From cowboy to ski Town

For much of its history Jackson Hole has always had skiing, and many schoolchildren learned how to execute their turns on the slopes of Snow King that led right into town.

But it wasn’t until the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation debuted a new ski area in the Tetons in 1965 that the valley became a reliable draw to skiers elsewhere in the country and world. The steady development of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has since fostered a “ski town” community and culture that’s now a centerpiece of the valley’s identity.

Longtime locals recall that the transition from a dusty Yellowstone gateway with a one-season economy to a ski destination was far from seamless.

“It was a very different world back then,” Kirby Williams said. “The mountain resort was not taken graciously by the locals. Rich people came in here and bought this mountain, and they were not embraced.”

Gripes about the “goddamned ski bums” who smoked pot, had long hair and wore bright clothing weren’t lacking, said Williams, a skier who, having grown up here, had one foot in each world.

“There was definitely a conflict between the cowboys and the hippies, and most of the hippies were ski bums,” Williams said. “It took a while for everybody to meld.

“The cowboys and the ski bums at the Stagecoach were not a good mix,” he said.

Arriving in 1968, Jimmy Anderson was a ski bum in the early days of commercial skiing in the Tetons. He recalls sometimes feeling like he had been plopped into enemy territory.

The so-called “cowboy wars” are not a fiction, Anderson said.

“They became the Indians, and we became the cowboys, so to speak,” Anderson said. “They liked to get sauced up during the day and come out to beat on us after skiing.

“Right after the cowboys would arrive at the bars, right behind them was the sheriff’s department, so it didn’t last very long,” he said.

By Williams’ account, tensions between longtime locals, cowboys and ski bums gradually waned, and the new ski destination gained acceptance. Jackson Hole’s transition into a year-round economy played a role, he said.

“As far as changing the attitude in Jackson, it took quite a while,” Williams said. “I think it probably took 10 years for that situation to mellow out and for people to realize that there’s a dollar here, and we can take it to our advantage.”

One Jackson Hole businesswoman who has spent a career working in the tourism industry affirmed the impact of the resort on the economy.

“You could have closed in the winter before,” Clarene Law said of her hotel before the resort. “I was very enthused it was coming, as were most people, I believe, that lived here.”

Paul McCollister, the resort’s original owner and developer, spoke of the economic impact of his business in a 1991 interview with Jackson Hole Magazine.

“Everyone had a job in the summer, but come Labor Day they got laid off and went on unemployment,” McCollister said. “As I recall, there were about four restaurants in town, and each fall they flipped a coin to see which one would stay open that winter.”

Anderson, who was in the thick of the “cowboy wars,” agreed that the early conflict dissipated once people realized the new ski resort’s pivotal role in bringing wintertime visitors.

“It was like the Indian seeing the cowboy on the street,” he said. “Eventually they throw up their hands and say, ‘What the hell’s the point?’”

This article appeared on the Jackson Hole News & Guide website on December 16, 2015.