert was agitating to get bulldozers working right away.
Caulkins approached a few of the wealthy investors, such as John Murchison, Moose Taylor, Cort Dietler and Chris Chenery, and told them he would buy five extra units if each of them would buy additional units. They bought them.
And that, young people, is how construction started on time.
Building a ski resort from the ground up meant an overall town plan and designing the basic infrastructure.
It’s one thing to build a ski area and quite another to run it. Caulkins loaned Vail Associates some of the top hands from his Caulkins Oil Company help while the corporate team was being put together.
“It is very doubtful that Vail would be here today had it not been for George. He really did change our world,” Brown said.