Keith Brown, original Vail partner, dies
Editor’s note: The quotes from Keith Brown were drawn from Vail Daily stories Brown part of over the years.
VAIL — Keith Brown was among the greatest of The Greatest Generation: diplomat, entrepreneur, World War II veteran, scholar. He even wrote a small book about his big life, “A Conversation with Ambassador Keith L. Brown,” part of a diplomatic oral history series. Money from that book goes to the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, because Brown was that kind of guy.
Brown was one of three or four people who spent most of 1961 raising money to launch Vail. If it weren’t for visionaries like him and the other board members of the original Vail Corp., there might not be a Vail Valley.
Brown died late last week in San Antonio, Texas. He was 91.
Brown’s passing leaves Vail resident Harley Higbie as the last living member of the Vail Corp.’s original 20-member board of directors.
Keith and Carol Brown, and Harley and Lorraine Higbie built the first homes on Vail’s Mill Creek Circle, and some of the first homes in Vail.
What a year that was
Starting a ski resort is a little like starting a rock band. You know a guy who knows a guy and before you know it, music happens.
By the now the story is familiar. In March 1957, Earl Eaton took Pete Seibert to the top of a nameless mountain that Eaton had roamed when he was a kid. Seibert was smitten.
Later that year, Seibert got together with Jay Robert Fowler, an attorney in Denver. They got together with John Conway, who put together the deal to buy the 500-acre Hanson Ranch in the Gore Creek Valley. Jack Tweedy and Caulkins got involved. Higbie and Brown were working with Caulkins in the oil industry and joined the fun — and to raise most of the money.
And that leads us back around to their $1 million question — where would they get that kind of money?
Tweedy turned to Caulkins and said, “George, you’ve been raising money for the oil business.”
So Caulkins, Brown and Higbie created Caulkins Securities Co. and spent most of 1961 running around the U.S. with an 8-mm film and projector, showing potential investors where their new ski area would be. It also showed pictures of Piney Lake, but they figured that was close enough.
The story takes all kinds of twists and turns, but eventually the group raised $1.6 million and could begin construction.
“Getting Vail built and operating in one year was a miracle,” Brown said.
They raised the money, and the town and ski area were built in one summer. It cost all the money they had, and not a dime was coming in.
“From the very beginning, we were afraid we weren’t going to make it. We got the money and got it open, but we were still touch-and-go,” Brown said.
One day in January 1963, Brown was on the road raising money and decided he’d check in. Kit Sherry handled Vail’s phones in those days. When she answered, Brown asked how it was going.
“Good! We sold 15 lift tickets today!” Sherry said brightly.
When Vail opened, a lift ticket cost $5. Brown knew that 15 lift tickets for $5 each equaled an ocean of red ink.
“For the first five to seven years, we hardly got to ski. We were trying to make Vail survive,” Brown said.
It was 1976 before the ski area stopped hemorrhaging red ink. Until then, generous investors and real estate sales kept the lifts turning, Brown said.
“Vail didn’t support itself through lift tickets. It was real estate sales. We were raising money for eight to 10 years,” Brown said. “It’s hard to believe it really happened, but it did. We got it off the ground in 1962.
“It was years before anyone was sure Vail would make it,” Brown said. “Without the real estate, we couldn’t have made it.”
All things new
Brown’s daughter, Susan Brown Milhoan, was 9 years old when Keith asked his wife, Carol, “What do you think about investing a little money in that new ski area?”
Brown’s dad had died and left him a little bit of money.
“He’d have cut my throat if he knew I’d put it in something as silly as a ski area,” Brown said.
That was 1959, and they drove to visit what would become Vail. The Brown clan stayed in a small yellow house where Red Sandstone Elementary School is now; it was the only house around.
“It’s been a great story and a fabulous part of all our lives. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Brown said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.