Vail’s original second jobs
March 2, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about how Keith Brown, George Caulkins and Harley Higbie put together the financing to launch the Vail ski company.
VAIL — Even before there was a Vail, three of the people most responsible for creating it had second jobs.
Keith Brown and Harley Higbie were partners with George Caulkins in Caulkins Oil, and while they spent most of 1961 on the road raising money to launch the new ski area, they also ran the oil company.
“No one ever dreamed Vail would be like this. A lot of them thought it was going to be a private club,” said Brown, one of Vail’s originals.
Brown — former U.S. ambassador, oil industry executive and Vail original — sat down to talk about those early days.
The tale goes like this.
Back Bowls or bust
In the beginning, 1961, Vail’s originals were struggling to come up with the $1 million they needed to begin building the dream. They were leaning toward postponing opening the Back Bowls and using the money they’d save to build more hotel rooms for guests.
Bob Parker, Vail’s original marketing magician, declared that he needed those Back Bowls to put Vail on the map. They’d have to find some other way to raise the money, Parker insisted.
Starting a ski resort is a little like starting a rock band. You know a guy who knows a guy and before you know it, music happens.
By the now the story is familiar. In March 1957, Earl Eaton took Pete Seibert to the top of a nameless mountain that Eaton had roamed when he was a kid. Seibert was smitten.
Later that year, Seibert 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 Caulkins got involved. Higbie and Brown were working with Caulkins in the oil industry and joined the fun.
And that leads us back around to their $1 million question — where would they get that kind of money?
Tweedy turned to Caulkins and said, “George, you’ve been raising money for the oil business.”
So Caulkins, Brown and Higbie created Caulkins Securities Co. and hit the road.
No love in New York
Among their first stops were normal funding sources — banks, Wall Street investment houses, that sort of thing. Those investment houses wanted 50 percent of the project, so they said thanks but no thanks, Brown said.
They decided they’d raise the money themselves. Higbie, Brown and Caulkins got a 5 percent commission on all of the money they raised. However, they had to pay their own expenses, and the 5 percent didn’t cover their expenses.
Brown had spent a few years in San Antonio in the oil business, so he went to Texas. Higbie went to Gross Pointe, Mich., his hometown.
Shares in the new ski company cost $10,000 each. For that, you got an equity interest in Vail, ski passes for the family and an option to buy a lot. Exercising that option would cost $500.
Caulkins, Brown and Seibert were driving from Dallas to Houston when they came up with that $500 land option idea, Brown said. They were feeling a little down because they were having no luck raising money, so they threw in the land to sweeten the deal.
To qualify for a Small Business Administration loan, they needed $1 million by the end of 1961. And as the days drew short, they still had $100,000 or more to go.
Caulkins approached a few of the wealthy Vail 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.
Dietler, by the way, was also an energy industry pioneer who founded TransMontaigne Inc. In 1958, the original name of the Vail enterprise was the fictional TransMontane Rod and Gun Club. The Vail originals named it as such so no one would catch onto the nature of their venture.
Anyway, Caulkins and Taylor, Dallas Cowboys owner John Murchison and a few others each bought five more shares. When Murchison picked his, Brown opened a map and Murchison started pointing at lots and writing his name on blank spaces saying, “I’ll take this one, this one, this one.”
“It was like he was picking squares for a football pool,” Brown said.
No football pool ever paid that well. Murchison later sold them for $300,000 each, Brown said.
That Houston gathering was where Brown met George Herbert Walker Bush, who would become the 41st U.S. president.
Hugo Newhouse was an architect who hosted the party, and Bush was there. He got together with three other guys — all Yale pals — and they all kicked in $2,500 to buy one share. Bush later sold his share for around $40,000.
The bulldozers finally ran and in one summer, they built a town and a ski area.
The lifts started turning on Dec. 15, 1962. Everything was still so new that the paint was still wet during the dinner party to celebrate the opening at The Lodge at Vail.
And that, young people, is how construction started on time.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.