By Alex Miller
Note: This story comes from an interview I did with Max and Edna Dercum at their home in Keystone in the fall of 1992, and which appeared in The Guide to Ski the Summit. I still recall this interview fondly, and I remember laughing a lot with Max and Edna as they contradicted each other’s accounts of how things happened back in those early days. Max died in September, 2011; Edna passed a few years earlier, in September, 2008.
If you’ve ever wondered how one goes about starting a ski area, Max Dercum is a good person to talk to. Now 80, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone founder and his wife, Edna, still live here in Summit County and still ski a lot more than most of us.
Max recalls getting his first skis in 1918, when he was 6 years old. While all the other kids in Cleveland were going down the hill on their sleds, Max was struggling to figure out how to get these two pine boards to cooperate.
“There was no instruction in those days, you just had to figure it out for yourself,” says Max. The skis were wood and the boots were your old hunting boots with a notch cut in the heel for the binding. Max says the bindings started to improve gradually while maple or ash tended to last longer than the pine skis and he acquired a pair of poles.
¡When the Northland company introduced its touring skis, they came with a little instruction booklet featuring pictures of a Norwegian skier demonstrating turns. “So you just kind of looked at the pictures and tried to figure it out from there,” recalls Max.
Despite the dearth of instruction, Max kept at his skiing, eventually becoming one of the founding members of the Cornell University ski team in 1932. When he went on to study forestry at Penn State, he started a ski club there and provided members with something he’d had little of: instruction and coaching. A ski club was fine, but the group needed somewhere to ski so Max got a facility together on National Forest land — cross-country trails, a ski jump and some alpine trails served by a small rope tow.
“Out of this came the Forest Service’s acceptance of ski areas on National Forest land,” says Max. Those early contacts with Forest Service personnel, as well as his own training in forestry, would prove crucial some years later when Max was developing A Basin.
Having had a taste of designing a small ski area, Max made up his mind that he wanted to get involved in developing the ski business. In 1941, he made a trip to Colorado and explored the state for likely places to put a ski area. Access, proximity to Denver and a great mountain (Keystone) eventually decided it for Max, and that year he bought the 80 acre Ski Tip Ranch at the foot of Keystone.
During World War II, Max kept busy with the Forest Service, while some of the skiers he trained at Penn State went on to join the famous 10th Mountain Division ski troops. As the war raged in Europe and the Pacific, Max thought and planned and waited impatiently to begin his dream of creating a ski area. Finally, the war ended and the time came for Arapahoe Basin to come into existence.
Birth of a legend
Max explains that A-Basin was developed first rather than Keystone because people at the time perceived skiing to be a high alpine, bowls-above-timberline kind of thing.
Along with Max, Larry Jump, Sandy Schauffler, Dick Durrance and Denver ski manufacturer Thor Groswold formed Arapahoe Basin, Inc. Max recalls everyone pitching in two dollars to come up with the ten dollar incorporation papers fee. After getting a permit to build a road up to the Midway point at the Basin, a rope tow was installed for the ’46-’47 season.
The following summer, the first chairlift was installed. Built by the famous Heron brothers, who took their experience from building mining tramways, the lift at A Basin joined the ones at Aspen and Berthoud ski areas as the first chairlifts in Colorado.
“It was the noisiest thing you’d ever heard,” remembers Max. “We even had a sign out front that said something like ‘welcome to Arapahoe Basin — Home of the world’s loudest chairlift.”
After being involved in the construction of the ski area, Max spent his first year operating the chairlift. After Willie Schaeffler came out to form the ski school, Max worked the next 20 years as the head ski instructor and sometimes patroller (“… no fancy sleds back then, we took wrecks down in a regular toboggan.”)
In addition to running the Ski Tip Ranch, where skiers were lodged, Edna was also a ski instructor in the Willie Schaeffler ski school. She recalls getting people up early, giving them breakfast and getting them out the door.
“We had to get out to the mountain and teach!” she says. Edna points out that a lot of prominent people in the ski business today started out washing dishes at Ski Tip. She also remembers teaching Copper Mountain founder Chuck Lewis how to ski when he was 8 years old.
While Arapahoe Basin was forming the reputation as a great ski area and the Willie Schaeffler ski school gained fame as well, Max kept looking up at the mountain in his back yard. By 1965 he had a lot of the planning done and had accumulated a group of about 20 stockholders that would become Keystone International. While Max says the whole effort was better organized and thought out than A Basin, there was still a “shortfall in money.”
A friend who had skied the Basin and stayed at Skip Tip happened to be a corporate lawyer who was doing work for Ralston Purina. That company had been thinking of diversifying its holdings and was contemplating a marina in San Diego when Max’s lawyer friend convinced them to go with a ski area instead. Thus did Ralston Purina become a 50 percent shareholder in Keystone.
From there, Keystone happened quick. For $1.4 million 500 acres of land was purchased from Wheaton College where the main lodge is now. Max laid out the trails, the engineering and design work was done in ‘69 and the next summer was spent cutting trails, installing lifts, constructing buildings and taking care of the myriad details involved in running a ski area. Keystone opened for business for the ’70-’71 season with Max at the helm of the ski school there.
Max and Edna Dercum are one of only three couples both to have been inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame. Max was also one of the original founding members of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). A room in their home is lined with medals, cups, trophies and certificates from their long careers as ski racers and ski visionaries. No sign of slowing down from these two: Max and Edna were getting ready to fly to Europe to compete in some masters races over there at the time this article was being written.