Friends say there’d be no Vail without George Caulkins
Editor’s note: George Caulkins, one of the original eight founding board members of the company that created the Vail ski area, died March 24. A memorial service was held May 12 in Denver, attended by hundreds of people. In the following tribute, another original board member, Dick Hauserman, remembers Caulkins – with the help of others who knew him.VAIL – It was a sad day recently when George Peck Caulkins passed away. He is remembered as one of the most important persons in the early development of Vail. Many have said there might not have been a Vail without George Caulkins.Not only was he a member of the first board of directors – the group that planned and built Vail – but was influential in the selection of the outstanding board.The history of Vail is beginning to be well known. However, the contributions of people like Caulkins still need to be recognized. Before Vail, Caulkins owned a successful oil business in Oklahoma, which he later moved to Denver. With partners, he later built one of the largest citrus-growing operations in central Florida.When Vail was being formed in 1959, Caulkins was the prime mover in the sale of limited partnerships to make funding possible. He created Caulkins Securities Company to raise the money. Through his many friend and contacts, the necessary objectives were reached, and the building of Vail became a reality.Building a resort from nothing but a cattle ranch presented many hurdles. The basic infrastructure had to be designed, along with the town plan. Consideration of future growth became a major concern. Caulkins again stepped in and formed Gas Facilities Co. to build the underground fuel system incorporated into the master plan.When the small resort opened on Dec. 15, 1962, it was soon necessary to have competent people in areas of finance and administration. Caulkins didn’t hesitate lending experienced employees to help while the corporate team was being put together. Although ski resort development was risky business, Caulkins was there to help.
George had many friends – celebrities, socialites and businessmen – always an elite group. He enjoyed referring to them by name. One close friend told him mentioning so many people might create comments. Caulkins answered: “You are right, that is what the Duke of Windsor told me.” The truth of the matter is most everyone enjoyed hearing his many interesting stories.Several of his Vail friends expressed sadness in losing George Caulkins. They were quick to speak of his charm and accomplishments.’End of an era’The two most qualified and probably closest friends were his partners in the Caulkins Oil Company, Harley Higbie and Keith Brown. Harley tells the story this way:George Caulkins’ successful business career can be attributed to many character traits and abilities, but most significant was his charm and his interest in people. This led him to seek out people of influence and wealth, people who could follow up their investment with building houses and supporting the community. All this contributed to the successful development of Vail.George’s job of raising the money to build Vail really started when the original group of about 25 investors, having obtained a Forest Service permit, realized that they needed over $1 million to build the lifts. So they first sent George to Wall Street, where he had developed some influential connections. In 1960, a ski area in the Rockies had no appeal, particularly on Wall Street. When he came back empty-handed, the group again turned to him to go out and raise the money from his friends. He agreed.Along with his oil partners, Keith Brown and Harley Higbie, he formed the Caulkins Securities Company, put together a prospectus approved by the SEC, and went on the road. It was a “best efforts” deal at a fixed 5 percent commission, with no overrides or other considerations.
George’s incredible sales ability, imagination and ability to accept the risk are illustrated by the crisis that arose in March of 1962. At the point, only 70 percent of the $1 million had been raised, with the lifts scheduled to open in nine months. Pete Seibert told George that he needed to put bulldozers on the mountain immediately. At that point, George conceived the idea of an underwriting. He went to a few of the very wealth y individuals who had already bought units in the project – 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, put the money up and close the financing. He would continue selling to eventually take them out. Thus, construction started and, in fact, several of those individuals kept many of their extra units.So Vail opened in December of 1962, much as the result of George Caulkins’ entrepreneurial abilities.Keith Brown, an early Vail Associates director who later became U.S. ambassador to both Lesotho and Denmark, had this to say:When George died on March 24 this year, it ended a 50-year business relationship between George, Harley Higbie and myself. It was in January of 1955 that we got together in Oklahoma City – and what a journey it has been ever since! Aside from all the various business ventures, I like to remember the many humorous, exciting and sometimes outrageous occasions. George had an unbelievable sense of humor. One example:In Oklahoma City in the late ’50s, we had a geologist named John Ware who had a hearing impediment and wore a hearing aid. He came into the office from sitting on a well all night and brought a core sample, which was wrapped in foil. Before unwrapping it, he announced there was not any indication of oil from the core – it was dry, negative, zero. When George unwrapped the foil, the room was filled with the strong odor of oil. Whereupon George said in a hushed tone: “John should put that hearing aid on his nose.”Well, there are literally thousands of such stories, and as Ellie (George’s wife) told me, “It’s too bad we can’t bottle them up.” Harley and I agree that his death was the end of an era. It is very doubtful that Vail would be here today had it not been for George – he really did change our world.
‘The world’s best salesman’Moose Taylor, along with his wife, Ann, were prominent early homeowners on Forest Road. They said: “George was a prime mover. He played a very important role in developing Vail, and everyone is grateful.”Stanley Rumbaugh, Jr., owner of a condominium in Vail since 1963, said “The world’s best salesman was George Caulkins. George persuaded the young and beautiful Ellie to marry him after only two dates. He persuaded his friends to invest in Vail. My business was start-ups, and after due diligence on existing ski resorts (none of which made money) I felt obligated as George’s best man to purchase one $10,000 unit. I only wish I had felt more obligated, as it was an outstanding success. Without George’s salesmanship and friends, Vail would not be in existence.”The ski filmmaker Warren Miller, who watched Vail grow from the start wrote these inspiring words:Credit has been given to a lot of people for the creation of Vail. However, no one deserves more credit than George Caulkins. With just a gleam in their eyes, George put Pete Seibert in his car and traveled the country raising the seed money to build Vail. He then supplied the accounting talent to keep it on the straight and narrow.Even on that one day the first winter when Vail only sold eight lift tickets, George still believed in Vail. George has always been a get-it-done person and now he is once again organizing everything for us. That way when, some day, we join him, he will know where all the untracked powder snow is, what lift to ride and who to have lunch with. George, we all miss you very much and thanks for everything you did to make our lives more enjoyable.Rod Slifer moved to Vail in 1969 as assistant ski school director, then started the first real estate company and became mayor of Vail twice over a period of about 30 years. He spoke highly of Caulkins’ contribution to Vail:
He was one of the most energetic people I have ever met. My favorite memory was Pete Seibert describing his tour with George to raise money to build Vail. George arranged to meet prospective investors in a number of cities in the Midwest and East. He used his vast array of acquaintances to have a cocktail party at the local (best) country club. Armed with an 8-mm projector and the primitive movie of Vail, off they went in George’s Porsche. Needless to say, the tour was a success and the initial partnership was funded.There are many others whose comments are almost the same – each with a personal story about George.Looking back, Vail was very lucky to have had such an effervescent, inspirational entrepreneur with a most unusual talent that charmed so many people.Yes, we will miss him.Dick Hauserman, who was recently inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, is the author of “The Inventors of Vail” and “On the Road to Vail and Beyond.” He splits his time between West Palm Beach and Arrowhead.Vail, Colorado
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