Aspen’s origins mix savvy and serendipity
It’s easy to label them Aspen’s greatest generation – the wave of men and women who came to the fledgling ski resort in the years after World War II and left a mark on the town as big as the mountains that surround it.Many of them were adventurers lured by the promise of good times, fabulous powder and other advantages of life as a ski bum. Some were simply dropouts from mainstream society who couldn’t stand the thought of working a 9-to-5 job while wearing a suit and tie. Others saw the potential of the exploding ski industry and wanted to be in at the ground floor.There is no question they made their mark – Dick Durrance, Friedl Pfeifer, Fred Iselin and others built the area’s ski industry into a powerhouse; Fritz Benedict laid the groundwork for open space preservation and trails development; Ralph Melville and Charlie Paterson set high standards in the lodging industry.But what made them a great generation? Were they especially driven and motivated after experiencing the Great Depression and the horrors of the war? Or were they just lucky – living in the right place at the right time and capitalizing on it?”Probably a little bit of both,” said Melville, who started building the Mountain Chalet near the base of the mountain 50 years ago this month.There were a lot of men who got out of the military in 1945 or soon after and didn’t want to deal with the issues and problems of the real world. Some of the troops who served in the famed 10th Mountain Division had seen Aspen while on leave or on maneuvers during training at Camp Hale; many came back to the town.They brought with them a spirit of adventure and a yearning to live life to the fullest.”When you get out of the military you have some pent-up energy,” Melville said. “When you’re in the service you’re just told what to do.”Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who came to town as a 23-year-old to ski and work as a reporter at The Aspen Times in 1952, said the war left its mark on many of the men attracted to Aspen and helped to create the warm, friendly, vibrant atmosphere.”They missed their youth. They went right into the service,” she observed. “That group of men was very happy-go-lucky.”The attitude was let’s party,” Hayes said. “They were pretty wild.”The first ski bumsThe only thing they liked better than partying was skiing. Skiers were still a relatively small clique in the country, and word-of-mouth traveled through that circle about ideal powder conditions in obscure Rocky Mountain ski towns like Aspen.
Charlie Paterson was an adventurous young man bitten by the ski bug. He came from the East Coast to check out the Colorado resorts as a 19-year-old in 1949.”There was a whole slew of ’em [who ski bummed],” he said. “We were kind of dropouts from the big cities.”Klaus Obermeyer, who exudes enthusiasm about nearly everything, becomes especially animated when recalling his early days in Aspen. The love of the outdoors and skiing in particular “was the foundation that bound us all together,” he said of the people he befriended in 1947.”They were all expert skiers, all mad about skiing,” said Jony Larrowe. She easily could have included herself in that group. After attending college in Boulder she met Harry Poschman while skiing in Alta, Utah. They married and soon sought opportunity in Aspen.Larrowe, who is remarried and still lives in the area, loved to ski powder. Although she is 5 feet 3 inches tall, she skied on 7-foot boards.Everybody scraped byThe Poschmans were among the young families constantly searching for ways to scrape by.”We were all young and all broke,” Jony recalled. They survived on venison and trout. Rhubarb grew in everybody’s garden because it was a rare source of vitamin C.Everybody faced the same dilemma. “How can we make our bread and butter, and find a place to sleep?” Larrowe said.”Some people might have come with money, but not our group,” she added. “We were very idealistic. None of us came here thinking we were going to be millionaires.”The bachelor ski bums would rent houses together and throw parties where they would pool all their resources for food and grog, recalled Hayes. One such place was the House of Joy, which stood where the Mill Street Station is now located.For many of those ski bums, success resulted from trying to find a way to survive in Aspen. The town wasn’t a thriving resort after the war. It was an remote little town deep in the mountains.Harry Poschman recalled hitching a ride to Glenwood Springs in fall 1946, then taking a train that went as far as Basalt. He stayed there overnight, then went out to the gravel road that is now Highway 82 to hitchhike to Aspen. A car didn’t go by for four hours, but fortunately a traveling salesman gave him a ride.It was hard enough making ends meet during the ski seasons. Guys might get on the boot-packing crew or help at a ski shop. Women vied for the few waitress jobs or helped at a lodge.
Offseasons were truly “off” in the 1940s. A lot of the ski bums disappeared after a season or two, never to return. Others went elsewhere to make money during spring and summer but kept returning to Aspen each winter.Those who really loved the town figured out ways to stay year-round. The hard work set them up for success.”A lot of the guys had to create their own businesses,” Hayes said. “There was no work. You had to think of something that was needed.”Bil Dunaway, the former longtime publisher and editor of The Aspen Times, said many of the people who eventually accomplished great things in Aspen simply seized opportunities. He doesn’t believe they were any more or less ambitious than other folks of that era or any other. “There were many talented and smart people that were attracted to Aspen. But what lured them was the lifestyle, not the promise of riches,” Dunaway said.Serendipity knocksAspen was such a small town that opportunities abounded when the ski industry took off in the 1950s. Poschman knew he didn’t want to return to Southern California after serving with the 10th Mountain Division in the war. He heard a great buzz about Aspen and regarded it as a sort of promised land, as did many people he met there.”They didn’t know what they wanted. They were lost after World War II,” he said.When Poschman arrived in the fall of 1946, he was hired to help build the foundation of the Sundeck and erect a chairlift. When snow fell in October, the work disappeared along with his ability to stay in town.He and Jony returned four years later in 1950, determined to carve out a living for their young and growing family. They rented a house where the Copper Horse lodge now stands and started a small inn. They later established a lodge where the Hotel Lenado is now located.Getting into the lodging business was more than just a way to pay the bills. Poschman said he sensed that the ski industry was ready to boom and that Aspen was ripe for success.It didn’t come easy. Even after the international publicity surrounding the 1950 FIS skiing championships, Aspen still struggled. Poschman was handed the reins of the chamber of commerce and found innovative ways to spread the word about the town, such as preparing brochures and mailing them to burgeoning ski clubs around the country.A little gumption
After ski bumming in Aspen for one month in 1949, Paterson was hooked on the place. He invested all of his savings in vacant land with the hope of establishing a lodge, despite his father’s warning that he was “crazy” for buying in the wilderness. Paterson bought land from Dunaway, who was running low on funds while ski bumming in Europe.In winter 1952, Paterson opened the first rooms in the Boomerang Lodge, which he still operates today. He continued to work as a ski instructor, which was instrumental in drumming up business for his lodge, he said.While luck was a necessary ingredient for success during Aspen’s early days as a ski resort, it wasn’t the only ingredient, according to Paterson.”You had to have some gumption to go out and take some chances,” he said.Obermeyer did just that. He arrived in Aspen in 1947 at the age of 27. Even though there were only 10 or 12 instructors during the first ski seasons, business was often rare.The instructors made $10 per day, but only on days when they had a class. Obermeyer recalled that it was difficult to keep people enrolled in classes for more than a couple of days because they had no sun protection and inadequate clothing for cold temperatures.Out of sheer need for survival he came up with solutions. He teamed with Pfeifer to create a sunscreen, and he designed parkas that, though bulky by today’s standards, kept his customers warm.His company, Sport Obermeyer, evolved into one of the top ski-wear manufacturers with millions of dollars in annual sales.Georgia Taylor Hanson, director of the Aspen Historical Society, said entrepreneurial spirit played as important a role in the postwar era as it did during Aspen’s silver boom in the 1880s.”There is a certain kind of person who is an adventurer/pioneer who has always been attracted to Aspen,” she said. “I think you see that in all the generations, except maybe the last 10 years.”Aspen resident Greg Poschman, the son of Harry Poschman and Jony Larrowe, said it’s difficult to say if there was something special about his parent’s generation that led to their success in Aspen. There’s no doubt that their era was something special, he said.”Are they special? Will a group like that ever come around again? Naw,” he said. “They were the first generation of ski bums. They were the first vagabonds.”Mary Hayes said that special time of camaraderie is gone, along with the opportunity for a person to really make a splash in Aspen.”We were all big frogs in a little puddle,” she said.