‘Women of Vail’ excerpt: Vi Brown
Ryan Summerlin November 24, 2012
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Women of Vail,” by Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope. The Vail Daily is serializing the book as Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary. Books are available for purchase at www.bookwormofedwards.com, the Colorado Ski Museum, Pepi’s, Gorsuch, Annie’s and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
Back in 1963, my husband Byron asked me a life-changing question, “Vail is brand new, and they need people. So why don’t we move there?” We’d lived in Denver and had always wanted to move to the mountains. Some of the talk we were hearing was how exciting this new Vail was. So Byron went into action, got a tent and camped out in the mountains to decide what would be a good area to move to. Then he happened to talk to Pete Seibert.
“Brownie,” Pete said, “why don’t you come over and look at Vail? We need ski patrolmen, ski instructors; we need a lot of things up in Vail.”
So that’s how Byron finally decided. He and Pete had met at Loveland when Byron was a ski patrolman and Pete was running the area.
One day, Byron was walking in Littleton and saw Frank Randall with a sign: “Lots for sale in Vail.”
Byron said, “Do you need anybody to be an on-site person for the company? I could sell lots up there because I’d like to move to Vail.”
Frank replied, “Come on in,” and Byron introduced himself.
I think a couple of hours later, Byron walked out and had a job up at Vail and a house for us to live in if he finished building it. We built the first house in West Vail; we were actually the first on South Frontage Road. It was a corporation house. When we moved in, we didn’t have windows, and we cooked on a Coleman stove. Todd was a baby, and we put his playpen on cement blocks because there were mice in the house, and we didn’t want them to get to the baby. So, we put it up on blocks, and that worked.
When I first saw this place, I was awestruck. We arrived in June and got to go up and see the mountain right away. Vail was beautiful. We both liked it right away. Everyone was friendly and helpful. You could call anyone for help or advice; there weren’t social differences. Mike was born in 1962, so he was nearly 2; Todd was 1; and I was pregnant with Cindy. Byron was a good skier, and I was a beginner.
I’m from Wilmer, Minn., and I met Byron skiing at Arapahoe Basin. At the time, I worked in Denver at Sears. He asked me out with this question, “Do you have a sleeping bag?” and I thought, “How rude.” So I said that I wasn’t interested. I met him again at A-Basin my first day on skis. I didn’t take a lesson, didn’t know what I was doing, and I got off the Poma lift too soon. I rolled down the line and knocked everybody off. I got back on again, and he yelled from above, “Don’t get off until you get to the top of the hill.” That’s how I met Byron.
By June of 1964, we had the foundation of the house complete, with the promise that if he finished and used it for an office, too, we could live there. It was a three-bedroom house and office. Byron started out in ski patrol in Vail until he got his real estate license. There were only three companies in town; his business was Byron Brown Real Estate. The main highway was what is now the frontage road, U.S. Highway 6. If you went to Minturn to buy groceries or to the corner store in Lionshead to get milk, it was a chance to meet people. You spent a lot of time greeting because you were very lonesome. No TV. We could mostly just get radio reception at night. I could get recipe shows on KOA in Denver. If the clouds were right, you could get Alaska. One time, I listened to seal hunting on the radio. And then for Christmas, my wonderful mother- and father-in-law gave me a record player; I had four records, and I wore them out. Two were Christmas; one was Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby.
I met Nancy Reinecke right away. We took our kids outside and played. We met Buddy Werner, and he was so wonderful. He was killed in an avalanche in Austria, and we all mourned. Every ski racer was a hero because we were just getting started. I had learned to ski at A-Basin, and I was the fastest snowplower. I left that area being a really good snowplower.
In Vail, we didn’t take lessons but learned by watching other people, and we fell a lot. There was always powder snow. You could always stop by skiing into it. I skied three weeks before Cindy was born; you didn’t have to worry that someone would run into you. I started a little business where we made (with Diane Pratt) craft items that we sold at Helga Pulis’ shop at The Rucksack; our business was Mountain Designs. We put flowers, moss and stuff on driftwood. Income from the business gave me enough money to buy Christmas presents and clothes. I was an Avon lady, too. You would go to someone’s home, and they would make you coffee, and you had a chance to talk. In the late ’60s, before the Valley Forge, there was Kaleidoscope with Daphne and Anne, Moretti’s and Valley High.
For fun, we invited people over. In the fall, all these single people and couples would move in and leave in the spring. We had hello and goodbye parties. Some didn’t stay more than one season; either they didn’t like it or needed to make more money. People who stayed were digging in roots and calling this home. We felt this was home right away: the beauty of nature, seasons, skiing. Even in those early years, Vail was very cosmopolitan. People were educated. Vail was a brand-new community, unlike Steamboat or Aspen, where you already had locals. So everybody felt the enthusiasm and specialness because we were doing it together. Everyone had a sense of humor.
A new “freshman class” came every season, and you’d say, “We’re having a potluck. Can you come?” Then they would be your friends for the winter.
Anything that happened was cause for celebration. If they were having a baby, we’d have a shower; if they were getting married, we’d have a wedding shower.
We did a lot of shopping by catalog. I could get diapers and underwear in Leadville. Wherever we went, we would load our station wagon, you’d spend $100, and the car would be filled to the brim. That’s how much cheaper it was. In Denver, we went to the dentist, doctor, got haircuts and arrived home late at night. The mountain passes were long, and they were bad. You didn’t go very often, and you had to plan for it and take blankets, flashlights and shovels.
Sometimes, I was lonesome. If Byron were to come home late, I would practically fall apart. You didn’t have any neighbors.
When the real estate business was slow one time he said to me, “I think we should move to Telluride.” And I said, “No, you only have to pioneer one ski area for a lifetime.”
I had Cindy in Glenwood before we had a clinic. Dr. Gerrick was an intern and practiced in The Red Lion. The waiting room was outside, where you sat on benches.
When Goldwater ran for president, we didn’t know who the president of the U.S. was until we drove into the village and got the last newspaper. There was one newspaper stand, and the papers came over the passes. We didn’t know until about 10 a.m. the next morning who the president was. We found out about Bobby Kennedy by radio. His death made us mad – “Why are they picking on that family?”
There were celebrities, but we left them alone. We all gathered at the long tables in the Deli. We talked about world affairs all the time. There was such an intelligent class of people who lived here. We felt everything that happened in the world very deeply up here.
Women were very vital in the early years; they ran their own shops. We had unbelievably great women ski instructors. To me, they were glamorous. I thought they were really good-looking women and fabulous skiers. They’d walk down the street, and you’d say, “That’s a ski instructor.”
If there was a car accident and the highway was backed up all the way to West Vail and the traffic couldn’t get over the pass, people who knew us came and spent the night on the floor. We always had extra blankets and pillows.
Our family hiked together. We climbed Holy Cross when Cindy was 5 years old. She had a pretend backpack on; sometimes, we had to carry her to get her to the top.
Bob Parker and Pete Seibert started Ski Club Vail right away because we couldn’t host a race without it. Byron was very involved. My involvement came later; in fact, I’m still the only lady president of Ski Club Vail. Byron helped start the first Buddy Werner League, and Mike was in it for a very short time; then Ankle Biters Program. Every Saturday, Byron and I went to BWL, too. He ran the program, and I was a coach. There weren’t many choices of things for kids to do – ice skating lessons, some hockey, skiing and a few sports in school.
Mike went to kindergarten in a trailer in Minturn. We voted to open a public school in Vail. That’s when the Rummage Sale started – Barbara Parker, Nancy Kindel – it was to get the wages for the first schoolmaster in town, Allen Brown and Vail Country Day.
I didn’t start the Rummage Sale; I got involved later. Country Day disbanded and started later as Vail Mountain School, above the clinic where Dr. Eck’s office used to be. It was a one-room schoolhouse with dividers. Montessori was in the basement of the Rams-Horn Lodge.
We loved our guests; they were never tourists to us. We were new, and we needed the money. We protected Vail. When anyone criticized Vail, we took it personally. It was such a failure when the gondola went down. We were the families who lived here, helped make the schools better, built the churches, got a library and helped incorporate a town. Anything that happened, we were on the fringes of it; we weren’t necessarily the leaders – but everybody who lived here had a pebble to put in the bucket to help make it what it is today.
When a celebrity did come to town, we were gracious because we wanted them to come in and enjoy Vail, so we didn’t bother them. Michael Landon came, and I saw him in the Deli. I followed his career after that in “Little House on the Prairie” because I had met him. I met Robert Redford when I was working at Gorsuch. When I took his credit card and gave him his receipt, he said, “No, you can have that for a souvenir.” Can you believe that? No, I threw it away because it had his credit card number on there. We were taught in our classes to be very careful with credit cards. I saw O.J. Simpson in Gorsuch, how prophetic, with a blonde on each arm. When Jackie Kennedy came into the Deli, we were having coffee. We all looked up and whispered, “Oh, there’s Jackie Kennedy.” And she went over to the costume jewelry case and bought maybe 10 pieces. People were helpful to her, but nobody went over and bothered her. We would never have thought of asking anybody for an autograph, unless maybe they came to your house.
As we got to know people, there was camaraderie, a sense of adventure and creativeness. You still have a little bit of the spirit of early Vail. Families come and want to embrace Vail, want to give back; that’s not all lost on everyone. It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that the only good people were the ones back then. There are still good people now. I read wonderful articles about people who have a really good spirit and care about what happens on the whole Earth. Love, love the mountains, the people, the way of life here. It is a good place to raise kids.
“Women of Vail” was produced by a team that includes Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope, publishers; Joanne Morgan, designer and production; and Rosalie Hill Isom, writer-editor.