Outlaw Reflections: Youngest Of The Old Timers

 Oleh Lysiak talked with old-time Telluride local Johnnie Stevens for a story originally published February 21, 1996 in The San Miguel Post. The interview is an eye-opener: there was a Telluride before there was a ski resort and pre-1972, there was a community of mixed ages, professions, religions, everyone pulling together for the greater good. Apparently Darwin had not yet arrived on the scene.

And for the record, Johnnie Stevens left Telluride about 10 years ago as COO of Telski. He is now general manager of a private ski resort, Cimaron Mountain Club, just east of Montrose.

Johnnie Stevens, about now

Johnnie Stevens, about now

The Youngest Of The Old Timers

Johnnie Stevens Looks At Telluride, Past And Present

Johnnie Stevens’ parents moved to Ouray from Northern California as part of the war effort in 1943. The country needed minerals to fight a common enemy and Americans in those days participated in their wars in both military and public life. Things haven’t been that clear in over 50 years.

Johnnie Stevens was supposed be born in Ouray but due to a huge mine accident he was born in Montrose. Johnnie’s earliest memories of both Ouray and Telluride are of the culture, ethnic strength and diversity in the region.

Back in those days Telluride was a community not unlike New York or Chicago in that it was filled with ethnic neighborhoods. There were Swedes, Finns, Poles, Irish, Italians and Germans who brought the richness of their cultures with them.

“Today we’re so integrated, so homogenized,” says Stevens, “but one of my earliest memories is of all these diverse ethnic groups in the little town of Telluride and the respect they had together as a community. When I was being raised, Telluride was probably four or five hundred people.”

Johnnie was raised and remains Catholic and in his youth served as an altar boy. This was a serious undertaking in those days and you served until you were 18.

“We married and buried everybody who came through here. I remember all the old people in Telluride and the inordinate amount of widows, which was a result of accidents in the mines. Today the median age in Telluride is probably 42. When I was being raised here there were young people and old people and a few in the middle. Death became very much part of our lives. I claim I never got much of an education because I was always at church burying people,” Stevens claims.

“Telluride was particularly unique,” Johnnie continues, “because we were at the end of the road. The only people who came to Telluride in those days were lost or relatives. People didn’t come to Telluride, Colorado. We had two events a year – Fourth of July and Christmas and everything in between was work, work, work.

“Part of what I miss about Telluride is that there’s no old people now. The saddest story to be told in Telluride, and Telluride existed for nearly a hundred years before the ski area in 69-72, is there was a political shift where it was assumed that the old timers knew nothing. The old timers were literally pushed out of this community politically and to this day a lot of them don’t understand why.

“They’re upset about it. They’re the ones who nurtured this place for a hundred years – themselves, their parents. Most of all of the old timers were absolutely one hundred percent supportive of the ski area. We didn’t have a bunch of those people who say they don’t want anything. We knew we had to have some diversity and we collectively chose the ski industry.

“If you read a prospectus written in the community today it seems like there’s a paradigm written about the past and the world begins with the ski area in 1972.

“The old timers didn’t want plaques and busts of themselves but they did want to be included. This was their home and now virtually all of them have been forced out. A lot of them live in Montrose but they still love Telluride.

“Then there was a whole different culture 32 miles west of Telluride in Norwood – ranchers, ranchers, ranchers. When the ranching and farming ran onto hard times a lot of the guys I worked with in the mines would work night shifts in the mines and all day on the farm. This was in the 50’s and 60’s. They supplemented their industry with mining. We had a cross-cultural work ethic. We worked together and played together. It was a unified community. Every high school game meant something. We worked and if and when we got a chance, we played.

“In 1972 that all turned around. It was recreation first and work second. It turned almost immediately. The politics changed, the ethics changed, the values changed.

“Most of the people who came to work in the mines emigrated from Europe because things were so bad they felt compelled to leave. And if you asked these people why they came to Telluride to work in the Tomboy Mine, they’d tell you it was because they had freedom here. If they had to work 14 hours a day to keep that freedom they did it.

“One of my main jobs in high school was delivering groceries. In the 60’s there were three markets in Telluride: Goldsworthy’s, Pilcher’s and Rose’s. It was a sustainable community up until the 70’s.

“Some of the old folks would call in their grocery order and it was my job to deliver the order to their house. They’d call because they were old, because it was a service, and sometimes just to have somebody come see ’em.

“George Cappis brought the first TV into Telluride in the green building out by the ballpark and on Saturday nights the community would show up to watch Lawrence Welk.

“Before ’72 you served on the school board as a matter of civic responsibility and pride and not for political reasons.

“There were only a couple or three times the mine was closed in a hundred years. When we won the state basketball championship in basketball, they closed the mine so people could come watch us. We were the first team to make it to the state championships. Our parents and the entire community followed us all over the state.

“Telluride was incredibly close. We were miners and didn’t have a lot of time for diversions. This community took care of itself. We had a network. It sounds so damned corny but that’s the way Telluride was.  That era’s behind us but what that era left is people not respecting the cultures that were handed down. As a general ethic and a general value a lot of what’s worthwhile about the past has gone by the wayside.

“There’s just this lack of civility in Telluride today, a lack of respect.

“”What’s going on is a national and international problem and a lot of communities are trying to reinvent themselves based upon not politics, not money, but on community, respect, involvement. It’s a great trend that’s happening and I see it in Telluride, and Norwood, Ouray, Montrose.

“I don’t think Telluride has done that badly relative to other ski resorts, relative to growth in the West, but I think what most people are concerned about are the politics that separate us. I think that the newspapers sometimes exacerbate the problem. I know people who, in order to have a good day, refuse to read any newspapers.

“Our single greatest common denominator is that everybody at least cares. Telluride isn’t very mature in the sense that if they don’t like you, they don’t communicate with you and then they get further behind. That’s what I think our biggest problem is.

“Our paradigm is if we count on politics and bureaucracies, which we’ve used as our own scapegoat in this community, we’re going to fail miserably. I think people are also finding out we’d better get together. It’s a matter of necessity.

“We need to understand that we should never take anything or anyone for granted. We need to recognize the people who’ve stayed and helped make this town what it is. Our kids need to respect the ski bums who came here 25 years ago and have patrolled the slopes and raised their families here, the people who built and maintained this town through all the hard times and growing pains.

“We need to keep the spirit and the people who literally built the ski business. Building this thing was not easy.

“We have festivals for everybody else. Why don’t we have a Respect Festival, a Respectival. We don’t need to invite everybody here. Just go introduce yourself to somebody you’d like to know and spend some time with them. Call somebody you know but haven’t got together with for a while. We also need more long tables so people would talk with each other. Open the dialogue.

“It’s a matter of survival. Once everybody here became successful we became provincial. The town tried to run everything. East End politics is raising the level of West End politics. We all need each other.

“What we decide and implement in the next two years will determine what happens in the next 15 or 20. Growth is coming and we need to plan for it or else it’ll flatten us. We need to be incredibly realistic with our economy, accept reality and deal with the future in a finite way.”

Johnnie Stevens, back then

Johnnie Stevens, back then


Editor’s note about Oleh:

I am reminded of the man every day. A talented sculptor, one of his mobiles sits on the coffee table in our living room. But I had not seen or heard from Oleh Lysiak for over 20 years. Ah, the wonders of social media. We rediscovered each other a few months ago, which was when I also discovered the artist is also a writer – at least nowadays – though making marks on paper is only one among a very long list of talents, some slightly sketchy.

O. Z. Lysiak winking

 O.Z. Lysiak has from time to time worked as a reporter, editor, columnist, photographer, public affairs officer, restaurateur, festival booth owner-operator, ski technician, carpenter, sailor, smuggler, tree planter, fishing guide, truck driver, river guide, cook, wood-cutter, trash collector, marine gravity operator, reclaimed wood broker and sculptor. He has written for The Ukrainian Weekly, The Oregonian, and closer to home, The Aspen Daily News, The Aspen Times, The Crested Butte Pilot, The San Miguel Basin Forum – and The Telluride Daily Planet. Oleh’s poetry has been widely published and his is author of several books, including “Neighborhood of Strangers” and “Art, Crime & Lithium,” also available locally at Between the Covers Bookstore.

Outdoor mobile, Oleh Lysiak

Outdoor mobile, Oleh Lysiak

Given his street cred and the fact he wrote extensively locally in the bad old days, I asked Oleh if he would mine his files for past columns that might be of interest to our readers. I am thankful the man said “yes.”

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