Bizarre bazar shows community fabric in place seen by some as threadbare
by Allen Best
A one-time high school near Vail was transformed on a recent Saturday into a crowded and sometimes bizarre bazaar of shoppers rummaging through thousands of discards: skis and sunglasses, pants and shirts, vacuum cleaners and TVs.
Outside, there were couches, lawnmowers, and baby strollers. The oddest object, though, was a macabre representation of a human body clad in blue jeans, sliced at the waist. It was, explained a volunteer from the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, part of a Halloween decoration from Minturn, the town in which the over-stuffed community garage sale was being held.
It was the penultimate Eagle Valley Rummage Sale, an affair that first began in 1964 in an effort to raise money for the first school in Vail. In time, the sale became an important way of raising money for all manner of local groups: eighth-grade school trips to Washington D.C. and efforts of the local chapter of the Humane Society, trips to China by young hockey players and activities of the Boy Scouts.
The sale is also tangible evidence of the community fabric. Outsiders have not always discerned that fabric. Vail has often been dismissed as “Plastic Bavaria.” Not a “real town,” they said.
To be sure, there’s not a Midwestern grid with a main street and Victorian false-fronted buildings. It’s a different place than the old gold, silver, and coal-mining towns that became the resort towns of Breckenridge, Aspen, and Crested Butte. The story of this community fabric is more complicated, but the rummage sale suggests it’s no less real.
The sale began in 1964, two years after the lifts started operating on Vail Mountain, held in one of the new lodges. The purpose then was to raise $50,000 for the first school in Vail. That goal was achieved by 1973. Over the years, it was moved to different locations: the old hospital, a school, and finally, 24 years ago, to its current site in Maloit Park, along where Cross Creek flows out of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Beaver Creek lies to the west, Vail to the east, and Interstate 70 is several miles away.
Items are donated throughout the year, but volunteers begin gathering in the old school regularly in May, working in the unheated building, typically donating about 14,000 hours during the next few months to sort through and price the items. Groups participating in the shared work of putting on the sale share in the benefits based on their work, up to $10,000 per group.
Nancy Nottingham is the current leader of the sale. She’s 82 and at this year’s sale was moving with aid of a walker. She’ll soon be getting total hip replacement surgery. She first got involved with the sale in 1968, soon after moving to Avon. Her husband, Mauri, comes from a family whose ranching ancestors had helped create the community of Avon, located down-valley at the base of Beaver Creek. In the early 1980s, he initiated the effort to get newspaper and other recycling off the ground. Recycling is a defining family trait.
The sale on two weekends this year raised $170,000 for grant applicants. School groups remain major recipients, but a relatively new group, Eagle Valley Horse Rescue, has become a significant beneficiary, she says.
But on the flip side are the buyers, the “families in the valley who really depend upon the sale for clothing of children and clothing for themselves,” she said. She herself outfitted her children with items from the rummage sale.
At the end of the first day of the sale, Nottingham sat by a door near the check-out line. There was a giant American flag behind her, and occasionally people would come to her to pay with credit cards. But volunteers also checked with her, among them Merv Lapin.
Lapin has been treasurer for the non-profit foundation that puts on the rummage sale since 1975. He also happens to be one of Vail’s most prominent residents. He’s been on the Vail Town Council and owns a home along Gore Creek between the library and the hospital and across from Dobson Arena, an ice skating venue. He also owns a large ranch in a scenic area of adjoining Routt County. He has shown a keen skill over the years at making money. But he also has an abiding interest in both local hockey and in China. He combines the passions by taking members of a local youth hockey club to China every three years. His work at the rummage sale and those of other volunteers help pay the expenses.
Another volunteer was David Mott, who arrived in the valley to supervise construction of Beaver Creek in the late 1970s and stuck around to become a county commissioner. His wife, Sue Mott, has been among the steadiest of volunteers.
There were more like him. That first day of the sale, which cost $1 to get in, there were about 3,000 shoppers.
But absent this year was the vivacious presence of Vi Brown. Assisted by her husband, Byron, she was for many years the face of the sale. She gave up the reins this year, though, as Byron’s health has deteriorated.(He passed away shortly before this article was published). Some said his deterioration was partly the result of a refrigerator falling on him.
The sale is likely also on its last legs. The old high school will be razed after next year’s sale. The local school district, working with Eagle County, plans some type of housing for the permanent, local work force. Particulars have not yet been worked out. But the proceeds from the sale have been dropping anyway. Nottingham thinks it’s because of Craigslist and e-Bay. The big-ticket items that used to be donated haven’t been showing up.
Too, there’s the aging factor. The faces of volunteers are distinctly older. Vail’s first and even its second generation have a lot of gray and now whitening hair and some, like Nottingham, need walkers or motorized chairs.
The loss will be to the groups who have made money over the years but also the shoppers, many from other communities, like Leadville, “who depended upon being able to buy $2 jeans for their kids and 50 cents shirts,” says Nottingham. “That’s a lot less expensive than the local thrift stores.”
But even when the sale ends, the lingering lesson is that a town need not look like Mayberry to have community fabric.