- Historic Sites
Colorado Before the Snow Flies
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
On a brilliant September afternoon Crested Butte, deep in the Colorado Rockies, is crowded with young people wearing flowing velvets and silks, their faces daubed with fierce streaks of color.
Among the cries and drumbeats that float into the crystalline air one youth’s chant dominates: “Oats and corn, oats and corn, all that die shall be reborn, all that die shall rise again.” He wanders with his message into a real estate office where a sleek salesman imperturbably carries on his pitch for a time-share community against the rising voices of more sixties apparitions gathering outside his door.
Last fall, as for the past 20, Crested Butte surrendered itself to Vinotok, a celebration of the coming of autumn. The four-day event culminates in the burning of the Grump, a paper creature fashioned from complaints that anyone may write down and place in “Grump boxes” scattered around town. When participants set fire to the Grump, they bid farewell to all the regrets and angers of the waning year.
The Quaking Aspen, so named for its shimmering leaves, is a signature of the west.
The mountains that surround Crested Butte had been a home to ancient peoples, primarily the Utes, for some 8,000 years but remained unvisited by whites until Zebulon Pike passed through in 1806. The town really came to life in the 1880s, to serve a population that poured in to mine rich veins of silver. After the Panic of 1893, when many banks failed, silver lost its gleam, leaving the coal industry dominant, its mines creeping right into the heart of downtown. By the early 1900s Crested Butte had fallen into a long, dark sleep. “Dirt and noxious fumes from the coke ovens hung everywhere, and prodigious amounts of snow further marooned an already isolated town,” writes Duane Vandenbusch, a local historian.
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The festival of Vinotok looks back to honor the polyglot cultures of generations past that grew up around the mines, arriving first from the British Isles, then from Italy, Germany, and Central Europe. The holiday may not have an easily traceable genealogy, but it works to forge a necessary sense of community in this snowbound place. “Fire celebrations are part of the most ancient of traditions, especially in places that have cold winters and short days,” says Marcie Telander, one of the founders. “These celebrations shed light on moving into winter and tell the sun not to forget us. They also give participants the chance to see the faces of their neighbors around the bonfire.”
The community cherishes Vinotok as a way of joining together to ease the inevitable tensions that accompany growth and prosperity. Here there is an ongoing debate about a plan to carve ski trails onto the immaculate flank of neighboring Snodgrass Mountain, while a near-by town wrestles with the pluses and minuses of welcoming a big-box store.
Skiing’s postwar popularity shook the town awake, and today’s Crested Butte is a cheerful confection of brightly painted Victorian cottages, good restaurants, and excellent shopping (some of it housed in the original Company Store, where miners once would “get another day older and deeper in debt”). The elegant Crested Butte Club Boutique Inn & Spa inhabits what was in 1902 the Croatian Meeting Hall.
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Thirty miles south lies Gunnison, with a thriving state college that provided many of the Vinotok celebrants I saw. The two towns have something of a competitive spirit, what one writer called a sibling rivalry. Gunnison at first glance may appear to be the less entertaining, but that’s deceptive. There is an ambitious historical society in Gunnison, with 14 buildings set on five acres, run by a band of devoted volunteers. The star attraction is Engine No. 268, built by the Baldwin Works in 1882, and one of three surviving engines from the Denver & Rio Grande. Known as the Cinderella of the Rockies, presumably for its dogged work, No. 268 has appeared in movies and on television.
Gunnison’s arts center, housed in an 1882 sandstone building on Main Street, encourages a huge variety of activities and ropes in the entire community to participate. Locals who are by no means trained to direct plays do so, as well as write and act in them. Enthusiasts sign up for pottery and ballet, reading and poetry groups. Any pursuit one might find in the largest city, it seems, is available.