Vail kicks off 50th anniversary
VAIL – Vail, you’re still a kid, or at least party like one.
Vail’s 50th birthday party kicked off Saturday at the base of the new Vail Village gondola, a half century to the day after Vail cranked up North America’s first gondola on Opening Day, Dec. 15, 1962.
Rod Slifer was there in 1962 and was on stage Saturday to help get the party started.
“Happy 50th birthday, Vail! Let’s celebrate!” Slifer shouted to enthusiastic crowd, as fireworks erupted behind him.
• Little known fact: Bill Whiteford shot off Vail’s first fireworks in 1962. Whiteford was one of Vail’s originals and built bars and restaurants around town. He’d crank up his fireworks on New Years Eve, and pretty much any other time he felt like it, much to the chagrin of the local firefighters.
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So much has changed in 50 years, but Vail still has it where it counts.
“It has snow, it has the terrain – Vail has it all,” Slifer told Saturday’s enthusiastic crowd.
Colorado’s governors were on hand Opening Day 50 years ago and on Saturday. Gov. John Love helped open Vail in 1962. Gov. John Hickenlooper was in town Saturday.
“I’m honored to be part of one of the greatest resorts in the world, if not the greatest,” the governor said.
The governor, one of the nation’s original microbrewers (Denver’s Wynkoop Brewery), would be interested to know that one of Vail’s first private commercial enterprises to open 50 years ago was the liquor store.
The vision for Vail
By now, everyone knows the story of Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert, how Earl grew up in this valley and saw the mountain as a kid hunting with his dad and brothers. Eaton loved skiing. So did Seibert, and on March 19, 1957, Eaton led Seibert to the top.
Eaton had showed others, but Seibert caught the vision right away. Together they showed anyone suspected of owning anything remotely resembling investment income. Eaton and Seibert found the mountain. George Caulkins, Harley Higbie and Keith Brown found most of the money, $1.6 million. That’s almost $8 million in today’s dollars.
Vail was built in one summer, transforming a sheep and cattle ranch with North America’s first gondola, two chairlifts, eight trails, the Vail Village Inn, The Lodge at Vail and a couple dozen homes.
• Little known fact: The night of Dec. 15, 1962, Vail’s originals and several others gathered for a celebration in The Lodge at Vail. The paint was still wet on the walls.
By mid December, they had everything they needed except snow, so they brought in members of the Southern Ute tribe to perform a snow dance. Whether or not it was a publicity stunt remains a mystery, but it snowed, and on Dec. 15, 1962, the lifts started running.
Bobby Ruder was a kid, born in the valley in 1945. He still lives here and was in Vail for Saturday’s celebration.
Ruder’s Run is named for his dad, Bob Ruder Sr., who owned one of the only bulldozers around here and cleared most of Vail’s original ski trails.
It was a great place to be a kid, and it still is, Bob Jr. said.
“How could you not like what was going on?” Ruder said. “This place was primitive. It went from outhouses to all this in a relatively short time.”
• Little known fact: They’d take out the tree stumps and use them to fill crevasses and gulches to smooth out ski trails. Lodge Pole Gulch, for example, is exactly what it says. It used to be a ravine about 60 feet deep that Ruder Sr. filled with tree stumps when the trails were cut.
“The 10 or 15 years I spent growing up in Vail were great,” Ruder said. “The people were wonderful, and there was always something interesting going on.”
Slifer served as Vail’s mayor for 16 years. Vail’s current mayor, Andy Daly, talked a little about Jerry and Betty Ford, and what they meant in focusing the world’s attention on Vail. Of course, not everything for Jerry went according to plan.
There was the time Jerry was lighting Vail’s Christmas tree and the script called for him to sing “Silent Night.” He turned to Daly and said, “I don’t do silent night.”
“So I did silent night,” Daly said.
It was May 1, 1962, when Slifer turned his car off of U.S. Highway 6 and onto a dirt road that he wasn’t sure led anywhere. It did. It led to the rest of his life – time well spent.
On Saturday night, Slifer and hundreds of others stood at the base of the new Vail Village gondola, on the spot where the first gondola in North America fired up exactly a half century earlier.
“Even with all that going for it, we’d never have guessed it would get this big,” Slifer said, breaking into a huge grin.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.