Boys Gone Wild

Breckenridge has a bad-boy image, but is there truth in advertising?

When students from Princeton University visited Breckenridge in 1877 as part of a scientific expedition, they were shocked by the rough Western culture they found. Gilliland quotes from the students' account of their trip in her book: "We have spent some very queer days out here, but this beats them all. To get out of the reach of the noise was impossible, and you might think that there was a den of wild animals being fed, or something worse. We heartily recommend Breckenridge as being the most fiendish place we ever wish to see," they noted. "We were forced to spend the morning and afternoon in the company of men whose language was vile, and whose actions were tinged with a shade of crime that shocked and hurt our senses; never did anything so bestial and so unworthy even a mention by manly lips happen before our eyes."

In 1891, a Methodist minister sought to put an end to the town's drunken debauchery by pressuring the sheriff to enforce the new statewide Saloon Law, which required bars to shut down at midnight on weeknights and to be closed all day on Sunday. The townspeople revolted. Editors of local papers called the minister "unChristlike." Some men blew up his church bell by placing dynamite in the belfry, while others hung him in effigy after he insisted on closing the town's faro and poker tables. The Saloon Law was obeyed for a while, but Breckenridge authorities eventually stopped enforcing it.

Although Victorian sensibilities were introduced to the town later in that prosperous decade -- the few ladies there sipped tea from china cups in carpeted parlors while men became active in the Masons and hosted formal balls -- Breckenridge maintained its raucous reputation. In 1955, the Summit County Journal ran a series of stories on the town's history. One article headlined "Where There's Gold There's Gunsmoke" told of the murder of a saloon keeper on Main Street in 1898; a doctor shot the man dead because he suspected the saloon keeper of flirting with his wife. A grocer murdered a bartender on the very same block of Main Street a few years later for the very same reason.

We like the nightlife, baby: A boarder contemplates his 
next run -- and the evening's adventures.
Mark Manger
We like the nightlife, baby: A boarder contemplates his next run -- and the evening's adventures.
Take it easy: Ski patroller Mark Goodremont thinks the 
Buddy Pass attracts a rowdy element to "Slum-It 
Mark Manger
Take it easy: Ski patroller Mark Goodremont thinks the Buddy Pass attracts a rowdy element to "Slum-It County."

Unlike many of Colorado's other mountain towns, Breckenridge survived a series of booms and busts throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. But the creation of the Breckenridge Ski Area in 1961 fueled a new rush. Since then, the same element that inhabited the town at the turn of the last century has kept a bit of the Wild West alive - mostly young men ready to work and play hard. Only instead of earning their keep from the yellow gold in the hills, they now do so from the white gold that sits on top of them.

Breckenridge residents don't want their pastoral landscape marred by the image of rowdy boys brawling in the streets, an image they say isn't representative of their community. "I think this town has gone to great strides to develop a mission statement for what it wants to be, which is a family resort," says police chief Holman.

City officials have worked hard to encourage families not only to visit Breckenridge, but to stay here as permanent residents. The town recently received the Environmental Protection Agency's Smart Growth Award for building affordable housing atop a reclaimed mining area. Two child-care centers are located on town property, and a third is slated to go into another new affordable-housing development. The two elementary schools are central to family life in Breck. And people who don't care to carve can visit the Nordic center, the ice rink, the recreation center or the town's many boutiques. Numerous restaurants appeal specifically to families, including Bubba Gump's, where the host calls out "Shrimpin' time!" whenever a party's table is ready.

In fact, much of the town's wild reputation comes from the '80s. "When I came here, it was definitely a twenty-something culture, but now it seems it's a more mature group," says Steve Kepple, who was a Navy engineer in Washington, D.C., before deciding to become a ski bum eleven years ago. "I've seen more and more of my friends getting married and having kids. Now there are all these little ski bums growing up in town. This place was off the hook in the '80s; people in their fifties and sixties have stories that make what I did in my twenties pale in comparison. Breckenridge is moving away from its wilder history."

Still, there are a lot of young people in Breck. And for Julie, a mom visiting from North Carolina, that's "not a turnoff." In fact, it's just the opposite, jokes her mother-in-law, Muna Miller, a Virginia resident accompanying Julie, her son and her two granddaughters on a ski vacation. "There are lots of good-looking young men here," Miller says as she and Julie sip coffee at the Stage Door Cafe. "I may be a grandma, but I'm not dead yet."

Appealing to people like the Millers is critical for Vail Resorts. "Our biggest segment is family," says Lucy Kay, vice president of marketing for Breckenridge, the second-most visited ski resort in the country (Vail is first). The average age of skiers at Breck is 38, and families with kids make up 49 percent of the skier/boarder population. Thirty percent of the mountain's visitors are under 21; 13 percent are between 21 and 24; those between the ages of 25 and 44 make up an even 50 percent; and 7 percent are 55 and older.

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