For one weekend in 1963, the Kingdom of Breckenridge tested its storied nickname against the big, bad United States of America.
Back then, when Ullr Fest was still in its infancy, the town’s annual celebration of all things wintery and vaguely pagan was almost exactly like it is today, drawing thousands of people to a slowly growing ski town for parades, skiing and debauchery. Lots of debauchery.
For that fateful ’63 Ullr Fest, event organizers decided to mint 2,000 gold coins, each worth 50 cents apiece, and treat them as legal tender for beer, sausages, helmets and more. The U.S. Department of the Treasury got word of the rogue nation-state at 9,600 feet in the Rocky Mountains, and soon after the federal government sent an IRS agent to the Kingdom with a decree: stop printing Ullr money.
“The neighboring ‘States of America’ took a dim view of the competition which might have resulted from a new monetary system so close to their borders,” reads a passage from the Ullr Fest Breckenridge Winter Carnival in 1979. “The Kingdom bowed to the superior members of those States and from 1963 on minted coins ‘not’ good for 50 cents in trade.”
It wasn’t the first time all eyes were on Breckenridge, and it was far from the last time. The story of illegal Ullr Fest coins — along with two examples of the “not good for 50 cents” version from 1964 and on — is one of hundreds of on display at the recently renovated Summit Ski Museum. The lore might be from long ago, but it’s far from long forgotten.
“I think that story kind of encapsulates the town before it was a world-class ski resort,” said Kris Ann Knish, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance archivist charged with organizing and displaying the exhibit’s hundreds of donated items, most of which were donated by longtime locals and former residents. “It was a festival atmosphere, about having fun and doing your own thing.”
Found tucked away in downtown Breckenridge, the two-story museum traces the town’s growth over the past 150 years. It begins on the first floor with photos, wooden skis and more from the mining-town boom years, and then continues in a renovated basement with the brand-new exhibit, showing in bright, vivid detail how Breck went from a soon-to-be ghost to town in the ’40s to a fledgling ski hill in the ’60s and ’70s to the world-class, $171-per-day resort it is today.
The new collection, dubbed “Mining town turns ski resort,” debuted earlier this week with a reception. More than 60 attendees, many of them longtime residents who donated skis and coats and leather boots to the museum, came together on a whiteout night in the thick of the Ullr snowstorm to peruse the collection. The night also launched Knish’s companion project: a series of oral histories with locals like tuning guru Rick “Pup” Ascher, former Breck mayor John Werner and former speed-skiing world record holder CJ Mueller. All donated items to the exhibit, and Knish spent countless hours (seriously — she can’t even estimate the time commitment) pairing histories with gear and other oddities.
“It was very tough to track down the histories,” Knish said. “I’m still working on it, and that’s where we hope that longtime locals can help us out. It was even tough to track down the original logos for the resort. It changed ownership so much early on.”
Along with artifacts like the Ullr coins — aging neon posters from the ’80s, laminated brochures from the ’70s, — the exhibit is teeming with coats, boots, skis and other gear from the past six decades. There’s a vintage National Ski Patrol coat with a fading, yellowed white cross in the ’70s display, and then there’s a grouping of four Day-Glo jackets set like models at a ski shop in the ’80s display.
One of Knish’s favorite pieces comes from a bona fide ski bum: Scott Rawles, a Breck local since 1979 who bought a patchwork coat covered in painted bananas soon after he moved to town. As Knish tells it, he soon wore that coat everywhere — the mountain, the bar, maybe even church — and became known as “Banana Man.”
It didn’t hurt that Rawles backed up his bizarro steeze with legitimate skills: He dominated the long-gone Pro Mogul Tour in the ’80s and coached the U.S. team to 10 medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“It was tough to find the big stories because we had so much, but that’s where we depended on locals,” Knish said. “They share their stories about living here in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and that’s when you find out about the people who helped form this town.”
For the first time, that history is on display steps from the Main Street where it was made.