"Pie in the Sky’
Vail original George Caulkins pitched the vision, using a movie, “Pie in the Sky,” he and Pete Seibert made about the glories that would someday be the Vail ski resort in the Colorado Rockies. He showed that movie to almost every function and malfunction known to humanity. He extolled the virtues of the fledgling enterprise. He did this five times a day, more than 300 times total. He told anyone who’d listen that for $10,000 they could be part of it.Be reminded that $10,000 would buy a house in 1960.More than 300 times they reminded Caulkins that he wasn’t selling houses; he was, in fact, selling “Pie in the Sky.””The first showing was with the Milwaukee Ski Club,” says Caulkins. “They loved the pictures, but we cleared the hall when we passed the hat looking to sell $10,000 shares.”Years later, the chairman of Pillsbury, who was in the next 1961 movie showing at the Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, approached Caulkins saying he’d been kicking himself ever since for not buying in.”He’d just started at Pillsbury, and he didn’t have $10,000,” says Caulkins. “He barely had two nickels to rub together.”It’s one of those laws of both physics and human nature that starting friction is greater than rolling friction; “Pie in the Sky” was a tough sell.After schlepping the movie and projector all over the East Coast and Midwest, he finally sold the first share of Vail Associates to a cousin, Fred Ford.Hard sell gets softerDick Pownall, one of the first U.S. climbers to summit Mt. Everest, got on board. He still owns a place here.Chris Chenery, father of Penny and father-in-law of Jack Tweedy of the 10th Mountain Division, also became interested in Vail. Penny owned two thoroughbred superhorses and Triple Crown winners, Riva Ridge and Secretariat. Riva Ridge, the horse is named after Riva Ridge, the Vail ski run, which is named after Riva Ridge the World War II battlefield on which the 10th Mountain Division fought so valiantly.A showing in Kalamazoo, Mich., caught the attention of Larry Burdick, an expert skier who caught the vision. He not only invested, he moved here. And he not only moved here, he uprooted his lovely wife Marge and their seven children and move them here, too. Together, they built and ran the Red Lion.Tom Watson of IBM fame crunched the numbers, looked the place over and made the plunge.George Bush senior couldn’t afford $10,000 at the time, so Caulkins’s brother, Jack Caulkins, Bush’s Yale schoolmate, put together three other people and they plunked down $2,500 each.(Quick Aside: The president of Yale lived next door. One day as he was gazing out his window he saw Barbara Bush hanging out George W. Bush’s diapers.)Caulkins, projector in tow, traveled to Texas to show the movie to two Texas financiers, the Bass brothers Dick and Harry. Caulkins says they showed enormous interest, so much so that they later bought Vail, and that Dick Bass’s living room didn’t have any furniture in it.Caulkins is a study in networking, and when Dick Bass wanted to know how to find the Shah of Iran to talk about investing in Snowbird, Utah, Caulkins knew to send Bass to the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. The Shah, though, owned a private ski resort of his own in the Middle East and only wanted to talk about Bass investing in his area, not Vail.Glamor amid the mudIt all sounds very glamorous, but it wasn’t, says Caulkins. It was work – building something from nothing.”Vail created a bunch of millionaires, but no one came here with more than a couple hundred bucks in their pockets,” says Caulkins. “We grew with the area.”Showing “the movie” more than 300 times – five times a day, five or six days a week to anyone who’d watch – was a lot of work. And in the Q & A sessions that followed, the questions were almost always the same. Among the first was sure to be, “How far is it from Denver?””In the morning sessions, I always told them it was three and a half hours from Denver. In those days because there was no interstate highway or Eisenhower Tunnel,” says Caulkins. “By the late afternoon sessions, I had the time down to about two hours. Years later Pete Seibert told me, “Thanks to the Eisenhower Tunnel, you’re almost an honest man.”Caulkins says he told current Vail Resorts boss Adam Aron the same thing, poking fun at Aron for a November 2002 television appearance in which Aron repeatedly claimed Vail had 10 feet of snow.”You know, Adam,” Caulkins says he told Aron following the recent Founders Days banquet, “if it keeps snowing you may be an honest man before the ski season is over.”They borrowed money to help build Vail, Caulkins says, and had to personally guarantee the loans.”Keith Brown said the definition of a guarantor of a bank loan is an idiot with a pen,” says Caulkins.One of the most pivotal decisions was to sell the land to individuals to develop their businesses, he adds, instead of leasing everything.”We needed the money to build the place,” says Caulkins. “Of course, now Vail Resorts seems to be trying to buy it back.”Hard workOnce the money was in place it was time to start digging holes, moving dirt and pouring concrete, the stuff of making the dream come true.In those days, Caulkins says, everyone pitched in and did whatever it took to get Vail going. Marge Burdick helped Sheika Gramshammer decorate the Gastof Gramshammer as Pepi and Sheika were scrambling to open. Caulkins built Vail’s first employee housing, so the chef, manager and employees of the new Lodge at Vail could get to work without having to drive from Minturn in the heavy snows.Eventually, Caulkins rented rooms by the night for $20. Astronaut Scott Carpenter stayed there. Bob Lazier soon bought the building, moved it out to East Vail, remodeled it into a hotel and built his Tivoli Lodge on the Vail Village site.Caulkins’ cousins came to ski Vail, planning to stay in Lazier’s brand new Tivoli Lodge. Before they could unpack their bags, Caulkins says, they had to help unload mattresses for the hotel beds.Bunny Langmaid and Blanche Hauserman lived in a tent, he adds, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them, and several other people, drawing water from Gore Creek.Caulkins helped that change, learning a few lessons about building along the way. He was running an oil company, and didn’t know what a municipal bond was. He quickly learned, he says, and his financial portfolio now includes a healthy selection of municipal bonds. He says he bought as many Bachelor Gulch bonds as he could get his hands on.”We got the bonds to build the water and sewer system for 6 percent,” says Caulkins. “That was pretty good rate for municipal bonds for a municipality that didn’t exist yet.”Art Holland, a petroleum for Caulkins Oil, designed Vail’s first energy system. He made sure there were pipelines along Vail’s streets to carry natural gas, even though natural gas was years away. Minturn resident Pete Burnett did much of the actual installation work.Vail was so small that Arnold Raether, a CPA and the accountant for Caulkins Oil Company, kept the books for Vail Associates. Young Rod Slifer brought the bills over.While Caulkins was helping build Vail, he was also building his oil business, as well as his family. He brought Harley Higbie and Keith Brown into the oil business early. In a template followed by Microsoft and many other companies, they received an equity interest instead of salary increases. It paid off in a major way, as they both made enough money to buy whatever they wanted and be named to the original Vail Associates board of directors.Caulkins, Higbie and Brown were all on Vail’s original board of directors.As much as the three, and others, insisted the place be run like a business – not a playground – they did manage in those early years to lose track of their own expenses a time or two, Caulkins says, and Brown and Higbie also spent more than their own share of time singing the praises of Vail and showing “the movie.”The three had a deal to collect a $50,000 fee for selling 100 of the $10,000 shares – $1 million in Vail’s coffers to begin construction.”The problem was,” says Caulkins, “our travel expenses alone exceeded that $50,000 in the first six months.”Of the three, Higbie lasted the longest on Vail Associates board of directors.Eventually Caulkins became Vail Associates’ third-largest stockholder. He said he got out when people started stopping him while he was skiing to tell him toilets on the mountain were stopped up.Founders find each otherA couple of weeks ago, Christy Hill hosted a party for Vail founders. More than 30 people showed up. In keeping with an Austrian custom, they passed a toast around the room and in minutes the place was awash in laughter and tears as the stories started rolling.They remembered the time President Ford rented the Bass house next door to the Caulkins family for his Western White House. Caulkins says Senior White House Correspondent Helen Thomas of United Press International used to hang out on the second floor of his home so she could keep an eye on Ford, Kissinger, Dick Cheney and everyone else who came and went.And there were the times Caulkins and Henry Kissinger used to stroll over to the Vail Athletic Fields to watch soccer games. Kissinger is a huge fan of The Beautiful Game.In 1962, Ann and Joe Staufer, who launched the Vail Village Inn, were headed to California from the East Coast. Joe had lived in Bermuda and didn’t drive all that much – unless you count bicycles and motor scooters. Ann was surprised they’d lived long enough to get as far as Vail. They felt pretty good to be out of the car, so they stayed.And what about the 1964 Sports Illustrated cover story telling the world that Vail is the future of skiing? Or that Holiday magazine pictorial several pages long featuring Ann Taylor, an Olympic skier and Vail regular?And what about Caulkins’ tendency to be goal-oriented?Take his wife, Ellie. Caulkins did. He met Miss Ellie when a chartered ski plane got diverted to Germany from its original destination in Switzerland. They hitched a ride in a chartered Volkswagen in Stuttgart. The two struck up a conversation, and by the time they reached their ski destination, to St. Anton, Caulkins says, he knew his hunting days were through.Ten days later, they were married. Almost four decades, five children and three grandchildren later they’re in the process of living happily ever after.”I was 42 years old at the time, so I’d done a fair amount of research,” Caulkins says.Vail architect Fitzhugh Scott designed their charming Swiss chalet, which stands as a monument to something done well in the midst of starter castles. The houses on both sides have sold for as much as $14 million.The Caulkins Vail Village home is utterly charming, and they built it for $50,000. It holds their growing family, including the 17 lacrosse players their son brought over to stay during Vail’s July 4th Lacrosse Shootout.They’re proud of their children and the growing number of grandchildren. They’re in the process of living happily ever after.Maybe it seemed like they were selling the vision all those years ago, but obviously it was more.One thing is sure, when you fuel your dreams with love, you’re building the good stuff, and the good stuff lasts.