Mt. Crested Butte celebrates its golden anniversary

It all began with the ski area and an elevator…

By Kendra Walker

The new year marks a momentous milestone for the town of Mt. Crested Butte: its 50th anniversary of incorporation. From its humble beginnings as an unknown ski resort surrounded by nothing but ranchland and national forest, this town at 9,375 feet has evolved and grown over the past five decades. Even so, Mt. Crested Butte continues to draw a tight-knit community with the same spirit and resilience that first shaped its beginnings at the base of Crested Butte Mountain. 

This year, the town of Mt. Crested Butte will host several anniversary celebrations to commemorate 50 years as a town, including a series of history talks at the Elevation Hotel. The next anniversary talk takes place this Monday, January 8.

History of incorporation

Just 89 residents lived within the proposed boundary of Mt. Crested Butte in 1973 before incorporation. The ski area was established back in 1961 when Dick Eflin and Fred Rice purchased 600 acres on Crested Butte Mountain and obtained forest service permits for ski trails. Over the next 12 years, the ski area added lodges, ski lifts, condos and homes.

“The ski area opened the same year I was born. We were both born the summer of ’61,” says Andy Eflin. “My dad used to show the original photos of the base area and tell people, ‘Here’s the valley before I screwed it all up.’” 

Jokes aside, Andy feels the ski area opened the doors for people who probably wouldn’t have found this place otherwise. “Crested Butte was not really on the map back in those days. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in Crested Butte and there wasn’t a very viable means to support yourself, so I feel the resort brought an industry to the valley that was a little more sustainable and certainly a fun industry that gets people outdoors.”

Andy remembers the early years of the ski area—the original warming house building, the T-bar lift and rope tow, the old Italian gondola, the skating pond and his grandmother’s gift shop at the base area. 

Then in 1970, Howard “Bo” Callaway and his brother-in-law Ralph Walton acquired the ski area. “I was 6 years old when my father and uncle bought the ski area and we moved here,” says Scout Walton, who remembers living in the Whetstone building and getting let out of school early on Fridays to go ski. “My life was ski racing and climbing mountains and doing those things with friends.”

To continue building out the base area, Ralph and Callaway formed the Crested Butte Development Company. “You couldn’t really bring a lot of people here because there weren’t a lot of places to stay,” says Scout. 

“One of the first keys was real estate sales,” says Scout. We had to earn our capital every year, which is why real estate has always been important. There were a lot of people working together with that shared interest. Back then it was all swashbuckling entrepreneurs, and it was very collegial amongst everybody. The ski area was so important to the community.”

Crested Butte Development Company brought new development projects that included the Whetstone, Axtel, Emmons and Gothic buildings, named after the peaks they face.

The seed for town incorporation was first planted with a proposed elevator for the three-story Gothic building. “People found that every time they wanted to build, they had to go all the way to Gunnison for permits and permissions,” explains Sandra Cortner, who started the Crested Butte Pilot newspaper and covered the town’s journey to incorporation in 1973 and 1974. “You had to drive to Gunnison for everything: laundry, grocery, doctor, bank, clothing. And law enforcement was tough because the police were 30 miles away.”

The proposed Gothic elevator would be the first in the area and the Gunnison County commissioners had never been asked to consider a building with an elevator before. “There was all this hullabaloo about the elevator and getting it approved,” says Cortner. ​​“Walton and the ski area general manager Gus Larkin knew there must be a better way to get their building plans approved. And so the ski area began petitioning for incorporation and getting people behind the idea. Walton was the one who suggested Mt. Crested Butte for the name.”

The majority of the residents saw the benefits of incorporation. It would help people living and building there to have control over zoning decisions and have a say in how the community was governed. It would also ensure that tax revenue from the ski area was collected strictly for town use instead of being dispersed throughout the county. “They wanted to control their own destiny,” says Cortner.

Although residents considered annexation into the town of Crested Butte, state law required that an annexed area be contiguous with the town annexing it. Two miles of privately owned land separates Crested Butte and the ski area, so annexation was not an option.

In September 1973, 40 qualified electors signed the petition proposing town incorporation. The petition was presented to the District Court judge, who then nominated five commissioners to set up an election regarding town incorporation. 

Then on November 6, 1973, electors voted 50 to 12 to incorporate. “Mt. CB was the first municipal incorporation in the state since 1920 and one of the first ski resorts to incorporate,” says Cortner. Other ski areas like Snowmass and Vail have since followed Mt. Crested Butte’s lead. Just last spring, Keystone became Colorado’s newest town when residents voted for incorporation.

The beginning of 1974 marked Mt. Crested Butte’s official incorporation when “they had to figure out how to be a fully functioning town,” says Cortner. “They had to do all these things you don’t think about: elect a council and a mayor and then hire a marshal, figure out how to tax people, set a budget, figure out snowplowing and road maintenance, name streets, set zoning and building inspections, create ordinances and codes. The people who owned the lodges and businesses really worked together after incorporation to try to make it go smoothly.”

On January 8, 1974, citizens established the first town council and elected Gus Larkin as the first Mt. Crested Butte mayor. The council approved a 4% sales tax in April 1974, passed the town’s first budget of $17,800 in August and hired town manager Jim Dean in 1975. The town held its first town picnic in the summer of 1975.

Celebrating 50 years

Today, the town’s original population of 89 residents has grown to nearly 1,000 people. People visit Mt. Crested Butte year-round to ski, mountain bike, hike, search for wildflowers, peep at the changing aspen colors and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

“I think it’s really amazing that this town and the ski resort were formed by just a few individuals with an idea. It was their passion to make sure this town was able to grow,” says Mt. Crested Butte events coordinator Rebecca Gagne. “And it’s only been 50 years, it wasn’t that long ago. It’s cool to know these things are still happening.”

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the town is hosting a history talk on January 8 at 6 p.m. at the Elevation Hotel to commemorate the original date of the first mayor and council election. Andy will present a slideshow of historic photos compiled by his father and ski resort founder Dick Eflin. Additionally, Scout will discuss the movement of Mt. Crested Butte’s incorporation and his father’s involvement, and Ethan Mueller will share the Mueller family’s movement to purchase Crested Butte Mountain Resort in 2004. The Crested Butte Museum will also host a pop-up museum featuring pre-1974 Mt. Crested Butte artifacts and photos.

A final history talk will take place on February 12 at the Elevation, featuring a panel of current and former mayors, council members and managers of Mt. Crested Butte. Gagne said the town is working on finalizing additional anniversary celebrations for the rest of the year.

“I’m hoping these celebrations bring a new awareness that we are our town,” says Gagne. “There’s often a misconception that we’re one town with Crested Butte down the hill, and Mt. Crested Butte is not defined as its own town well enough. This is an exciting way to get out to the community itself and also the general public that visits.”

Back in November, the town held a kick-off anniversary talk to commemorate the vote for town incorporation, and Gagne says she was impressed with the community turnout. “I polled the audience how long they’ve lived here. I asked them to raise their hands if they’d lived in the town 10+ years, then 20 or more, then 30 or more,” says Gagne. “When I hit 50, there were still eight hands in the air. People find this is their home and stay. And they were so proud.”

Current mayor, Nicholas Kempin, has lived in Mt. Crested Butte for 23 years.

He says there are so many things that make this place special, “but something I’m in touch with every day is the natural beauty of this place. It is the common thread for our community and a primary reason for being here,” he says. “The place, the people, and the Mt. CB lifestyle have had a profound positive effect on me. It is an honor and pleasure to work on behalf of a place I love.”

Scout acknowledges that a lot has changed in Mt. Crested Butte over the years, but “I like to focus on the things that are not different. I see all the things that drew my mom and dad here to saddle up on a new venture. That’s why my family has moved back to the valley, and it’s hard to imagine anything different.”

“Although we have seen a lot of growth and development here, we still can get away from it all really quickly,” reflects Andy. “This is a desired place because it’s so beautiful. It’s a wonderful way of life.”

Kempin too hopes the celebrations this year help residents and visitors learn the value of the community and gain the motivation to keep it going. As for what he hopes for Mt. CB in another 50 years? “Frequent powder days.”

Special thanks to Sandra Cortner for sharing her knowledge of the town of Mt. Crested Butte’s incorporation. The historical facts gathered for this article came from Cortner’s copyright writings in the Crested Butte Pilot, Crested Butte Magazine, Crested Butte…Love at First Sight and Crested Butte Stories…Through My Lens.

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