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History Happened Here

Secret Season

May 2024
6min read

Colorado Before the Snow Flies

Crested Buttes Elk Avenue.
carla davidson2006_4_13

On a brilliant September afternoon Crested Butte, deep in the Colorado Rockies, is crowded with young people wearing flowing velvets and silks, their faces daubed with fierce streaks of color.

Among the cries and drumbeats that float into the crystalline air one youth’s chant dominates: “Oats and corn, oats and corn, all that die shall be reborn, all that die shall rise again.” He wanders with his message into a real estate office where a sleek salesman imperturbably carries on his pitch for a time-share community against the rising voices of more sixties apparitions gathering outside his door.

Last fall, as for the past 20, Crested Butte surrendered itself to Vinotok, a celebration of the coming of autumn. The four-day event culminates in the burning of the Grump, a paper creature fashioned from complaints that anyone may write down and place in “Grump boxes” scattered around town. When participants set fire to the Grump, they bid farewell to all the regrets and angers of the waning year.

The Quaking Aspen, so named for its shimmering leaves, is a signature of the west.

The mountains that surround Crested Butte had been a home to ancient peoples, primarily the Utes, for some 8,000 years but remained unvisited by whites until Zebulon Pike passed through in 1806. The town really came to life in the 1880s, to serve a population that poured in to mine rich veins of silver. After the Panic of 1893, when many banks failed, silver lost its gleam, leaving the coal industry dominant, its mines creeping right into the heart of downtown. By the early 1900s Crested Butte had fallen into a long, dark sleep. “Dirt and noxious fumes from the coke ovens hung everywhere, and prodigious amounts of snow further marooned an already isolated town,” writes Duane Vandenbusch, a local historian.

A Vinotok celebrant.
gunnison-crested butte tourism association2006_4_13a

The festival of Vinotok looks back to honor the polyglot cultures of generations past that grew up around the mines, arriving first from the British Isles, then from Italy, Germany, and Central Europe. The holiday may not have an easily traceable genealogy, but it works to forge a necessary sense of community in this snowbound place. “Fire celebrations are part of the most ancient of traditions, especially in places that have cold winters and short days,” says Marcie Telander, one of the founders. “These celebrations shed light on moving into winter and tell the sun not to forget us. They also give participants the chance to see the faces of their neighbors around the bonfire.”

The community cherishes Vinotok as a way of joining together to ease the inevitable tensions that accompany growth and prosperity. Here there is an ongoing debate about a plan to carve ski trails onto the immaculate flank of neighboring Snodgrass Mountain, while a near-by town wrestles with the pluses and minuses of welcoming a big-box store.

Skiing’s postwar popularity shook the town awake, and today’s Crested Butte is a cheerful confection of brightly painted Victorian cottages, good restaurants, and excellent shopping (some of it housed in the original Company Store, where miners once would “get another day older and deeper in debt”). The elegant Crested Butte Club Boutique Inn & Spa inhabits what was in 1902 the Croatian Meeting Hall.

Engine No. 268 is the star of Gunnisons Pioneer Museum.
pioneer museum & gunnison-crested butte tourism association2006_4_14

Thirty miles south lies Gunnison, with a thriving state college that provided many of the Vinotok celebrants I saw. The two towns have something of a competitive spirit, what one writer called a sibling rivalry. Gunnison at first glance may appear to be the less entertaining, but that’s deceptive. There is an ambitious historical society in Gunnison, with 14 buildings set on five acres, run by a band of devoted volunteers. The star attraction is Engine No. 268, built by the Baldwin Works in 1882, and one of three surviving engines from the Denver & Rio Grande. Known as the Cinderella of the Rockies, presumably for its dogged work, No. 268 has appeared in movies and on television.

Gunnison’s arts center, housed in an 1882 sandstone building on Main Street, encourages a huge variety of activities and ropes in the entire community to participate. Locals who are by no means trained to direct plays do so, as well as write and act in them. Enthusiasts sign up for pottery and ballet, reading and poetry groups. Any pursuit one might find in the largest city, it seems, is available.

But this all takes place in a setting of overwhelming natural beauty. My visit came in late September, when the aspen trees that climb the mountains turn from green to gold in “a great unrestrained yelp of piercing yellow,” as the historian Patricia Limerick puts it. An avid nonskier, I can’t imagine a better time of year to visit. The days stretch mild and sunny, and with the summer crowds gone and the winter hordes yet to descend, locals claim this as their secret season.

Aspen Gold at a bend in the Crystal River near Redstone.
carla davidson2006_4_14a

The quaking aspen, so named for the shimmer of its leaves, is a signature of the West, sprouting from an unusual root system. A swath of aspen gold may sweep across a mountain range as far as the eye can see. Yet the trees all share a common root, making them one of the largest organisms on earth. This botanical feature may (or may not) explain the cryptic note Lewis “Scooter” Libby sent to the imprisoned journalist Judith Miller last year: “Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters because their roots connect them. Come back to work—and life.” A coded message or a poetic flight? Perhaps by the time the aspens of 2006 put on their show, we’ll have an answer.

The two million acres of public lands that surround Gunnison and Crested Butte are easily accessible for hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting. Despite a century-long struggle between competing interests that bubbles up from time time, a certain amity prevails between the ranchers and environmental activists who have worked over the past two decades to create what one writer calls “some of the most effective land conservation partnerships in the country.”

I enjoyed a sense of the peaceable kingdom that can exist in this corner of Colorado while driving a stretch of dirt road quaintly designated Jack’s Cabin Cut-off, named for Jack Howe, who homesteaded there in 1875. The narrow rutted road led eventually to Harmel’s Ranch Resort, a dude ranch bordering the Gunnison National Forest, owned and run by one family since 1959. While others spent the morning horseback riding and fly-fishing along a beautiful stretch of the Taylor River, I was content with a stroll along its banks and then settled on the sunswept terrace to listen to the music of water rippling over the rocks below.

Wherever I went, whatever town I stopped in, I would hear, “We don’t want to become another Aspen,” where, as the joke has it, “the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires,” not to mention longtime residents of more modest means. I could see the truth of this on my first walk along streets crammed with shops bearing the names of Bulgari, Christian Dior, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. But it didn’t take long to peer beyond this shiny surface into the layers of Aspen’s past.

Silver strikes in the 1880s brought the raffish mining camp a brief flare of prosperity. For two years, starting in 1891, it produced one-sixth of the nation’s silver, drawing such investors as Jerome B. Wheeler, president of Macy’s in New York City. He built the Jerome Hotel, still the jewel of Aspen, but he looked after the town in other ways too. As a pamphlet celebrating the Jerome’s 100th anniversary points out, “he was determined that [Aspen] not become another boom and bust silver camp, drained of its riches and left dead in the dust.” He saw to the planting of trees and flower beds and financed a handsome three-story opera house that still stands.

Aspens Jerome Hotel maintains its 1890s elegance.
jerome hotel2006_4_17

It was hard to believe, after my very agreeable, if brief, stay at the Jerome, that by the Second World War it had endured decades of neglect. These days, after several changes of ownership and a late-nineties refurbishing, it shines with all its Victorian confidence. What I found most extraordinary during a tour of the hotel was how much of the original fabric of the place—fixtures, paneling, even wallpaper—had survived the bad days. The lobby’s floor, for instance, is a checkerboard of brown and cobalt blue tiles, the latter infused with streaks of gold. The brown are reproductions, but the blue, if damaged, can be replenished from a precious stockpile recently discovered in the basement. The hotel’s accommodations are spacious and bright, offering magnificent mountain views, and much of the furniture is the original Eastlake, an American version of William Morris.

Aspen’s modern savior was the Chicagoan Walter Paepcke, along with his wife, Elizabeth. The founder in 1926 of the Container Corporation of America, he made it pre-eminent in its field. Although Paepcke liked to refer to himself as “only a prosaic box maker,” he was truly a visionary who gained inspiration from the University of Chicago’s Great Books program and the teachings of Mortimer Adler.

In the aftermath of World War II, Paepcke focused his energy on rescuing the best of his German heritage, as exemplified by Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant. After vacationing near Aspen in 1945, he found himself fascinated by the town’s “stately, if unused and ill-repaired, Victorian houses and public buildings.” Aspen, he thought, could be remade, not only as a sparkling ski resort but as the new Bauhaus, a cultural mecca. Quietly, to prevent prices from exploding, he began to buy property, including Jerome Wheeler’s home, his opera house, and the hotel.

Paepcke and his wife launched their cultural crusade in the summer of 1949 with a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s birth. His star attraction, Albert Schweitzer, made headlines by traveling from Africa to this remote ski village on his only American visit. Thus was born the new Aspen—the famed community of intellect, with its influential think tank, the Aspen Institute, and its world-renowned music festival. Both continue to thrive. The Paepckes’ legacy also lives on through the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), which they founded here, its headquarters a wildlife sanctuary on the edge of town, and through the eloquently spare Bauhaus structures they built to house their endeavors.

During my few days in Aspen I had only to get a whiff of how the Paepckes shaped their little kingdom —and the wider world—to become enthralled. I came upon an article in the Aspen Times in which the author Bruce Berger compared Paepcke to “Prospero, protagonist of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest … . giving up his dukedom to pursue ‘liberal arts’ and ‘the bettering of my mind.’…” Reading on, I saw that Berger suggests that Aspen’s span “as a surprisingly close embodiment of the pastoral ideal” is over. But for those of us who have only now encountered Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, it may have just begun.

Carla Davidson is a senior editor at American Heritage magazine.

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