Vail 50th anniversary: How Aspen begat Vail
December 24, 2012
VAIL – George Caulkins raised most of the money to launch Vail, and he might not have bothered if not for the president of the Aspen Skiing Co.
The tales goes like this.
In the 1950s, Caulkins owned a house in Aspen right up the street from Pete and Betty Seibert, and flew in several times a year to ski. Pete and George became good friends
When Seibert was looking for money to build his ski area, he wandered up the block to pitch Caulkins.
In 1958, 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.
Seibert told Caulkins what the real deal was, of course, and not long after that, Earl Eaton and Seibert took Caulkins to the top of their mountain for a quick camping trip with Pete’s huge St. Bernard.
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“In the middle of the night I heard a noise and realized I should probably move my sleeping bag because the noise was that dog relieving himself uphill from me,” Caulkins told Dick Hauserman for the book, “The Inventors of Vail.”
They had a great time, but Caulkins remained unconvinced that the dream of Vail would ever be anything more. Besides, Caulkins was young, rich, dashing and the successful head of Caulkins Oil Company.
He was one of the darlings of Aspen’s social set, but at a 1958 Aspen New Year’s Eve party that relationship began to go south.
Caulkins was there. So was his good friend Bill Whiteford, whose family ran the Gulf Oil Company. They were having drinks with Darcy Brown, president of the Aspen Skiing Co.
A bunch of Aspen locals crashed the party and were generally loud and rude.
Caulkins had lots of opinions about it and expressed a few to Brown.
Brown, apparently, believed that Caulkins and his friends were too fond of Glitter Gulch to ever abandon it, so he blew them off saying that if they didn’t like it they could “de-camp” to Winter Park.
Caulkins had a better idea and turned to Whiteford.
“Hey Whiteford, I want you to check out that place of Seibert’s,” Caulkins called to his friend.
Caulkins did his talking with his feet. He put up $7,500 and joined Seibert, Eaton, John Conway, Bob Fowler and Jack Tweedy as one of Vail’s six original partners.
Eventually, Caulkins invested $20,000 in the Vail startup and raised most of the $1.6 million spent to build the place. Whiteford became one of Vail’s original investors and built a number of nightclubs.
Actually, Aspen began begetting even before that.
In March 1955, Lefty MacDonald, of Aspen, made the trek with Earl to the top of the then-nameless mountain that would become Vail. MacDonald told Earl the back bowls would never be good for skiing.
Harley and Lorraine Higbie spent many vacations in Aspen, driving up from the Oklahoma headquarters of Caulkins Oil, and later Denver when Caulkins moved his oil company.
Higbie, who worked with Caulkins in the oil business, invested in Vail. He was part of the original board of directors and was Vail Associates controller for about the first decade and a half.
Vail’s first ski school director, Morrie Shepard, moved to Vail from Aspen on May 1, 1962. That same day, Rod Slifer made the move from Aspen to Vail to be Shepard’s assistant and help handle the millions of details that go with building a ski area from the ground up.
Pete and Earl both worked in Aspen, beginning around 1947. Chicago-based industrialist and philanthropist Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Skiing Co. in 1946.
Sources: Colorado Ski and Snowboard 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.