Immigrant Stories: An immigrant to Carbondale by way of Aspen
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Intro: Laurie Loeb has done many things in her life. She has been a silversmith, ski instructor, cocktail waitress, landscaper, newspaper reporter, ESL teacher, percussionist, music therapist and business owner. But she is probably best known as a founding member of the Carbondale Council on the Arts and Humanities and the “mother” of the Carbondale Mountain Fair.
Loeb: I first came to the valley in 1957 to attend the Aspen Music School. I was still in high school but I had been playing in a repertory orchestra in New York City and doing monthly Carnegie Hall concerts and was on a fast track to becoming a symphonic percussionist. I arrived in Aspen at night so I couldn’t see my surroundings but when I woke up in the morning and looked out the window I felt like I was back in the Italian Alps where I had visited as a child. I fell in love with Aspen and after my junior year in college I dropped out and moved there.
I was in Aspen for most of the ‘60s, but by 1969 I could see the changes that were coming and I decided it was time to leave, but I wanted to stay in the valley because of the cultural activity. Carbondale didn’t have much going on and was pretty affordable so this is where I landed.
Gallacher: Describe Aspen in the ‘60s.
Loeb: Well it had a year-round population of about 700 people and the highway was the only paved road. There were dogs sleeping in potholes in the street and maybe one car parked on a block. It was very laid-back and wonderful.
There were a lot of social dropouts there. They had come to Aspen to live however they pleased. Others had come there to start the ski industry. There were a lot of Scandinavians and Europeans and even some Hungarian refugees. It was a very interesting place and not pretentious at all.
Gallacher: Why did you move?
Loeb: They started building condos and that, to me, meant absentee ownership. That really changed the face of the town. These new folks started trying to control the way the real residents lived. They started paving the streets and requiring that dogs were on leash. These were all things I didn’t care for so I moved to Carbondale in 1969.
Wally DeBeque had three houses in a row and he was asking $15,000 for all three. I offered him 10 thinking he would come back with a counter offer but he said, “Take ‘em” and he financed them for me.
The one I live in now had been abandoned for five years. The town had 600 people and no paved roads at all. There were miners, ranchers and a few people who worked for the school or the Forest Service. It was a very low-keyed town. There was one restaurant and many of the storefronts were boarded up. The library was in the Dinkel Building in a little storefront and it had the largest circulation of any library on the Western Slope.
Gallacher: Did you know what you were going to do when you moved to Carbondale?
Loeb: No, I just took a stab in the dark. I had a lot of work to do to make my house livable. I started teaching skiing at Sunlight and working as a cocktail waitress in the evening.
Gallacher: The 1970s were a transition time in the valley. The Vietnam War was winding down and a lot on new people were moving to the valley. There was conflict between the “hippies” and the miners and ranchers.
Loeb: Oh yeah, there was at first. When I moved to Carbondale I didn’t know anything about the coal mining culture but I would see these guys in the post office or at the store with eyeliner on. And I wondered, “What kind of a weird cult is this?” I didn’t have a clue it was coal dust that was almost impossible to get off.
Rents were pretty cheap here at that time and artists started moving downvalley from Aspen. And there started to be a more diversified population in the town. There were some problems between the so-called “hippies” and the miners and ranchers but we managed to work those things out. And I think one of the things that helped was the beginning of Mountain Fair. The creation of the fair was a way to bring a diversified population together on common ground around the arts.
Gallacher: I have often wondered how that tension was diffused.
Loeb: You know a lot of problems stem from people not understanding one another. It was like when the Latinos first came to the valley. We’re all afraid of the unknown and that was what it was like back in the early ‘70s.
But when people started working together side by side they got to know each other and they came to realize that we are all pretty much the same. From the very start of the fair we decided to showcase our local artists. The mayor at the time was a bronze sculptor and there were weavers and potters. The Boy Scouts made seed necklaces and the Rebekahs were quilting. There was an inclusive attitude that said, “let’s come together and celebrate what we’ve got.”
After the first couple of years with the Mountain Fair, we started the Carbondale Arts Council and I was very adamant about involving all segments of the community. When we formed the council’s board, we chose people who had the respect of the town.
Gallacher: Potato Days was a comparable event so the Mountain Fair idea wasn’t foreign to them.
Loeb: Yes, because of Potato Days and because this was a small agricultural community there was a tradition of volunteerism. Sopris Park was built by volunteers. So in the early years of Mountain Fair we had 500 volunteers.
In those days there wasn’t a permanent bandstand so the Roaring Fork Coop would loan us a flatbed truck for the stage. Flogus Sawmill gave us the wood to build a structure every year. People built their booths from wood, there were no fancy pop-up tents in those days. It was a do-it-yourself culture.
Gallacher: How were you able to marshal 500 volunteers?
Loeb: I don’t know, I guess my enthusiasm was infectious. The secret was to involve a lot of people in the decision-making at the outset.
Gallacher: The drum circle opens the Mountain Fair every year. How did that get started?
Loeb: The drum circle started about 17 years ago. It was the year of the “great ball of fire.” There was an electrical surge at the power station up on Highway 133 and it blew out all of the power south of the railroad tracks. That surge created a huge fireball that traveled the power line through town. I was standing right under it. It was like a dragon breathing fire. So all the power for the fair was blown just as the fair was about to start.
We were at a loss for how to start the fair without power so I ran home and got my drums and within 20 minutes we had a drum circle of 80 people going. That eighty has grown to as many as five hundred in recent years.
Gallacher: Where did those first 80 drums come from?
Loeb: I had a lot of stuff. I’ve been a percussionist since I was 12 and I had been leading drum circles in schools and special needs communities since 1998. So I had acquired quite a collection.
Gallacher: How did you get started leading drum circles?
Loeb: After my dad died, I moved my mom out here. She had severe dementia and needed constant care so I found her a place at what is now Heritage Park. I knew about the therapeutic aspects of the drum so I began taking my drums when I would go to visit her and her friends. I eventually designed a drum circle program for Heritage Park and got trained as a drum circle leader. That all happened the year before the summer of the “great ball of fire.”
The Mountain Fair drum circle has become quite a phenomenon. It is such a wonderful way to bring people together in one pulse to set the tone of harmony within diversity.
Gallacher: I was at the one this last summer watching you conduct the circle. Describe the power of the drum.
Loeb: When everybody gets into one pulse it creates a sense of connection that makes people feel they are part of this force. There is communication. It’s a way of speaking through your drum. I saw people at the nursing home who were struggling to find words become clearer after playing in the drum circle.
Gallacher: What does conducting do for you?
Loeb: I go to another plain or another level of existence. It’s like being in the ocean. Being in the center of that circle, I am constantly turning around and practicing what my mentor calls “three point radar.” You’ve got to know what is going on in all areas at the same time.
You want to get the group in that pulsing groove and get out of the way. You can’t have a plan. It all has to be spontaneous. But you have to be ready to jump in with your tricks if it gets wobbly.
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