Gathering in mid-summer for a big party in Telluride goes back to the Ute Indians. The Utes spent their summers in the Telluride Valley and Telluride was where they staged their most important spiritual ceremonies, had great parties, gambled on horse races and other games, danced the night away and gathered to renew old friendships and more importantly, it was the place to meet the girls or guys from over the hill.
When the white man ran the Utes out and staged there own Fourth of July Celebration in 1876, it was really just a continuation of an old tradition (who wouldn’t want a good reason to spend a long weekend in Telluride in mid-June). The miners staged spiritual ceremonies (church, marriage, freedom, liberty, etc) had great parties, gambled, played games and danced the night away and got the opportunity to meet the gals or guys from over the hill who had all gathered from near and far.
It was a grand event and surpassed all other holidays and gatherings in the sheer number of attendees and the distances from which they came, the amount of fun and provided a yearly opportunity for old friends to come together.
My first Fourth of July in Telluride was 1972. The ski resort construction permit had recently been approved by the U.S. Forest Service and at least 350 new people had moved to town—so it was a wide open and exciting boom town and looked a lot like the mining camp town in the movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (which came out about the same time and is a favorite of old Telluriders).
The Telluride Fire Department which had taken over the organization of the event in the 1880’s, was made up exclusively of “Old Timers” and they decided to pull out all the stops for this year’s grand celebration. You see they had worked and dreamed for many years of seeing Telluride develop into a ski resort and now, it was actually happening.
They hired a motorcycle stunt rider to perform and a sky diver to land on Main Street as additions to the big parade which had happened every year since the celebration was founded. The traditional water fight, tug of war, mining games and picnic in Town Park were also on the agenda. They printed posters and circulated them throughout the Southwest.
The hoopla (surprisingly) attracted a large crowd of Hell’s Angels, or at least, what looked like them. It was a rough crowd and there was trouble everywhere. Drunkenness, explicit sexual behavior in the street, drug use and fighting all come to mind. Our Marshal, Everett Morrow, took after them with Deputy Mastisse and Deputy Jerry Koskinon, but they were out-manned. Twice Everett came to me and swore me in as a Deputy Marshal and we organized a vigilante committee of “newcomers” for show downs with the worst trouble makers. Fortunately, the visitors were really drunk and after a few skulls were cracked they calmed down or scattered. Everett was absolutely in charge of these confrontations and he was steely-eyed and stern while facing down the scofflaws.
I remember one incident where Everett who was about five foot eight got in the face of a fellow that was at least six foot four and big who was swinging around a big chain and threatening everyone with a wild look in his eyes. This guy and his gang had broken into and taken over what would later be known as the Silverjack Restaurant building on Main Street and had set up shop there selling drugs and intimidating people and had seen talking to the some of the local girls.
This guy was clearly the leader of at least five other tough looking guys who stood back a few yards and I could see that there were a few women further back in the shadows and I recognized one local girl. Everett walked right up to him—just like in the movies—and with his hand on his pistol told this guy quite simply, “drop it or I’ll kill you.”
For some reason I thought this was an escalation, but Everett knew what he was doing His deputy, Mastisse was standing a bit behind him and just off to the right, I was on his left with Wayne Watkins, a local photographer, who had volunteered and been deputized. Mastisse was jerking at his black leather gloves and brandishing brass knuckles on both hands and acting like a Pit bull straining on his leash.
The big fellow stood there for a moment and much to my surprise and relief said, “We are not looking for trouble here.” He held his hands out in front of him with his palms up and just dropped the chain. This provoked Mastisse and without saying a word he hit this guy a mighty blow on the side of his head with the brass knuckles, which dropped him to his knees where Everett finished him off with a good pistol whipping.
This showdown was the last of the scary stuff. There were a few more isolated confrontations, but the word spread that the Marshal was one tough hombre and he wouldn’t back down. I can tell you, had Everett not been there doing his job, the bad guys, which out-numbered us five or ten to one, would have torn the town to pieces and burned it.
In my way of thinking, Everett was a hero, he had saved the town. What was surprising is that no one ever said anything about it. Not the newspaper, the town fathers, or the other “newcomers” and no one seemed to give him any credit—like his $400.00 a month salary included him putting his life on the line. It sure gave me new respect for the law in general and Everett in particular.
Not surprisingly, when the discussion came up before the Fire Department about next year’s 4th of July Celebration, the firemen voted NO WAY.
I was not a fireman back in those days, nor an Elk where the real power was centered in the town, so I only read about it in the newspaper, The Telluride Times.
Without thinking about it much, I called George Cappis who was a really good guy and one of the “oldtimers” who was sincerely fair to the “newcomers”, and told him that if the Firemen were not going to put on the celebration, that I’d do it. George was amused, but told me he would present my idea to the firemen.
A month or so passed, and George called me back and said, “Have at it.”
I must admit, I was a bit surprised. My thinking was more along the lines that I’d embarrass or persuade the firemen into doing it. I thought they just needed a pep talk and some people to volunteer to help. But, no they just dumped it like a hot potato.
Fourth of July 1973 was coming on fast when George Cappis and Bucky Schuler, another one of my favorite “Oldtimers”, called in January to let me know that if we were going to have a fireworks display that I’d need to order the fireworks. They gave me a catalog to look at and the contact information.
Well, this was a new one. I’d never seen a fireworks catalog before where you could order really big fireworks and the aerial stuff had very cool names like “Blossoming Chrysanthemum” and “Stars Falling in Green”. I called the fireworks manufacturer and gave him my story and he said that if I had the money he had the fireworks. I got together with Terry Tice who had Telluride Trappings located across the street from me and we went through the catalog together and ended up ordering about $1500. worth of fireworks. Terry and I came up with $500. between us and signed some kind of agreement to pay the balance and sent it in. We had a plan to pass the hat for the balance, since back then a thousand bucks was real money in Telluride.
In early summer, I realized that the Fourth was coming fast and came up with a reorganization plan. It was mainly to not invite the Hell’s Angels back, but also included expanding the parade, and making the picnic and games in the park more family and kid focused.
My big idea was to go out to Town Park and build a stage so we could have some live music. The problem as I saw it, was that from about 6 P.M. and 9 or 9:30 when the fireworks were shot off there wasn’t much to do and people had nothing better to do than drink and get into trouble.
One evening in late June, I got together some guys which included Burk Thompson, George Greenbank, Kent Ryan, Chris Gerdts, and Ralph Parker and we scavenged some wood from some construction sites and went out to the Park. The “newcomers” weren’t really allowed to use the Park, so it was all a bit cheeky of us to just go out there and build a stage. We decided that we had better get the stage as far away as possible from the Fireman’s Picnic area where the electricity was located, or there’d be trouble. The deciding factor for the location of the stage turned out to be determined by the length of our extension cord. (Which is why the stage is located where it is today.)
I called an old friend of mine, Bobby Mason in Aspen and asked him if he could bring his band down, Black Pearl, to play for the celebration. Bobby was very excited and said he would be there. As the big day approached, the fireworks arrived and I asked the firemen if they would store them for us at the fire station. Of course, they agreed and a few of the guys showed some interest in what we’d picked out. When we went to drop them off Bucky Schuler was there with Gary Bennett and they showed us the plumbing pipes they used as mortar tubes to shoot off the big ones, like three and four inchers. We had no idea what to do with them and the fireman said that they’d help us put it together. The plan was to go out to Firecracker hill the morning of the Fourth and using old tires and sand we’d bury the pipes and aim them at the sky and then at the appropriate time light the big bombs, drop them in and run. Chris Gerdts was stoked over the whole thing, but I was very apprehensive. This wasn’t like shooting off roman candles in the back yard.
With just a few days left before the event, I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard anything from Bobby, so, I decided I’d better call. After a few tries, it was clear that there was no one home up there in Aspen. It was time to scramble to get a band.
The only, and I mean only local band was the Fall Creek Boys which included, John Herndon, J.B. Mattioti, Fred Shellman, and Kenny Mihelich. I called John Herndon and asked him if there was anyway that they could play. John immediately accepted. The Fall Creek Boys was a Bluegrass band and although they didn’t know too many songs and didn’t have a PA sytem, John assured me that it would all come together.
The day before the event, George Greenbank and I went over to the Fire Department to get the mortar tubes. We loaded them in my pickup truck and drove them out to Firecracker hill. Bucky, Shorty Faye, and George Cappis came with us to show us how to set them up. We unloaded everything and started trying to set up when Shorty announced with his famous “shit eating grin” that we’d passed the test and it was all an elaborate joke. The firemen would shoot off the fireworks, collect the money we owed and we were off the hook—whew! Oh, and they’d shoot off the dynamite charge at day break too.
As it turned out, Fred Shellman, who played guitar with Fall Creek, came up with the money to buy a PA system and drove over to Denver and bought the thing and came back—non-stop. He arrived back about ten in the morning and we all met out at the stage. Fred was a bit red-eyed but assured everyone that he would make it and it would work. John thought that the stage was a bit barren and came up with the idea of putting up a curtain back drop which also served as some protection from the sun. We hustled around and ultimately John Mansfield, who had a company that painted houses, donated his big tarp which worked just fine.
As I have always said, “The best revolutions and best parties are self-organizing.”
There was only one thing I had left to do, which was to go around and ask all the bars in town to close for the evening when the fireworks were shot off. I believed that we really needed to pull this one off without anyone getting hurt and without there being any trouble. Everyone said that they were grateful for the work we were doing for the town and said that they thought closing was a good idea and I thought it was done.
The morning of the Fourth was brought to life with the loudest dynamite blast I’d ever heard. I had thoughts that maybe the boys had overdone it. The parade happened perfectly as scheduled and the crowd was large but almost completely local people and although there were a few motorcycles around there was no trouble.
The picnic in the park and the family games were really fun. We had three legged races, and all the regular silly contests, but I think the big winner was Clint Wolf’s contest of who could build a sawhorse the fastest and then stand on it. I think Roger Mahnke’s team won. It was really hilarious.
That same year, there were a number of people that just volunteered to provide food and drink in the park in the afternoon after the Firemen’s picnic had concluded. Dick Unruh sold watermelon slices, George Greenbank set up a hot dog stand, Burk Thompson sold ice cream cones and my partner in the Belmont Liquor Store, Davy Greever gave away beer. This was the beginning of concessions in the park.
The band started up about six o’clock and there was a great crowd that didn’t take long to get into the swing of things and danced up a storm in the dirt with a lot of softball size rocks lying around right in the middle of everything. Trust me, no one noticed. The band didn’t know but a couple of songs, but they played them over and over and it was the best music and the best band in the world that evening.
The firemen shot off the fireworks and I remember laying on a blanket in the park with a bunch of friends and doing an impromptu MC job by announcing, “that was a “blue daffodil, oh, and there’s an exploding star spangled banner.” The crowd roared and
every one was happy and smiling and there was a sense that maybe we had bridged the gap between the “Oldtimers” and “Newcomers” and a sense of cooperation and working together was in my opinion born that night.
The next morning, I got up and heard that sometime after midnight two young men from Albuquerque had missed the turn South at Society Turn and driven off of Keystone Hill. It was estimated that they were going more than eighty miles and hour when they missed the first curve and flew off the road clearing the tops of the big pine trees. Both were dead. They had been drinking. I was crushed. I drove out to the crash site and watched as their bodies were hauled out and cried.
It would be my last time to organize a Fourth of July Celebration and the next year when The Fall Creek Boys said that they wanted to do it again and had the idea to start the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I declined to participate, but wished them well.
It took me two years of campaigning to get the State of Colorado to put up a guard rail on that curve.