Louise Gerdts: Legendary Lady Of The Land: June 27, 1918-February 26, 2016
The first time I set eyes on Telluride was in the summer after I graduated high school, 1970. The town was so small and funky, and far away! But a ski area was supposed to be in the making and I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to come back to live, and ski! Seven years later, I arrived with high hopes and big dreams. A girlfriend and I opened the Ritzy Gypsy boutique above the infamous Moon Gypsy Saloon, and Louise Gerdts was our landlady. And what a lovely lady she was. Years later, I find myself writing her obituary, at the request of her son, Chris. What an honor. With a grateful and tender heart, I offer you my humble story…
Louise “Weezie” Ringquist Gerdts, longtime San Miguel and Montrose County resident – legendary lady of the land – passed from this world to the next on February 26, 2016, in Boulder, Colorado, surrounded by loving family and friends, at the twilight hour of sunset.
Born to Louise and Otto Ringquist in Fitchburg, Massachusetts on June 27, 1918 – eight minutes before her identical twin sister, Lois “Loey” Ringquist – Louise was always one to “go first,” a pioneer and trailblazer in whatever realm she chose to enter. The sisters spent their first decade of life in New England, but as America closed the door on the wild and raucous Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression hit, everything changed. Ironically, the Great Depression turned out to be “the best thing that happened in her life,” said her son Chris.
America’s devastated economy forced the Ringquist family to look outside Massachusetts for employment. When their Mother found a job working at the hospital in Yosemite National Park, they decided to take it. Soon Mother Louise, Weezie and Loey boarded a steamship headed to California via the Panama Canal. Father Otto, a master mechanic, joined them later when he secured a job in Yosemite with the Civilian Conservation Corps – one of the first New Deal Programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help relieve the country’s economic crisis and put men back to work.
The girls were transplanted to a world of blue-grey granite mountains with soaring vertical cliffs and glacial domes, fast-running rivers, mirrored lakes and dramatic waterfalls. The alpine meadows, dense forests and giant sequoia groves were home to fox, wolverines, mountain lions, deer, bears, badgers, bobcats and beavers. Hawks, owls and eagles flew above songs of frogs and toads, rabbits scampered across verdant fields of high grass and vibrant summer wildflowers. It was one of the most breathtaking, beautiful places on earth.
Yosemite was a huge, gigantic playground in which to thrive and grow, and it became an enormous piece of Louise’s heart and soul. “They had the run of the Park, they ran wild. They climbed everywhere, without ropes. On weekends, they were gone,” recalled Louise’s daughter Stefanie. “She always dreamt about Yosemite. One day I found this book on Yosemite at Second Chance. She would look and look at it, remembering people, places and things. In the last weeks of her life, she would wake up and say, ‘I dreamed about Yosemite again last night.’ It made her so happy.”
The Ringquist family found a home out West, but the remote location had its challenges. They originally lived in canvas tents and sacrificed many modern conveniences. The girls rode a bus 60 miles each way to get to high school. But the rugged terrain and compelling physical lifestyle made them strong in body, mind and spirit. And it was in Yosemite, at the small ski area on Badger Pass, they learned to ski.
After graduating high school, Louise attended secretarial college and went to work for the Yosemite Park & Curry Company, the company that managed hotels and concessions in the Park. Loey stayed in Yosemite and pursued her love of photography, working for famed photographer Ansel Adams, who owned a studio-gallery in the Valley with his wife Virginia.
In winter, the girls ventured out to other nearby ski areas. On one of these excursions Louise met her future husband, Joern Gerdts, working in a ski shop at Sugar Bowl in the Lake Tahoe region. As a German refugee who had escaped the terror of Nazi Germany for the hope of America, Joern had the dream of making his living as a photographer, but due to his wartime immigration status as an “Enemy Alien,” he was disallowed to use a camera. Happily, Louise was comfortable behind the lens and offered to help. Before long they were working together in what became a life-long partnership.
By the end of World War II, Louise and Joern had married and were pursuing a career in joint-venture photojournalism. Joern took photos and Louise wrote text. Meanwhile, the American ski industry was taking off. Ignited by post-war optimism, economic renewal and several enthusiastic World War II 10th Mountain Division veterans, western state ski areas were attracting investors and being developed.
The Rocky Mountains beckoned and the couple moved to Alta-Salt Lake City. As their submissions gained traction, the checks began to flow. Soon they were being published in Time, Life, Sports Illustrated and The Saturday Evening Post. They publicized some of America’s most beautiful and intriguing places. And with the burgeoning automobile industry fueling the fire of travel, they were off and running.
In 1948 Louise gave birth to son Christopher. That same year, twin sister Loey moved to Aspen and worked as a photographer, storekeeper and rancher. She eventually started a dude ranch and boy’s summer camp in Snowmass on property she had purchased with Fritz Benedict – a World War II 10th Mountain Division veteran and Aspen Mountain Ski Area entrepreneur. In 1952 daughter Stefanie arrived. In 1958, the young Gerdts family moved to Sausalito, California, where they stayed until 1961, when they pulled up stakes and moved to Aspen, followed by the twins’ parents, who left their home in El Portal, California to join them there.
As Aspen hustled and bustled through the 60’s, it became one of the world’s hippest, most eclectic and expensive resorts. But in the late 50’s, the Ringquist-Gerdts family had discovered one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, a deserted mining town in the Utes’ mystical “Valley of Hanging Waterfalls.” Surrounded by towering peaks, clear-water creeks and quaking aspen, Telluride was a slumbering giant. Its stunning beauty and seductive magic was magnetic, and they were pulled. They came up with a plan.
In 1962, summer was camping and exploring in the San Juans. As experienced skiers and mountaineers, Louise and Joern recognized Telluride’s enormous potential as a ski area, and they were not alone. Longtime local Billy “Senior” Mahoney had been dreaming about a Telluride Ski area since he was a boy.
In 1937, at the age of 19, Mahoney built a primitive towrope fashioned from a Briggs & Stratton engine near the Town Park’s Beaver Pond. In 1939, he erected a “real” Swedish rope tow on Grizzly Gulch, presently known as the Kid’s Hill. In 1956, Mahoney orchestrated a joint venture with the town and Idarado Mining Company – where he worked as a foreman – to install a more modern electric tow. And then, in 1959, Mahoney and some other local citizens decided to hire Pete Seibert – another World War II 10th Mountain Division veteran and Vail Mountain developer – to evaluate the Telluride mountain for a ski area. Seibert gave them an excellent report, so they formed a company, secured land options and Forest Service approvals, issued stock and offered it for public sale. But a dilapidated mining town in such a remote, out-of-the-way location was hard to sell, and without any secure financial backing, the company never took off. But when Joern and Louise hooked up with Mahoney, passion and hope were re-ignited.
In 1963 the Gerdtses purchased a rundown Victorian atop Aspen Street and made it their summer home. In 1965 they bought “Hotel Squalide” on Colorado Avenue, in Louise’s words, “an abandoned, soot-encrusted, junk-stuffed miner’s boarding house in Telluride, population approximately 400. Upstairs were 15 plaster-strewn bedrooms and one bath, inhabited by migrating Mexican bats. Downstairs was a barroom with a romantic bloodspot still visible on the blackened floor where a gambler had “got it” in the old days. Beyond the barroom, the floor in the dining room had fallen into the cellar.” As they invested more time, and money, in the region, they began publicizing Telluride. In 1967, Skiing Magazine ran their feature touting Telluride’s potential and appeal. The last line read, “It’s got everything – snow, terrain, climate, the works. Is there a financier in the audience?”
1968. Enter Joe Zoline, Chicago and Beverly Hills businessman. Zoline had received a tip from an Aspen friend who suggested he check out a place in Colorado called Telluride, as it would make a phenomenal ski area. Shortly thereafter, Zoline was on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. Joern Gerdts was also on the plane. The two got to talking and eventually Zoline found out Gerdts was from Aspen and lived part time in Telluride. One week later, Zoline bought two ranches on the mountain – Adams Ranch and Gorrono Ranch – sight unseen. He arrived for the first time in Telluride a few weeks later to see what he had done.
In 1970, Louise made her final move from Aspen to Telluride. She obtained her real estate license and went to work first with Ray Coffey and then for Charlie Hughes, who established Hughes Realty in 1971. At the time, Charlie, and his brother Marshall, were owners and operators of one of the region’s largest cattle ranching operations, with land spanning the far reaches of San Miguel, Ouray, Dolores and Montrose counties. Louise – with her hair pulled up on top of her head, looking like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelly, dressed in bohemian-gypsy style – and Charlie, a former Navy heavyweight boxer and football player – with his broad smile, cowboy hat and boots – were a compelling combination of Western wit and wisdom, humor and hard-to-find-in-real-estate honesty. They shared a deep love of the land as well as the powerful desire to develop it with integrity and respect for wildlife, open space and natural habitat.
It wasn’t long before Louise obtained her broker’s license and opened her own Lode Star Realty office in their Hotel Squalide [today’s Gargoyle Building]. By this time, Zoline was underway developing the Telluride Ski Mountain. Billy Mahoney had accepted the positions of Mountain Manager and Vice President of the Telluride Company. Former world-champion French skier, Emile Allais helped Mahoney design and contour the slopes. They cleared runs, surveyed lift lines, conducted snow-cat tours and provided snow-cat skiing until Zoline secured the financing to build the chairlifts. In the autumn of 1972, the Telluride Ski Area officially opened. A dream came true.
The Ringquist-Gerdts family continued in joint venture real estate investments and collaboration. Loey gravitated west toward the expansive views and ranching lifestyle of Wrights Mesa and the high meadows and pristine forests of Wilson Mesa. She named her outfit Faraway Ranch and set about gathering cattle, horses, chickens, pigs, cats and dogs.
Louise was busy in Telluride, meeting and greeting new-comers, helping them find property and housing, providing commercial and residential spaces for rent, investing in new business partnerships and funding starving artists with studio space and financial support, bridging the gap between the old-timers and new wave of Rocky-Mountain-high hippies and “long-hairs” that were showing up to live their dream.
Joern began making educational films and moved to Hollywood, but remained active in the family business. Together they bought, sold and traded many of Telluride’s most historic and significant properties, including the Silver Belle and Cribs, Moon Gypsy Saloon and Gargoyle Building, the River Trail property and Beaver Ponds, plus a plethora of mining claims, commercial and residential lots. And thankfully, they bought and resold (back to the town) the Old School, saving it from demolition.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Louise was the go-to person for advice; a mother, sister, friend. She was like a tribal medicine woman, shining light in darkness, shape-shifting negatives into positives and transforming fear into faith.
In the 90’s, Louise turned her eyes westward. She built a storybook house on land adjacent to Loey’s West End Faraway Ranch and called it Rancho del Cielo. The idea was to retire, but as the forever philanthropic realtor, she saw the need in Norwood for employee housing. She bought property in town, designed and Chris built today’s Taco Belle apartments, a lovely Santa Fe style duplex complex with affordable rent.
At Rancho del Cielo, Louise planted fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens, worked on her multi-medium art projects and spent many hours with friends, children and grandchildren. She loved the invigorating regenerative power of the Mother Earth. Right up to the last years of her life, the waning days of winter saw her pouring over seed and plant catalogs, filling out orders and writing checks.
Along with volumes of chronological photographs, articles and artwork, Louise gifted the world with two children, Christopher and Stefanie Gerdts, three grandsons; Kuzi Gerdts [partner Kristina Hermanski], Zak Gerdts [fiancée Natali Torres], Nicholas Gerdts [partner Sara Moles] and daughter-in-law Lori Gerdts. She leaves us a telling legacy of her life and times, a sweet tale of adventure and discovery on her journey to this little corner of the world. Here she captured blazing seasonal sunsets with her camera, day after day, just like she captured the hearts of everyone she touched.
People are drawn to the lands of their spirit. The land touches the soul, and the spirit lives on. Thanks, Louise for touching ours.
Cynthia Hansen Zehm
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