Longtime Keystone Resort employees reflect on 50 years of community spirit
DILLON — The April 12, 1970, headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette might have seemed bold at the time. But a half-century later, as Keystone Resort has become one of the most popular ski destinations in the world, the headline doesn’t seem quite as daring as it might have five decades ago.
“Iowans’ Goal: To Dwarf Vail, Aspen Ski Areas,” the headline read.
Those Iowans were led by Bill Bergman, a native of Fort Madison, Iowa, who was a Hawkeye through and through. The leader of the Keystone development group pursued business law after he helped the U.S. Army bomb the Germans out of Italy as a navigator on B-24s. It was Bergman’s wife, Jane, who was the impetus to start another chapter in their lives in the Rocky Mountains, with her relatives in the tiny mountain town of Parshall.
When Bergman saw the 360-degrees of beauty in the old town of Keystone, he was sold on a future there. After a New Year’s Eve handshake deal over drinks at Bergman’s log cabin with Keystone co-founder Max Dercum, Bergman put in motion the moves to make Max and Edna Dercum’s dreams a reality before their first right to develop the ski area expired in a month.
Bergman, 96, reflected on that origin story Saturday, Nov. 21 — 50 years to the day after the grand opening of Keystone Mountain Ski Area.
Like many Summit County residents, Bergman’s life has been upended this year by the novel coronavirus. On Saturday, that meant not being able to eat his traditional breakfast at Butterhorn Bakery & Cafe in Frisco. But waxing nostalgic about yesteryear, about coming together with the Dercums — who he described as “intellectually great” — to create the Keystone so many know and love, that was an opportunity for Bergman to get out of the chaotic present and soak in the successes of his past. While thinking about the past, Bergman spoke positively of the people — of the spirit — that helped build and grow Keystone over the past five decades.
“It just became a community of people,” Bergman said about Keystone Resort and the surrounding town. “Most of them are entrepreneurs of their own. Everybody kind of knows each other.”
This week, Keystone lifers shared their stories with the Summit Daily News. One of them was Steve Corneillier, a Minnesota native who started his first job at Keystone in 1975 as a parking lot attendant. Summit County was much different back then, much less developed. Corneillier said Keystone and the town of Dillon were so different that locals used to be able to stand at the top of the Dillon hill, where the stop light is today above the City Market shopping plaza, and sled down toward the Skelly gas station. The gas station, Corneillier said, sat where the Burger King is today and was one of the only stores or shops a local like him would see on that ride down the hill.
There wasn’t much back in Keystone around the time the ski area was founded. Snake River Saloon was the meeting spot for a lot of employees, and Alf Tieze’s Bavarian Restaurant — now the site of the Goat Tavern — was one of the only other places to frequent.
When Keystone opened in November 1970, the current Mountain House Base Area — now a secondary base area at Keystone — was where grand opening festivities were hosted. When he joined Keystone in 1975, Corneillier said his duties in his first couple of weeks were shoveling snow, stacking firewood and hauling out dirty laundry. Corneillier said he was drawn to Keystone because of the resort’s snowmaking, but he eventually worked his way up to various positions over nearly 40 years as a Keystone employee and raised his family and two daughters in Keystone.
Thanks to his education in forestry, Corneillier helped put in the work to open classic Dercum Mountain trails such as Frenchman, Lower Go Devil and Silver Spoon. It was there that Corneillier was able to work with Max Dercum a fair amount.
“Keystone was the fit for me and my wife and my family, and we never looked back,” Corneillier said.
Pam Brown, a 33-year employee of Keystone who is now the resort’s senior manager of lift operations, is one of the ski area’s longest-tenured employees. It was her love for John Denver’s music that inspired her to head to Keystone after she finished grad school.
“Like so many others, I came for one season and never left,” Brown said.
Back then, Brown worked for Keystone legend Ina Gillis, who was the head of the resort’s landscaping at the time. Brown was drawn to Gillis’ personality.
“She demanded a lot,” Brown said. “Having grown up on a farm, she reminded me of the farm folks I knew back then.”
By the time Brown joined Keystone in 1987, the River Run Gondola had been built three years prior, in 1984, in what is now the resort’s main base area.
Grant Ellis, now the director of lift maintenance, joined Keystone in that same formative decade for the ski area. The Wisconsin native moved into an apartment above the Little Brown Drug store in Dillon, skiing Arapahoe Basin Ski Area — which was owned by Keystone back then — 200 days each winter and working on the hill at night.
Back in those days, the Keystone community of employees was so tight-knit that Ellis and other employees would gather when the weather was ideal for daily volleyball games at Sunrise employee housing.
All these years later, Ellis believes it’s that community spirit that sets Keystone apart from other ski areas. Whatever the milestone for Keystone was — building two detachable chairlifts, Peru and Montezuma, in the same year in 1990, or expanding in 1984 to North Peak or building the Keystone Convention Center in 1988 — that Keystone community always has been at the heartbeat of the resort.
“It’s about the family atmosphere of the employees here at Keystone and the teamwork displayed on a daily basis to get the job done,” Ellis said. “It’s an extremely nibble crew that can always change course on a daily basis, if need be. Whenever I leave here, I’m going to be disappointed.”
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