Summit County pioneers: Bernie and Linda McMenamy
Special to the Summit Daily News
BRECKENRIDGE — There is a call — one that is so clear and so wild that it cannot be denied. It is the call of the mountains. Bernie McMenamy paid heed to the message that beckoned him nearly 73 years ago to move to higher elevations, where a life full of strange new experiences was awaiting.
A Colorado native born in Denver, Bernie arrived in 1947 at the Climax Mine near Leadville at age 17. There wasn’t a lot of action in Summit County, especially in Breckenridge, which at that time had only about 200 or 300 residents. He lived in what was probably one of the last boarding houses for miners, working in the summers and over Christmas holidays for the next few years. Although they didn’t know each other yet, Linda Kapelke was also a second-generation Coloradan, living in Colorado Springs.
“My father thought I was out of my mind for skiing,” Bernie said. His father, who came to Denver in 1882, worked for several years as a miner at Camp Bird Mine in Ouray, where he skied merely as a means of transportation from mine to town. He had once told Bernie about a tragic avalanche accident near Ouray that left several people dead, and he simply couldn’t comprehend why anyone would pursue the sport for pleasure. Before there was ski slope grooming, there was a practice that skiers referred to as “filling your sitzmark.” Translated, this meant that skiers were expected to pack snow in holes caused by falling in an effort to prevent other skiers from falling.
Following his experience in Climax, Bernie worked on his education in Denver and attended Regis High School and Regis College. Possessing no modern grooming equipment, Winter Park offered a free lift ticket for volunteers who ski packed for two hours in the morning. Ski area manager Steve Bradley would later engineer the first grooming apparatus, the Bradley Packer, designed to be dragged behind a skier to groom the snow. It was an extremely dangerous device, however, because it was so difficult to control the speed going down a hill and, Bernie added, if the operator hit a bump, it nearly knocked the wind out of him. For Bernie, the desire to ski was so intense during these years, that even when he and his friends didn’t have money for lift tickets, they would find a way to go. They would use cars to drive to the top of Loveland and Berthoud passes, ski down and a car would be at the bottom to take them back to the top again. It became a ritual to ski Hell’s Half Acre and the Eleven Mile Trail to Winter Park from the top of Berthoud in the morning, and the Hoop Creek Trail back down to Empire in the evenings.
Bernie then joined the Denver Metro Ski Patrol (National Ski Patrol), which served Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass ski areas. As a patroller, he taught avalanche safety and first aid. A former college skier from Regis University, Bernie patrolled until 1951 when he joined the Navy and spent two years in Guam.
When he finally completed his tour of duty, Bernie returned to the state he loved and worked as a heating and air conditioning engineer and contractor. It wasn’t long, however, and the mountains were summoning him again. This time he found himself in Aspen.
“When I went to Aspen to join the ski patrol, I had a pair of skis, a suitcase and about $5,000 of debt,” Bernie recalled.
The apres ski scene took skiers directly from the slopes to the bars rather than going back to their condos and showering or napping.
“We were lucky if we even got dinner,” Linda recalled. “Usually we walked into bars still wearing our skis and just partied.”
It was in 1957 at a bar owned by Ski Hall of Famer Steve Knowlton called the Golden Horn that Bernie first saw Linda in the Golden Horn Show. That “glance across a crowded room” that only seems to happen on Hollywood sets must have made quite an impression on Linda, though she and Bernie didn’t officially meet until the following year when they lived in the same apartment house in Denver. A year later on Feb. 1, 1958, they went skiing for their first official date, and four days later, they got engaged. They waited until after Lent to get married on April 12, 1958.
Linda laughs when she retells the story of that first date with Bernie.
“Somebody asked, ‘Who are you here with?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. His name (McMenamy) sounds like a flower.’
“I didn’t even know what his last name was,” Linda said. “But he was on the ski patrol, so he was sort of hot stuff.”
Moving to Breckenridge
Once they were married and living in Denver, Bernie accepted an assignment to survey 480 acres on the south edge of Breckenridge for a friend. He was offered an opportunity to buy three mining claims for $15,000 but didn’t have the money. At that time, there were no plans for a ski area to be built, but the Dillon Dam was imminent, so he assumed the land would eventually appreciate. During the next three years, until 1960, principals of Rounds and Porter Lumber Co. of Wichita, Kansas, came to town and started buying up properties. In total, the Kansas company purchased 5,500 acres and several buildings in Breckenridge, many of them for the defaulted taxes owed. In exchange for his surveying efforts, which took place over six weekends, Bernie received 12 acres. He eventually sold that land for $40,000.
While the fondness for the more tranquil mountain lifestyle remained imbedded in their souls, the McMenamys waited another 10 years before they made the decision to move to Breckenridge. Self-declared hippies, Bernie and Linda were in search of a change of pace from city life.
In 1971, they convinced their three children to move with grand promises of a better life in Summit County. They told their son he would be able to skate up and down the Blue River like Hans Brinker, the youngest daughter that she would be able to fish out the back window of their newly acquired barn with the creek running just behind and their middle daughter would own a horse. The middle daughter is the only one who saw her wish realized.
With everyone’s wish lists written up, they traded in their larger Denver home and bought a smaller home on the corner of Watson Avenue and Main Street in Breckenridge. With many years of renovation and a lot of tender loving care, Bernie and Linda lived in what was once the barn and the Near Gnu second-hand store.
“When we first came to Breckenridge, probably not more than 50% of the buildings on Main Street were empty,” Bernie recalled. “I was on the Town Council then, and we were just crying for someone to come and build something here.”
He explained how their move to Breckenridge had been so sudden.
“Linda and the children really had a lot of courage to go along with all this nonsense. It was pretty lonesome here. Just a very quiet town in those days. The town in 1971 was rather shabby and the county had few services. Grocery shopping and shopping for supplies was mostly done in Leadville over Fremont Pass or Denver over Loveland Pass.”
When they first planned their move, Bernie fully expected to continue working in the heating and plumbing business. Instead, he tended bar at the old Breckenridge Inn for three months before Linda and the children joined him at the end of their school year. In the meantime, he applied for a position on the ski patrol and soon received a call to work at the ski area. During the summer months, Bernie worked on the trail maintenance crew and eventually ran the lift crews for the following winter months. One October, he was given the insidious task of building a new T-bar during the winter, which was successfully completed, but not without plenty of hardship and challenges. He also was mountain manager for six years.
From the moment he arrived to town, Bernie took an active role in town government and various other organizations. Perhaps the role that put him in the spotlight above all others was serving as mayor of Breckenridge from 1978-82. He also served on the Town Council for 14 years, and on the Red, White & Blue Fire Board and Breckenridge Sanitation District Board.
“The fire department in the early 1970s was not all it should be,” he said. “They had a big red truck and a Jeep. The water tank in the little red truck didn’t have any baffles, so if you turned a corner going more than 15 mph, the water would slosh and nearly turn over the truck!”
Bernie distinctly remembers that whenever the bell would ring for the volunteers, everybody would head for the firehouse because they all wanted to drive the truck.
The keys were always left in the ignition of the fire truck, as Breckenridge was such a small, trusting place. As a joke, kids would sometimes climb in and turn on the key so the battery would go dead. One time they actually had to tow the truck behind a Jeep to get to a fire because the battery was dead.
Weekends were probably the most chaotic. On Saturday nights, everybody would rush to a fire call when fires took place on a regular basis.
“The drunkest guys were the most forward, so they would get at the front end of the hose and squirt just about everything but the fire.”
Shrugging and shaking his head, Bernie said, “What can I say? The fire department was just dangerous.” In 1974, the town made concerted efforts to correct the fire department’s tarnished reputation by finally forming a fire district, appointing a paid fire chief, building new fire houses and buying new equipment. Many other quality improvements were made to turn it into the outstanding professional and volunteer organization it is today.
Editor’s note: Bernie McMenamy died Dec. 2, 2011, in Salida, where his wife, Linda, still lives.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.
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