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Summit County pioneers: Jim and Maureen Nicholls

Nicholls worked to preserve the history and culture of Breckenridge

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Maureen and Jim Nicholls in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

BRECKENRIDGE — The 1960s represented a decade of new discoveries — an “out with the old, in with the new” cleansing of sorts. While Jim and Maureen (Sloan) Nicholls arrived independently to Summit County during this period of rapid change, they always had shared a fundamental love of the High Country and a loyalty to Breckenridge.

Maureen believed the past was well worth preserving and championed bygone eras through her ownership of Quandary Antiques, a shop that opened in 1980. (Maureen and Jim donated the cabin in which it was originally housed to the Breckenridge Arts District in 2007.) Over the years, Maureen was repeatedly recognized for her countless hours of work with the Summit Historical Society.

Jim spent much of his time working in organizations promoting Breckenridge’s economy.

“This place is going to be something someday,” Jim once said, predicting the county’s future growth.

Later on in life, he spent his time at his art gallery and Western artifacts shop, Paint Horse Gallery. When Quandary Antiques moved to Ridge Street, the gallery replaced it in a yellow Victorian on Main Street.

Although Jim grew up in Gary, Indiana, his great-grandfather emigrated to Colorado in 1878 and mined at the boom towns in Tenmile Canyon, Leadville and Cripple Creek Mining District. Jim joined his parents on family vacations in Fruita during summer, went to college in Fort Collins and came to Summit County in 1961 searching for a couple of lots for his parents’ retirement setting.

At the time, there were only about 250 people living in Breckenridge, but with the Dillon Dam under construction, land values were expected to rise as the area gained in popularity. When he walked into Summit County Development Co.’s office to inquire about lots, he noticed an empty drafting desk. He remembers asking the manager, Claude Martin, “Who sits there?” to which Claude replied, “No one.” Less than 15 days later, with two feet of snow welcoming him on Labor Day, Jim took a job with the development company and moved to Breckenridge.

With the dredges long gone and garish rock piles everywhere leaving a memorial to the once flourishing mining industry, Breckenridge had languished as not much more than a shell of a town before skiing revitalized the economy.

“People had let vacant land go for delinquent tax sales, particularly mining claims, thinking the area would never amount to anything,” Jim explained. 

Seeing future potential, Jim’s first Breckenridge employer — Rounds and Porter Lumber, a company from Wichita, Kansas — entered the picture and began buying up parcels of land for $55 an acre until they had accumulated 5,500 acres in and around Breckenridge. Summit County Development Co. even set up an office in the old courthouse to facilitate this process. Bill Rounds had spent time skiing in Aspen and liked the idea of a quaint but timeworn mining town close to Denver in which to invest his family’s money.

Maureen Nicholls on the right in her National Ski Patrol System uniform in front of the Bergenhof building at Breckenridge in 1965.
Courtesy Maureen Nicholls

Birth of the ski industry

With Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Cooper Hill and Climax paving the way, skiing was catching on in Colorado, and it wasn’t long before the idea to develop a ski area at Breckenridge emerged.

Vail was also in its planning stages, and the two areas raced to see which mountain opened first. Breckenridge won and planned its grand opening Dec. 16, 1961. A member of Colorado State University’s ski club in college, Jim showed much enthusiasm for the ski area’s development and was asked to perform a number of duties in preparation for its opening.

He drew up plans for the first on-mountain warming hut, which moved to several locations before succumbing to a restaurant fire on Main Street Breckenridge in 1997. Bill Rounds asked Jim to paint a 6-foot sign that resembled an official highway marker with just the word “Breckenridge” and a giant arrow.

Then one night, they surreptitiously posted the sign at the junction of U.S. Highways 6 and 40 (now Interstate 70) west of Idaho Springs as a way to attract travelers to the budding resort. That sign remained in place for more than 12 years. As assistant manager of Summit County Development Co., Jim’s position as a “gofer” meant also finding out where Rounds and Porter’s 5,500 acres lay and the best use for the land.

“Perhaps one of the most memorable times in my life was the night before the lifts opened,” Jim recalled.

He gathered with 15 people around the fireplace at a popular bar and restaurant called The Mine on Main Street. With the snow falling heavily outside, and everyone singing and listening to Eric Laurence’s piano playing, the festivities continued until 4 a.m. That first year of operation, 18,000 lift tickets were sold at $3.50 each.

Jim and Maureen Nicholls skiing at Breckenridge in 1966.
Courtesy Maureen Nicholls

Making a life

After leaving the development company, known as Breckenridge Lands, Jim worked for Fitzhugh Scott, the early architect of Vail, and commuted over Vail Pass on Highway 6.

It wasn’t long before staying in Breckenridge appealed more to him, and Jim opened his architecture/design office, the only such firm in Summit County, out of his home. In 1963, Jim purchased a log cabin at 302 S. Ridge Street where the Nicholls resided for several decades. Three additions have been added since the Breckenridge Volunteer Fire Department built the cabin in 1955, originally for a charity raffle.

His first remodel project involved building the fireplace, laboriously hauling quartz moss rock from high on Peak 10 to create its rugged appeal. The mantle beam was dragged from the Ware-Carpenter smelter located across the Blue River where Sawmill Creek Condos were later built on Park Avenue and Ski Hill Road. Seeking steadier winter income, Jim joined the Breckenridge Ski School and taught for three years. 

Originally from Marquette, Michigan, Maureen Sloan worked as a children’s counselor at a dude ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado between her freshman and sophomore year of college. Falling in love with the state, she vowed that after graduation she would teach in Detroit, buy her first car and move to Colorado.

In 1963, Maureen moved to Colorado Springs to teach history and English for three years. During that time, she passed the National Ski Patrol test and began volunteering at Breckenridge Ski Area on weekends. Growing up in the north, she had been skiing since she was 4 years old.

Even though patrollers and ski school instructors didn’t mingle much socially, Jim and Maureen’s paths eventually crossed. With five other teachers, Maureen rented a house, that later became Bubba’s Bones restaurant, on Ridge Street in winter 1965-66. That January, Jim and Maureen had their first date and married five months later in June. 

Maureen continued to patrol until 1969, even when she was pregnant with the first of their three daughters.

“Everyone on the mountain was in a lottery as to which run my baby would be born,” Maureen recalled. “They would make up names for it like Mach I Nicholls or Tiger Nicholls.” In the seventh month of her pregnancy, the pro patrol finally took her boots away and told her she couldn’t ski anymore until after the baby was born.

Jim Nicholls in the Paint Horse Gallery in Breckenridge in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

A growing town

In the early 1960s, as founder and president of Breckenridge’s Chamber of Commerce, Jim led the Breckenridge cleanup, an event where members of the community pitched in to beautify the town. Gov. John Love honored Breckenridge with an award for outstanding civic improvement and invited Jim to the state Capitol to receive it.

“We tore down all kinds of old sheds and hauled away about 35 old wrecked cars,” Jim said. “It was the most successful cleanup we ever had in this town.”

Maureen countered with a laugh, “What a change. Now it’s preserve, preserve, preserve.”

Jim and Maureen purchased the old historic C.A. Finding Hardware building on Main Street and moved Jim’s design business there. Soon, real estate, property management and building spec houses were integrated with his house designing. Relocating several times, finally into an 1899 house at 224 S. Main Street, led to another career change in 1987. Jim, encouraged by his father, a lifelong artist, opened the Paint Horse Gallery.

For 12 years during the 1970s and 1980s, Jim served on the Breckenridge Planning Commission. Later he joined forces with several other businessmen to form the Breckenridge Business Association as a lobby group that opposed mandatory parking quotas for each new business.

In order to provide the required parking, it would have been necessary to tear down old buildings, which the town was encouraged to preserve. A plan was devised for a parking district that finally became ordinance in 1998. Rounding out his community involvement in those early years, Jim volunteered 18 years as a firefighter and also served on the town of Dillon’s architectural review board.

“There really wasn’t a board,” Jim said. “I was it. They would show designs to me, and I’d say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It was pretty primitive.”

After they were married, Maureen continued her teaching career at Summit High School and then substituted for several years after their daughters Kristie, Carrie and Jill were born in Fairplay, the nearest hospital. With no day care in Summit County except for a few older women providing it in their homes, Maureen gave up teaching except for local history classes at Colorado Mountain College.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t unusual for residents of Summit County to dabble in a little bit of everything to sustain the lifestyle they loved so much. Maureen, further diversifying her resume, even operated a bed and breakfast for five years at their home for additional income. 

Maureen Nicholls at her shop, Quandary Antiques in Breckenridge in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Preserving history

Living so close to Main Street when everything south of Washington Avenue was residential, Jim and Maureen became acquainted with many old-timers who still longed “to get underground” and mine and who didn’t appreciate the new “slope dope” economy, as they called it, or the lifestyle that skiing attracted.

They frequently befriended these elderly residents and took a keen interest in their stories of days gone by. Maureen and Jim helped them clean out old barns, paint their walls, repair leaking roofs and help with their garage sales. Soon, the Nicholls became the recipients of discarded, but desirable, memorabilia and antiques — regarded as junk then.

Through this new hobby, Maureen discovered her next career: Quandary Antiques, a shop that would allow her to combine the love of history with old artifacts.

At a workshop offered by the State Historical Society that she attended, one of the speakers advised, “Get out and photograph your mountain towns because they’re the ones changing so fast.”

Although she regrets not taking any pictures of the bulldozing of the old dredge rock piles along the Blue River in town, an event she knew to be significant, she did photograph Breckenridge beginning in the early 1970s thanks to her enrollment in Colorado Mountain College photography classes.

Jim also took slides of the development of the Breckenridge Ski Area in its earliest days. These photographs, along with Maureen’s large collection of 1880s to 1930s Breckenridge photos, are treasured possessions and necessitated many sessions in Maureen’s darkroom.

Jim and Maureen saw many changes in the area, including the opening and dedication of Swan Mountain Road, which made travel to Denver over Loveland Pass a shorter journey.

They remember when the Breckenridge bowling alley was one of the most popular recreational spots in the county. Besides Cully Culbreath delivering milk door to door, shopping was a much bigger challenge for locals then unless they were looking for ski gear.

“If you wanted to buy anything practical, you had to go to the Frisco Drug Store or to stores in Leadville, which was a much larger town in the ’60s and ’70s than today,” Maureen recalled. However, there was a dry cleaning service that did home pickups.

“When you wanted dry cleaning done, you would put a sign in your window for the dry cleaner to stop by,” Maureen said. “They would just drive up and down the street looking for signs.”

Festivals and celebrations have long been important to Breckenridge residents’ sense of community. Ullr Dag, a day to pay praise to the Norwegian god of winter, was one such event but ceased for 10 years after the 1969 winter carnival got too wild. Breckenridge has capitalized on the Ullr slogan “The Kingdom of Breckenridge.” Maureen explained that the “No Man’s Land” celebration began when it was discovered, however erroneously, by the Breckenridge Women’s Club that cartographers omitted Breckenridge from maps after the Louisiana Purchase. 

While they embraced the changes of a new era and the prosperity that has accompanied it, they agreed it was fun to grow up with the town while their memories of the old and a little down-at-the-heel Breckenridge of the past remain special.

Editor’s note: Jim Nicholls died in his mid-70s in April 2012. Maureen Nicholls lives in Breckenridge and Buena Vista.

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.

Jim Nicholls at the Ullr Dag celebration in 1966.
Courtesy Maureen Nicholls

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