Harley Higbie, the last living member of Vail’s founding board of directors, has died
• Born and raised in Grosse Point, Michigan.
• Met his wife, Lorraine, skiing in Zermatt, Austria. They married later that year.
• Higbie was a banker by trade and training and worked with George Caulkins’ Caulkins Oil in the 1950s, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
• He became one of Vail’s original investors and a member of the original board of directors. He served on the board for 18 years, the longest original board tenure.
• Harley and Lorraine built the first house on Vail’s Mill Creek Circle.
• Caulkins, Keith Brown and a handful of others raised the $1.6 million that launched Vail in 1962. Higbie acted as the fledgling ski company’s financial controller for about the first decade and a half.
• When the contractor from Milwaukee who had committed to building The Lodge at Vail backed out in February 1962, Higbie spearheaded a group that formed an additional limited partnership to raise money to build The Lodge. It was vital, because the loan from First National Bank was contingent upon The Lodge being completed and open when the mountain opened in 1962.
• Legend has it that they cut it so close that when a group gathered in The Lodge for dinner to celebrate Vail’s first Opening Day, Dec. 15, 1962, the paint was still wet on the walls.
Editor’s note: The quotes from Harley and Lorraine Higbie and others in this story are from previously published material in the Vail Daily, Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame, “The Inventors of Vail” by Dick Hauserman, video interviews about Vail’s history by Suzanne Silverthorn and the town of Vail.
VAIL — Harley Higbie loved Vail and loved his adorable bride, Lorraine, not necessarily in that order.
Higbie, the last living member of Vail’s founding board of directors, died Sunday, March 18.
“You can attribute some of the success of Vail to the fact that there was a lack of a sense of greed. Nobody was in it to make a lot of money. We wanted to see it succeed. There were many complications and problems, but the group never gave up. We didn’t want it to turn into a company town. Vail was all things to all people,” Higbie told Dick Hauserman for Hauserman’s book, “The Inventors of Vail.”
In those days, there was not much to be greedy about. Caulkins said the fledgling ski company didn’t throw off any money until 1976.
Why Harley was solid gold
Here’s where Harley Higbie was solid gold for Vail.
Most of Vail’s investors were wealthy enough that their income tax rate in those days was 90 percent. Harley calculated that if they invested $10,000 in a business like, say, an upstart ski area, they could claim up to $8,500 worth of tax breaks.
“That’s how the deal was done,” Harley said.
But building Vail wasn’t about making money; it was about creating something new.
“It was about the spirit of the place, building something,” Harley said.
The Higbie clan moved into their house on Mill Creek Circle, an upscale address now, but the edge of the earth then.
“The Trailways buses went through here on Highway 6 on their way to Aspen,” Lorraine said. “We could look out the window to see the buses, then run over to the other window to see if they stopped. If they stopped we knew we had some customers.”
Harley and Lorraine: A Vail love story
Harley Higbie was one of four guys skiing in Zermatt, Austria, when they spotted Lorraine and offered her a ride down the mountain.
It might not have been love at first sight, but it came on pretty fast.
They met in March, were engaged in September and were married in October in Woodstock, Vermont.
Lorraine got to go to Europe skiing only because she agreed to bring her mother along. Her mother approved of Harley and so did Lorraine.
Life happens; so does love
Our lives are a product of the decisions we make, and in the 1950s, Harley was offered a job in his hometown, Grosse Point, Michigan, and another in Oklahoma City with George Caulkins’ oil company. When he and Lorraine decided to try Oklahoma, their future was set.
Caulkins was single at the time and owned a house in Aspen. In the late 1950s, Harley and Lorraine would load up their kids and drive all day and all night from Oklahoma to Aspen to ski. When they headed back to Oklahoma, Lorraine would get a kink in her neck looking back to the mountains they were leaving behind.
One day, as fate would have it, they skied Aspen with Pete Seibert, who started working in Aspen just after Walter Paepcke launched the Aspen Ski Co. in 1946. Seibert lived in Aspen up the street from Caulkins, where Harley and Lorraine stayed when they came skiing.
They first heard about Vail in 1958, when George returned to Oklahoma City from Aspen and announced Caulkins was getting involved with building a new ski area in Colorado.
Seibert invited George to join their Trans Montane Rod and Gun Club, the name he and Earl Eaton gave their enterprise because they were afraid someone would steal their ski area idea.
To make that involvement easier, in 1959 Caulkins moved his Caulkins Oil company from Oklahoma City to Denver. Lorraine and Harley headed to the Mile High City with the job. One day, Seibert said, “C’mon, I’ll show you the mountain.”
They rode up Vail Mountain in a yellow jeep, Pete and his wife, Betty, Harley and Lorraine.
Higbie took one look at the Back Bowls and said, “That’s it. I wanted to be part of this.”
That’s the way it went most of the time; your $5,000 investment in Vail Associates would buy you a piece of history, Higbie said.
“We took people up the mountain, and they’d come down with pen in hand ready to sign the contract,” Higbie said. “Remember, $5,000 was quite a bit of money in those days.”
Keith Brown was working with Higbie and Caulkins at Caulkins Oil and jumped on the Vail bandwagon.
“If you’re going to do it, I guess I have to do it, too,” Brown said.
That Vail would succeed was not unanimous.
In March 1955, Lefty MacDonald, of Aspen, made the trek with Eaton to the top of the then-nameless mountain that would become Vail. MacDonald told Eaton the Back Bowls would never be good for skiing.
But Brown recruited John Murchison, who started the Dallas Cowboys. Murchison came up with a huge bunch of the money to launch Vail in 1962.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.