Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: From skiing preachers to skiing soldiers, heroes make tracks in history
Editor’s Note: Summit’s Historic Yesterdays by local author Mary Ellen Gilliland is featuring old-time ski stories this winter. Today’s excerpt comes from her historical book, “Breckenridge, 150 Years of Golden History.”
Last Sunday’s column detailed the daring feats of early day ski jumpers. When Anders Haugen set a world record on the Dillon Jump, Summit County basked in national attention. But the most intrepid of local ski history’s heroes is also its unlikeliest. A skiing preacher carried the gospel across treacherous routes to early 1860s mineral camps. I often say that in Summit County history’s parade of saints and sinners, this courageous cleric is its only saint.
SNOW SHOE ITINERANT
Like the Pony Express, the tradition of the Methodist circuit-riding preacher weaves a colorful strand in the fabric of Americana. John Lewis Dyer, our famous Snow Shoe Itinerant, stands as the last of these daring frontier preachers. Because travel by horseback became impossible in winter, he traveled on skis.
Starting in the primitive 1860s and continuing to the 1880s, Dyer braved blizzards on high mountain passes and endured deprivation, hunger and poverty to serve Summit County’s prospector camps. He filled the spiritual needs of a motley flock far from home and family. He preached in log mine camps, forest clearings, miners’ cabins, eating houses, schoolrooms and — to his chagrin — saloons.
“The boys” in the 1860s placer mining camps around Breckenridge called him Father to express respect and endearment.
Dyer stepped into the Summit County scene at age 50. Though a tall, roughly handsome, powerful man, he was old by 1860s standards. He left Minnesota with $14.75 jangling in his pocket and the desire to see Pikes Peaks burning in his soul. Plagued by an eye ailment now thought to be simple conjunctivitis, he feared blindness and yearned to see the fabled peak before his sight failed.
He was the first to preach in our original county seat, Parkville in Georgia Gulch in the early 1860s. Soon he had ministered in the towns of Breckenridge, Lincoln in French Gulch, Montezuma, Kokomo, Robinson, Dillon and Oro City (later Leadville). He visited the camps along the Swan, including Buffalo Flats, Delaware Flats, Gold Run Gulch and Swan City. The man rose at 4 a.m. daily. His knees hit the cold dirt floor of his crude log cabin to pray before his day of Methodist ministry began.
He paused in 1880 just long enough to build the first church on the Colorado western slope, Father Dyer Methodist, and start the Boreas Pass town of Dyersville.
For his four decades of skiing achievement, Father Dyer earned induction to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1977. For his unfailing integrity, selflessness, service and discipline, he earned a place of honor among 16 Founders of Colorado, pioneers portrayed in stained glass in the State Capitol in Denver.
Countless other skiers have followed Father Dyer’s pioneering ski tracks, this time for sport. In the 1880s, Breckenridge skiers created a “ski course” on Shock Hill near town. In the 1930s a small ski area on Hoosier Pass created a regional stir, but snow-clogged passes prevented many outsiders from using it. In 1936, for example, several Summit passes remained snow blocked from Jan. 25 till April 22.
At Climax, high on the Fremont Pass summit, a cadre of 1930s skiers wangled a rope tow from their mine company employers and built a pioneering ski area for a few dozen skiers who were considered crazy.
But the ski boom that would catapult Summit County into a position as Colorado’s number one skiing destination, a rank first earned decades later in 1982, was waiting to detonate. Its spark would come from World War II’s famous Tenth Mountain Division, U.S. Army ski professionals trained at nearby Camp Hale below Tennessee Pass. In 1945 “The Tenth” was on its way home.
These men would revolutionize Colorado. Among them returned: Peter Siebert, Earl Eaton and Robert Parker, key figures in Vail’s development; C. Minot (“Minnie”) Dole, founder of the U.S. Ski Patrol; Friedl Pfeifer, who teamed up with the late Walter Paepcke, Container Corporation of America board chairman, to launch Aspen; Steve Bradley, longtime Winter Park executive director; Gordy Wren, instrumental at Winter Park and Steamboat Springs; Larry Jump, Arapahoe Basin major domo; and Slim Davis, U.S. Forest Service Arapaho National Forest head ranger, who helped prompt a reluctant Forest Service to allow Colorado ski areas to use national land.
These and many other Tenth Mountain Division skiers — experts toughened to handle weather extremes and World War II battle conditions — made a tremendous impact on skiing in Colorado and the U.S.
“They started the industry, really,” said Joe Jankovsky, a former Arapahoe Basin owner.
Broader praise came from veteran Colorado skier John Rahm: “The Tenth Mountain Division made a significant impact on skiing in Colorado and all over the world.”
Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in “Breckenridge.” Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, “The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.
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