‘Women of Vail’ serialization: Dream come true?
Ryan Summerlin August 17, 2013
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.
VAIL — The women of Vail — in contrast to so many of them, I did not come to Vail as a “swinging single.” I had been married for seven years and had two children. My stories, therefore, will include my family, my personal and our family goals, and it certainly will differ greatly when it comes to my social life.
I was born in Schlesien, in the eastern block of Germany, now Poland. World War II took its toll on my childhood, shattering my security of home and family. Living in Vail replaced many of those voids. I earned a teaching degree and moved to England for a brief time, to practice English, before immigrating to this country in 1956. To backtrack a bit, in 1941, my husband Warren’s family acquired a ranch in the Gore Valley and built a cabin on what is now Cabin Circle on the Vail Golf Course. Long before Vail was an internationally recognized resort, Warren and his two older brothers, Don and Jay, hunted, fished and hiked in the area. Warren proposed to me on the ranch property in the summer of 1957, and we were married in November of that year. We soon followed my husband’s dream of living in the mountains, specifically, on the ranch in Vail. The thought of being able to live there year-round and make a living seemed unthinkable. Though it seemed a bit crazy, we both felt excited and confident about the plan. Looking back, trading the secure life of suburbia and university employment wasn’t a big hardship; adventure has always been in our blood.
We left the state of Washington and drove for two days on icy roads, a U-Haul in tow, two restless preschoolers sharing the passenger seat next to the driver, and me, a seven-month pregnant woman, taking up the entire back seat, before arriving in Vail Village on Feb. 19, 1964. Between not being able to breathe, and being cold and tired, I wondered, “What kind of a ‘dream come true’ is this?”
In the beginning, Vail was known as a ski resort only. Most ski instructors had come from Austria, some from Germany. “Funny talkers” they were called, but, oh, how handsome they looked in their blue uniforms. As a whole, they added a very European flavor to our community. Many of them stayed year round, starting construction companies and being instrumental in Vail’s growth.
Back then, everyone seemed young. We were a spirited, idealistic, exuberant and crazy bunch. Our extremely diverse backgrounds made for a most interesting mix of people, and our common interests created an everlasting bond between us. Life in the mountains was not easy in those days. I remember getting royally stuck in snow banks time after time. Father Stone, our Catholic priest, came to my rescue once. We plowed our own driveways and shoveled our own roofs. Even worse was mud season with the unpaved road to our house and the muddy parking lots of Vail Village. We were always ready to help each other out of a ditch or a pickle.
It soon became clear that, in order to survive in a seasonal resort, we had to find sources of additional income. Most worked several jobs to make ends meet. I remember we needed three bank refusals before we could qualify for a Veterans Administration loan to build our first home. No problem getting those refusals. Banks simply did not want to make risky loans in the mountains, especially in unknown places like Vail. Even JC Penney turned our credit card application down.
We built our first Vail home in the summer of 1964. Warren and I had chosen a charming location on our family property, located halfway between Vail Village and Bighorn, now East Vail. Tucked against the mountain and into a grove of aspen trees, we were the only home seen for miles from Highway 6. With the Gore Range framed in every window, what more could one wish for? Earlier that spring I had given birth to our third daughter, Piney. Like her two sisters, Vali and Fawn, we had named her after the area we had learned to love.
We were totally isolated and had to maintain our own one-mile country road and, more than once, were snowed in completely. We often had to park our Jeep with snowplow attachment by what is now the Pulis Bridge. In that case, Warren and our oldest daughter, Vali, then 6 years old, would have to ski out. With ski poles and his briefcase under one arm, holding onto Vali with the other, a backpack for groceries on his back, Warren and Vali skied to work and school. All the while, I kept the fires going at home. Our house was self-contained. We had our own septic tank, a well, a large propane gas tank and no television for the first five years.
I can’t say we felt isolated; nature compensated us in abundance, and we had no problems entertaining ourselves. I always have believed that boredom stimulates creativity and our girls developed plenty of that. They all became avid readers before kindergarten. We were known to give the best, and the scariest, puppet shows at the children’s birthday parties and the cast included Warren and me.
Memories and friendships
Much has changed since we built our first home. The road is now paved. We relocated, building our second home further to the east on Sunburst Drive. Soon Vail was on the map, and tourism changed our little village forever. Those early years in Vail built the foundation of our close family bonds, now carried into the next generation. “Yes, it takes a village” and I have to say, Vail raised our daughters as much as we did.
In 1967, my husband and I opened The Valley Forge, an arts and crafts shop, across from the Red Lion Inn, later relocated to the Casino Building. We had bought the freshly rezoned “Commercial Condominium,” which had previously been the “Hand Made Shop,” owned by Freddy Felton. By adding a second story, we were able to open Vail’s first art gallery. Our new location incorporated the old, run-down Continental Trailways bus station. We gutted it all.
We early women of Vail made it our responsibility to help establish the vital amenities needed to attract not only visitors and part-time residents, but also new local families like ourselves. If we realized a need, we took it upon ourselves to do something about it. In that sense, we women led a very active and fascinating life. Volunteering was a big part of who we were. The nice thing about that … it is very contagious! Some of my most favorite laughs and memories go back to my volunteering times. Many a close and lasting friendship has evolved from those days.
You can’t live in Vail and not ski, right? There once were four Superchickens, Barbara Parker, Marilyn Elisha, Marianne Clark and me. We were four moms, who had been deserted by their husbands’ and children’s addiction to skiing. Never having skied before and deadly afraid of those slippery slopes, we approached VA’s, vice president of marketing, Bob Parker, begging for help and got it. We were assigned Ski School supervisors to take us under their wings. I am convinced we changed their entire philosophy about how to teach women. Not in our wildest dreams did we expect instructors like Ludwig Kurz, Hadley Gray, Johnny Mueller and Bob Gagne, to name a few. Our elite club became so popular, it eventually was divided into two groups. The second one, with the most improved chickens, graduated to The Easy Riders. Our foursome, however, stayed faithful to the Chicks … and not by choice.
As Vail changed, so did we. Warren and I have relocated to a lower altitude and less severe winter weather, an hour’s drive west from Vail. However, our hearts will always remain in the Vail Valley. It gave our family the roots I never had. I will always cherish the memories, the camaraderie, and lasting friendships that we as a family formed in Vail.
“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.