Summit County pioneers: Edna and Max Dercum
Special to the Summit Daily News
KEYSTONE — American writer Katherine Anne Porter once said, “Adventure is something you seek for pleasure, or even for profit, like a gold rush or invading a country … but experience is what really happens to you in the long run; the truth that finally overtakes you.”
For Max and Edna Dercum, it was their adventurous spirit that led them to the Colorado gold rush of 1942, the year they moved to Summit County in search of the perfect ski mountain on which to hatch their dream. Their prospecting resulted in the birth of two world-class ski areas and more than 50 years of memories of their incredible experiences in the High Country.
In 1941, Max made an exploratory trip to Colorado, from Pikes Peak to Aspen, the Elk Mountains to the Front Range. Recalling how he first discovered Keystone, Max said, “I searched over a wide area, but I just didn’t find a place that really caught my eye. I met Thor Groswold, who had a ski factory in Denver. He suggested Montezuma, the old mining area up the Snake River Valley west of Loveland Pass. And when I saw those endless slopes, I knew I’d found what I was searching for.”
“We were so happy to find Colorado and all the freedom,” Edna said. “People here took you at face value.”
Max said it was “in the genes” and blamed his lifelong love for skiing on his Norwegian heritage. Even his mother continued to cross-country ski until she was 98 years old. He received his first pair of skis — an ancient pair of Northlands — in 1917 at age 5. Max would read about famous Norwegian skier Ehrling Strom in a mid-1920s Northlands’ brochure and use the photos as an example of proper technique since there was really no one around to formally teach him. Years later, as an assistant professor of forestry at Penn State University, Max wanted to get involved in forest-based recreation. As a ski coach and competitive skier himself, skiing was the most obvious area that appealed to him.
It was while he was in the U.S. Forest Service that Max first met Edna. She joined his ski club in Pennsylvania and joked that she was very happy to meet him because she could get free ski lessons. It was the adventurous lifestyle he enjoyed that most attracted her.
Edna fondly remembered one of her and Max’s first skiing ventures together in Jungfraujoch, Switzerland, and said, “I had to learn to turn or I would have ended up in Italy!”
Evidently she was a fast learner, because Edna began to race in downhill and jumping events the first year she learned to ski. She remembered ski racing being popular in the 1930s, especially in the eastern and western parts of the United States. They wore 7-foot wooden skis with beartrap bindings and low-cut, leather, lace-up boots. Some of the skis had metal edges, so they had to go home at night and tighten the screws that held them on because of all the flexing that the ski did on the slopes. Racers didn’t wear helmets and courses were usually boot packed to a width of 15-20 feet, so skiers didn’t want to get off to the sides in the unpacked snow. Racers would start with the wave of a flag visible from the bottom by a timekeeper holding a stopwatch. One of the first international races was to be held in Mt. Hood, Oregon. However, when the war broke out, it was canceled.
Birth of a ski area
With plans for a ski area brewing in the back of his mind, Max and Edna moved to Summit County with their 3-month-old son, Rolf. They made their home in a rustic shelter of the Alhambra Cabin on Montezuma Road. In that cabin, Max and others drew up plans for Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, one of Colorado’s earliest ski areas, which opened in 1946.
Among the planning group was Thor Groswold, notable Norwegian jumper, maker of the Groswold ski and father to Jerry Groswold, who later became long-time manager of Winter Park. Another contributor was Larry Jump, who had been with the 10th Mountain Division. Dick Durrance, another famous ski racer, also showed interest with a couple of others to form the elite group of five who formed a small corporation. It cost $10 to register with the state, so each of them put up $2 and A-Basin was born.
Max described skiing at A-Basin as being “pretty primitive skiing.” On weekends, they would attract 20-30 people to the mountain to use a rope tow, and a frame-like shelter was built for visitors to get out of the wind. In the second year, they were able to build a chairlift from midway to the top. It was completed before the one that went from the base to midmountain, so skiers were hauled up there with whatever means possible until the bottom lift was completed.
During the first two years, there were only about 3,000 skiers per year. Later, as Colorado skiing began to gain popularity, Edna remembers the old A-Basin lodge burning down as skiers continued to drive in wanting to buy lift tickets. “Marny Jump was out there telling everyone that the mountain was closed,” Edna said. “Meanwhile, I was on the practice hill teaching beginners with burning ash blowing across the snow.”
Max and Edna soon purchased Ski Tip Ranch. The first papers had been signed by President Woodrow Wilson under the provisions of the old Homestead Act. It too was “pretty primitive” in those days, with chicken paper covering the windows to keep the snow from blowing in since there was no glass.
“The first time I drew water from our well at Ski Tip, I pulled up a dead squirrel! I decided we couldn’t drink that,” Edna recalled.
Ski Tip began as a four-room cabin with a bathroom down the hall and “beavers for neighbors.” Max and Edna continued to build additions as demand dictated. The lodge, with its split timber walls, was a place for skiers to have fellowship and often a night’s rest. It became an ongoing cleanup and remodel project in which everyone participated. In 1952, they hired their first cook and charged $3.50 for a night’s lodging, including breakfast and dinner served family style. Lunch wasn’t served because everyone, including the staff, wanted to get out and ski. Ski Tip’s popularity grew, and soon the evenings would be filled with music, storytelling and square dancing in the living room. It became Summit County’s “place to be” as guests exchanged skiing technique and a lot of laughter. One day, Edna remembers noticing that the guests had voluntarily changed the rates to $8.50 a night. She was worried that no one would come. Today, however, the allure of Ski Tip continues.
Max and Edna skied well into their 80s and remained optimistic about growing old.
“Enthusiasm is youth,” Edna said. “Besides, sliding is certainly easier than walking.”
Max nodded in agreement saying, “It has always been a way of life for us.”
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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