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Resilient Breckenridge, CO Part 5: A Rough First Decade as a Ski Town

Breckenridge changed with the opening of the new ski area in 1961. The community went from near-ghost-town to ski town in a matter of months. And while Breckenridge may have been resurrected, it was far from rescued. The first ten years were a rough go.

Peak 8 base area; 1963 (BHA.2019.21.3)

With the loss of the mining economy, Breckenridge approached ghost-town status by the mid-century. The population declined to under 300 souls by 1950. Many buildings were dilapidated or abandoned. When Bill Stark arrived in 1958 to prospect for gold, he was enchanted with the beauty of the area and the cheap land. With the coming of Dillon Reservoir and the new interstate system, he knew that Breckenridge was poised for another renaissance. But he also noted raw sewage piped into the Blue River. There was a lot of work to do to make Breckenridge a viable resort.

Stark convinced Rounds and Porter Lumber Company of Wichita, Kansas, to invest. R&P bought thousands of acres around Breckenridge and started making improvements. Brothers Bill and Dwight “Doc” Rounds oversaw subdivision of their properties. Their new lumber yard would provide the raw materials for mountain cabins. By the summer of 1960, Breckenridge was buzzing with new construction. Also that summer, R&P quietly started the permitting process with the US Forest Service for a new ski area in Breckenridge.

To be a success, Breckenridge would need the youthful energy of a new population. Bill Rounds recruited young Norwegians to come from Aspen to Breckenridge to build his new resort, teach skiing and start the ski school. “Uncle Muggy” they called him. Bente Godal quoted Bill’s pitch to the new recruits: “ ‘We have money set aside, I’ll back you. We know to treat you well to get you to come to a place where there is nothing.’ Absolutely nothing,” Bente emphasized.

It was a tough sell. By most accounts, Breckenridge was bleak and cold. Dilapidated buildings littered the town. Sigurd Rockne remembers “dirty ugly rock piles,” the legacy from dredge boat mining. In their recordings for the Oral History Program of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, Kate Brewer and Kay McGinnis, remembered that it was “just terrible. It was windy, and dusty, and when the wind would blow the dirt would just fly. It was stark. … The sidewalks were not sidewalks, they were crumpled concrete blocks… The streets were dirty and muddy.” Bente Godal called it “junky.”

Still friends - Kate Brewer, Kay McGinnis, and Bente Godal

There were a litany of problems to overcome: frozen water lines meant no water many winters, cold drafty old houses, no wastewater treatment, lack of services, spoiled milk in the grocery.

Then there were the old-timers who needed convincing that skiing was the next salvation of their dying town. Jim Nicholls remembered that the long-time residents were apprehensive at first, “but they warmed up pretty quick when they started seeing some of the dollars rolling into town.” Bente Godal and her husband Eric Lawrence bought an old Victorian for $10,000, with a loan from Bill Rounds. The previous owners left all their possessions. “They just left. $10,000 was a lot of money back then. Before the ski area, they couldn’t even give a house away. But they couldn’t move on without cash, they didn’t have the means.”

Bill Rounds encouraged others to open restaurants and businesses, becoming a mentor and benefactor. He backed Sigurd Rockne and Bente and Eric in opening The Mine Restaurant and Night Club. Eric Lawrence was a renowned jazz pianist with a following in Aspen. Well before the ski area opened in December 1961, The Mine was swinging with the Eric Lawrence Trio. The audience was primarily engineers and construction workers from Dillon Reservoir and the highway department, along with Aspenites on their way through the mountains.

Bill Rounds needed resort amenities for his new community. He moved the Quonset Hut movie theatre from old Dillon, which was about to be flooded out by the reservoir. His company built a bowling alley, and the new Breckenridge Inn included a swimming pool.

Bill Rounds

It was Bill’s charisma and enthusiasm for Breckenridge that enticed others to follow. According to Bente, he was a John Wayne character, fearless and magnetic. When he came to town, there was a buzz. Carol Rockne noted: “Bill is the one who really liked Breckenridge. He liked the people here. He helped people get started in business, loaned them money to get going. People would gravitate to him. Anytime he was in town the word would get out ‘Bill’s in town!’ And people would want to be around him.”

Bill hired people who got things done. As soon as the ski area permit came in, General Manager Claude Martin completed a long punch list: clear the runs, put in the ski lifts, build the Bergenhof, open the Inn.

It was an exciting time for the young people who chose Breckenridge. Trygve Berge saw that there was “more opportunity here… I liked the area better than Aspen. The 10 Mile Range is beautiful.” Kate Brewer reminisced: “I loved the idea of pioneering up here, and starting out. We were young so Barney had lots of ideas and all kinds of things that he wanted to do.”

The first year, it was named the Peak 8 Ski Area. After the December 1961 opening, the ski area shut down again for several weeks for lack of snow. The first season there were 16,000 skiers and a lift ticket was $4.50, “so they took in about $70,000. And they spent millions. So the president wasn’t too happy,” recounts Sigurd Rockne.

For the second year, the 1962-63 season, R&P hired their first PR man, Bob Atchison. Bob and his new wife Sandra Dallas moved to Breckenridge and began the daunting task of putting Breckenridge on the map. The first change was a new name: Breckenridge Ski Area. Bob created films, hired photographers, and started ad campaigns. Breckenridge hosted its first major event in the spring on 1963 – Ullr Dag Festival, a celebration that continues to this day as Ullr Fest.

Bergenhof restaurant; 1963 (BHA.2019.21.2)

But the road to success was still bumpy. Ski area managers changed yearly. No one knew where Breckenridge was. Bill had an idea: a surreptitious sign. As Jim Nicholls tells it, he went to the intersection of Highways 6 and 40 at the turn to Winter Park. “I looked at the highway signs and copied their lettering and painted a sign with an arrow that said ‘Breckenridge’ on it. We went down there in the middle of the night and put this sign up on this post right under another highway sign. It looked official. It was there for probably 7-8 years…It worked.”

After the death of their parents, the Rounds brothers split the company. Bill was sure that Doc would choose the valuable California properties, so Bill let him pick first. Doc chose Breckenridge and the eastern assets. Sigurd said that Bill “cried when he let that happen. He was disappointed because he was the one that started the whole thing.” Bill Rounds was out of the picture in Breckenridge forever more.

Rounds and Porter and Doc’s family tired of the ski business. They wanted to focus on real estate development. In 1967 they leased and eventually sold the ski area to Harry Baum, a part-owner at Arapahoe Basin. Baum created the Breckenridge Ski Corporation and, in turn, sold to Aspen in 1970. Work began immediately on the expansion to Peak 9, which opened in 1971. Breckenridge has been growing ever since.

The legacy of the early pioneering days continues. As Kay McGinnis remembers: “Here’s the thing. Everyone helped one another. It was fun …we were a community. We kind of got locked in here and you couldn’t easily get out. So we helped each other. That was the nice thing.” It’s still a nice place today.

To learn more about Breckenridge’s history, visit the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

written by: Leigh Girvin

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