Crested Butte: 1970, Reflections on a Town in Transition Part 1

By Mark Walker

This summer, I inadvertently came across a YouTube video of protesters marching down the streets of Crested Butte as part of the global Black Lives Matter protest of racial injustice and the killing of George Floyd. The protest reminded me of the summer of 1970 when I took part in national protests against the Vietnam War. I was incensed that several former high school members had already returned home to Colorado in body bags. Our age of innocence had passed with the assassinations of Martin Luther King in April 1968, and several months later Robert Kennedy, and the chaos around the Democratic convention that year.

During this same period, Crested Butte was growing, as a new population came in that would change its cultural make-up. I was one of the young people who immigrated to Crested Butte from Gunnison, where I was a dorm counselor at Western State College. I was introduced to Crested Butte by the chancellor of the Law Science Academy, Dr. Hubert W. Smith. I had met him in a barber shop in Gunnison, and afterwards showed him around the WSC campus, including my small dorm room, which was filled with classic literature. Dr. Smith was impressed to see a young undergraduate with such lofty books and invited me to Crested Butte to discuss a project he needed help with.

The Academy was comprised of distinguished lawyers, physicians and scholars who wanted to improve communication with one another, given that most of their complicated cases involved some element of medical science. Dr. Smith had graduated from both Harvard law and medical schools, and later earned an MBA from the University of Texas. After several conversations, I realized that the man was a genius, making the decision to accept his offer to coordinate his “Great Ideas” lectures and develop a youth outreach program quite easy. I was given a room in the same house he spent his summers in Crested Butte.

During the 1950s, Dr. Smith had purchased all the Crested Butte real estate he could, including the Croatian Fraternal Hall, the Forest Queen and a dozen Victorian homes students and skiers like me could rent. One of my first tasks was to repair and paint the buildings, which motivated renters to pay on time, as well as enhanced the value of the properties. The monthly rent for a house was quite reasonable at $75 to $125 per student, and usually five or more students were crammed into these multi-bedroom dwellings. Dr. Smith would be one of the most effective advocates for promoting the town as the site for his Academy, based on the spectacular scenery and tourist appeal.

I was constantly amazed at the dynamic speakers Dr. Smith invited to the Academy, including the very influential senator from Texas, Ralph Yarborough, who was one of the few southerners on Capitol Hill to vote for all the civil rights legislation. He told attendees it was time for America to “begin shifting its resources from pursuits which cripple and destroy to those which enhance the quality of life,” an inspirational message for the young hippie generation.

Another part of this learning environment was the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in nearby Gothic, established in 1928. I learned about it from my favorite college professor, Dr. Duane Vandenbusche while researching my senior thesis, and became aware of its importance as a mining supply camp in the late 1880s, when it had more people than Crested Butte. The buildings would be converted into what would become the laboratory and some 180 students, researchers and scholars would come from all over the country. Referring to all this educational activity, George Sibley noted, “There was at least an intriguing illusion that those learning environments might become the destiny for the valley.”

I visited each of Dr. Smith’s dozen homes on a monthly basis to collect rent. This provided some interesting insights into the growing “counterculture” developing in Crested Butte. Among the books on most shelves in these homes were Hermann Hesse works: Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game—all part of a literary rite of passage. One other title nearly every household had was the Whole Earth Catalog, a cultural phenomenon, and the unofficial handbook of the counterculture. The book was an efficient way to spread powerful ideas that altered the interests and lifestyles of millions. Each edition of the Catalog was organized into broad subject areas, such as Understanding Whole Systems; Nomadics; and Learning. It would go on to become a best seller in 1972.

Psychedelic drugs also became a pervasive and important part of the scene in Crested Butte, and Sheriff Cope reportedly said the community had the most drugs of any community west of the Mississippi (on a per capita basis, I presumed). Hashish could be found in the bowl of any respectable hookah, or a hand-rolled joint would be offered, or, occasionally that great Native American traditional psychedelic, peyote, might appear. I always inquired as to what other than walnuts were in the brownies, in order to assure I would make it back home that same day. I might claim that “I never inhaled,” but that really wasn’t a viable option when you walked into one of those smoke-filled abodes, giving new meaning to a “Rocky Mountain High.”

Though most of the students I knew in Crested Butte weren’t that interested in the Academy and our Great Ideas series, many did attend a lecture by criminologist and psychiatrist Walter Bromberg. Their interest was piqued because Bromberg supported the decriminalization of marijuana. According to an article by George Sibley in the Winter 1993 edition of the Crested Butte Magazine, Bromberg recommended that its use be “left up to the conscience of the individual.” Although his opinion was ahead of its time, most of the young people in town agreed with him.

Few hard rock tunes could tell the often-tragic story of drug abuse like Neil Young’s, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” with the line: “but every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.” Some of my favorite music while trucking down to school in Gunnison in my faded green Chevy pick-up during the week included “Many a Mile to Freedom” by Traffic, as well as favorites by Dave Mason, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, Jethro Tull, Steely Dan and Blind Faith. As much as I enjoyed this music’s incredible mix of blues and jazz, the lyrics reflected the anxieties and issues of the decade: the Vietnam War, racial tensions, inflation, unemployment and environmental calamity, along with the battle over women’s rights. Many of the things I heard and experienced in Crested Butte during that time would be critical in who and what I would become in the future.

Next week: What goes around, comes around…

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