Getting a start at a young ski area known as Aspen
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Klaus Obermeyer is best known as the founder of Obermeyer Sports. But when he came to the United States in 1947 he was an unemployed aeronautical engineer looking for work.
Obermeyer: I came to America on a liberty ship that was built for heavy loads of war materials and soldiers. We left Bremen, Germany, and we got out into the North Sea in a terrible snowstorm. We had the storm over the North Atlantic all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I finally moved out from the bottom of the boat, where I had the cheapest bunk, up to an anti-aircraft stand. I spent the rest of the trip there.
Gallacher: Why did you leave Germany?
Obermeyer: There were many reasons. One of them was that I like to like people, and after the Nazis took off their uniforms I never knew when I met somebody if he had been one of those terrible criminals that ruined our country. It made me feel uneasy.
Another reason was that I met a really nice guy at a ski school in Germany that was set up for American officers after the war. He said, “You should come to America. The skiing is great in the Northeast, and my dad will sponsor you.” So that’s what happened. His dad sponsored me, and I decided that if I didn’t like it I could always come back.
I took $10 with me because that was all the foreign currency anyone was allowed to take out of Germany in 1947. I spent some of it on a haircut in Bremen before I left, because I was told that when you go to America you need short hair. Then, when I got on board, the barber on the boat said, “You can’t go to America with hair that long, you’ve got to have a haircut.”
When I got to New York my friend picked me up and he said, “The first thing we have to do is go to a barbershop. You can’t walk around with hair like that.” So it still wasn’t short enough. So I spent most of my $10 on haircuts.
Gallacher: Were you able to find work?
Obermeyer: I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, but after the war was over the aeronautical industry in the United States slowed down a lot. There just wasn’t enough work, so I ended up digging ditches six feet deep so water pipes wouldn’t freeze.
I always had work because I didn’t mind what I was doing. It’s pretty common for immigrants like I was to start by doing manual labor. I saved up enough money that first summer for a bus ticket to Sun Valley, Idaho. I had heard a lot about the skiing there, and I had seen the movie “Sun Valley Serenade” with Sonja Henie*.
It was wonderful to be able to leave New York. When you’re poor like I was, that is not the place you want to be. The people in Sun Valley were all so friendly. The West was so open and welcoming. The pioneer spirit was still alive, and people were glad to see you. It was so different than my experience in New York City where people seemed suspicious of one another. When I got off the bus in Sun Valley even the bus driver said, “Well, if you need any help let me know. Maybe I can help you.”
The next day, I went looking for Friedl Pfeiffer, the director of the ski school at Sun Valley. People told me he was in Aspen. I thought they meant the Aspen Chalet across the street. It was the owner of the Aspen Chalet who told me about this new ski resort called Aspen that was starting in the mountains of Colorado.
I called the new director of the Sun Valley Ski School, and he told me I had a job as a ski instructor if I wanted it, but when I came out of the phone booth I met Fred Iselin**. He said, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. You better come to Aspen. I want you to come to my house tonight. We’ll have a nice Viennese dinner, and we’ll call Friedl and talk about you coming.” And so that’s how I ended up in Aspen.
Gallacher: What was Aspen like in 1947?
Obermeyer: There were lots of dogs. I couldn’t believe how many. When I skate-skied from the mountain to the Jerome Hotel where I stayed, I must have had 25 dogs barking behind me. I think when the mining boom collapsed people left their houses and their dogs behind. You could buy a house for four or five hundred dollars back taxes, on a corner lot.
It snowed that first night I was here. And in the morning when I got up and put my skis in the snow, it just flew like down feathers. Wow! In Europe you find this type of snow at a much higher elevation. And I said to myself, “This is fantastic!”
The next night it snowed again and it was the same kind of snow, “champagne powder” as we later called it. Oh my god, you could ski deep snow like nothing. It looked to me like this was the best place on earth for outdoor sports. But there were hardly any people in Aspen then, so we had hardly any guests. The next big step was trying to get people to come.
Gallacher: How did you make a living?
Obermeyer: Well, the Aspen Ski School paid for room and breakfast at the Jerome Hotel. I shared a room with Pete Seibert, who later built Vail. We had the worst room in the hotel. The heat shaft from the coal furnace in the basement ran right through our room. Even on the coldest night of the year we had the windows wide open and it was still too hot. But it was a room.
When we did get to teach a class or give a private lesson, we were so nice to those people. And Fred Iselin was smart and he had connections with people in Hollywood. He knew Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman and all the stars that used to go to Sun Valley. He got them to come to Aspen, and that gave us our first chance at national publicity.
We had no money to advertise then. When I would go somewhere I would introduce myself as Klaus Obermeyer from Aspen, Colorado, and people would say, “Who? Where?”
I taught Gary Cooper to ski and photos of us were sent all over the newspaper world. Paul Draper, a famous dancer, was my best student ever. He learned to ski in one week. Ingrid Bergman had this jealous husband that was always hiding behind the trees on the mountain to check on us and make sure that nothing happened.
These Hollywood stars brought us our first publicity, and that was a major step toward putting Aspen on the map.
*Sonja Henie was a Norwegian figure skater and American actress. She was a three-time Olympic Champion (1928, 1932, 1936), a 10-time World Champion (1927-1936) and a six-time European Champion (1931-1936). Henie won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies figure skater. At the height of her acting career she was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood.
– source Wikipedia
**Fred Iselin was one of the first instructors on Aspen Mountain in the 1940s and later co-directed the Aspen Ski School in the ’50s with Friedl Pfeiffer. After that he moved to the Aspen Highlands ski area to run their ski school. He was one of the most colorful of the Aspen ski instructors and one of the first free-style skiers.
Immigrant Stories runs on Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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