Summit County pioneers: Bill Bergman
Special to the Summit Daily News
Few people would believe that one of the most popular ski resorts in the United States emerged out of America’s heartland: Iowa. From the Great Plains, where corn is usually the tallest silhouette against the skyline, came the financial backbone of Keystone Resort.
Bill Bergman, a savvy corporate attorney from Cedar Rapids with the gift of turning dreams into thriving businesses, helped transform a rolling, unobtrusive, tree-thatched hunk of Arapahoe National Forest into a nationally regarded ski resort enjoyed by skiers and their families for nearly 50 years.
“My practice my whole life has been putting things together, be it baseball games or playing hooky from school,” Bill admited. “I have often led people into things they probably didn’t want to get into.”
Keystone began as a vision that Max Dercum had fostered for more than 20 years and that first took shape one snowy Christmas evening in 1968 in a snug cabin near the Snake River. Max had skied every inch of the mountain and surrounding terrain until he had it memorized. With his dream of a ski area close to his heart, he worked diligently on his plans, creating a prospectus, hand-sketching maps and models he hoped would help sell the concept.
Until that night, he had been unable to get it off the ground.
A Midwesterner, Bill had learned to ski on rope tows in Wisconsin in what he describes to be “the coldest weather in the entire world.” Bill graduated from the University of Iowa, where he was an All-American football and basketball player. He met his wife Jane, a freshman beauty queen, on campus in Iowa City after returning from World War II as a B-24 lead navigator in the Air Corps.
Jane smiled and teasingly said, “Actually, he was the first one back from the war. That’s why I married him.”
Bill started practicing law in Iowa in 1949.
From the ground up
Bill and Jane began their annual skiing visits to Colorado in 1952 and fell in love with Summit County. They stayed at the Ski Tip Lodge or the Alhambra cabin, located a half-mile east of Ski Tip. The Alhambra cabin was owned by Jane’s sister and brother-in-law and several other friends. They originally purchased Alhambra from Max and Edna Dercum, who had lived there while building Ski Tip. Bill and Jane became friends with the Dercums. Subsequently, the Bergmans purchased the Alhambra, and it became the official office of Keystone Resort. The Bergmans later donated Alhambra cabin to the Keystone Science School, and it was moved to the site of the old town of Keystone.
Gathered around a fireplace on New Year’s Eve in 1968 at the home of Blair Wood — a man from Waterloo, Iowa, who claimed to be the first ski instructor in the United States and who attracted many other Iowans to the sport — the group began discussing Max’s plans.
“This was when the enticement began,” Bill said. He admitted that in the beginning, he really wasn’t interested in getting involved, but Max and the others “ganged up” on him until he finally gave in. Bill shook his head remembering how fast it all happened and said, “We saw an entire ski area evolved in a matter of minutes.”
While Bill had a great deal of experience working with manufacturing and other small startups, this was his first ski area.
“I was pretty sure the idea was good, but I told Max not to feel badly if it failed,” he recalled.
Bill returned to Iowa from his Colorado ski vacation with a special excitement. With advice from University of Denver economics professor Jim Johnson, they determined what it would take to open a ski area.
“We looked to see what Vail had done when they got started and decided we needed to raise $25,000 per individual investor,” Bill said. He quickly gathered a group of his clients and spread the plans before them. They responded with enthusiastic nods of yes. With little convincing, he also recruited 15 of the 20 friends he skied with during his “stag years” to become members of Keystone’s ambassador corps. All the money was raised within Iowa, with a few exceptions of “knowledgables,” such as the Dercums, which simplified the often-complex process of raising funds. The investors were all granted life-time transferable ski passes as well as one-third of an acre of land for development. For all his hard work during this four-month planning period, Bill and Jane were granted stock and land options.
“Our thought was to raise $800,000 to handle the planning for the first year, then initiate a public stock issue,” Bergman recalled. “But that didn’t prove necessary.”
Entering stage left was another one of Bill’s clients: the Ralston Purina Co. of St. Louis.
“They had the money and were looking for diversification,” Bill said. “It simply was one of those deals that happened at just the right time for everybody.”
Meanwhile, Bill, as president of Keystone, was try to build the ski area from his Cedar Rapids law office. He hired Vail’s general manager Clay Simon to run the day-to-day operations. Max, his dream realized, became the first ski school program director.
A new life
In shaping the image of Colorado’s newest ski area, Bill described how they wanted to preserve the mining look with a railroad feel, as Vail had adopted the Swiss chalet style. Keystone adapted its name from the old Pennsylvania miners, but people didn’t seem wild about it at first. They even held a name contest to rename it, but no one submitted anything better. The original logo had three mountains represented: Soda Ridge, Keystone and Independence.
Today, Keystone weaves harmoniously with the original character of the landscape as a result of strict stipulations by the U.S. Forest Service, including installing lifts via helicopter. Keystone opened for business by Thanksgiving 1970 after the Bergmans christened the first lift.
“I was bleeding from doing the honors,” Jane laughed. “I had glass shards in my face from smashing the champagne bottle. I didn’t know you were supposed to wrap it!”
In the early days, Jane did all the marketing herself, for no salary, by delivering brochures in her car. She visited ski shops, college campuses and spoke to people, personally trying to generate enthusiasm for a young Keystone.
“Jane’s one good con artist,” Bill said with a smirk.
Bill retired from his law practice Dec. 22, 1998, and he and Jane made their mountain getaway in Keystone a permanent residence. They skied as often as possible now that they had the mountain in their backyard. One day, as they rode up a chairlift together, Jane looked over at Bill, pointed to the acres of tree-lined slopes and asked, “Aren’t you just so proud of all of this?” He said yes, but he admitted he was actually prouder of starting his own sizable law firm.
“You see, I did the law practice for myself,” he said. “I did Keystone for Edna and Max.”
The Bergmans long enjoyed travel and Bill liked it even more when it was associated with his other passion: golf. For 28 years, with Jane as his caddie, he played in the British Amateurs and with Arnold Palmer and other notable names in the U.S. Senior Opens. He once qualified for the National Amateurs in Pebble Beach, where Jack Nicklaus won a week before Jack’s first baby was born. Bill’s name can be found etched on a plaque at the club in Pebble Beach, listed directly under Jack’s.
When he wasn’t on the greens, Bill could be found trekking somewhere outdoors. He was good friends with Charlie Meyers, the editor of the “Outdoors in the West” section of The Denver Post. The two of them enjoyed duck hunting or fishing when they got the chance. Exemplified in his many life accomplishments and attested to by those who have been cast under his persuasive influence, Bill is a leader who makes things happen.
He just shrugged and said, “I have always loved the thrill of the chase. Anticipation excites me.”
Bill Bergman is in his mid-90s and still lives and golfs in Summit County. Jane Bergman died at age 91 in September 2015.
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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