It was a rocky start for Angel Fire’s ski area 50 years ago

Sally LeBus and her nephew (the late) Andy LeBus. (Photo provided)

Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake’s advice? Raise the mountain 1,000 feet!

This side of the Moreno Valley had a sleepy history until 1966. Aside from a brief gold mining boom in the 1870s and some logging, by the mid 1950s when the LeBus family bought about 25,000 acres of Maxwell Land Grant ranch land in the Moreno Valley, ranching was the business of choice in the valley.

In an earlier Chronicle interview, Black Lake’s Donna Holst, who grew up in Cimarron, remembered visiting this area with her father (the late Leon Pigman) at age 4, “And there was nothing here.” She came back to go ice skating at about age 15 and by then, “There were six houses, no golf course and one ski run. Otherwise it was just an empty valley. It’s changed a lot.”

By the mid-1960s, at a time when the cattle business was suffering, skiing enthusiasts Roy and LaVena LeBus decided to build a year-round resort with a ski area, country club and golf course.

The website coloradoskihistory.com related a story (courtesy of Angel Fire Resort) told by George LeBus, one of Roy and LaVena’s four children: “Roy said the family was sitting around the dinner table for a traditional Sunday supper when George made the comment that they should put a tow rope on their ranch so they wouldn’t have to drive so far to ski. At that point his father responded that he was thinking on a slightly larger scale than a tow rope. He removed himself from the table for a matter of minutes and came back with detailed plans for a full scale resort, including ski operations, golf course, country club, fishing lake, airport and day lodge. They both shared the sentiment that their ranch comprised the most beautiful land in New Mexico and would lend itself to a resort destination.”

Jeannine Neal on the ski mountain (Photo provided)

Their friend, longtime valley resident (the late) Jeannine Neal recalled, “One night I went out there to play bridge and Big Roy had a bunch of blueprints on the table and I said, ‘Roy, what is this?’ And he said, ‘This is Angel Fire.’ I watched it grow from day one.”

The LeBus family reportedly went to Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake for advice on building their ski area. He suggested they prop the mountain up about 1,000 feet. The family was undaunted however and developed the resort at Angel Fire which opened for skiing in winter 1966.

Former ski school director and marketing director Bill Burgess recalled, “We didn’t even open for the Christmas holidays as planned that season — the lift in the village had major gear box problems and the long lift in the Back Basin was not quite finished. But we had skiers, so we put benches in the back of a Thiokol Sprite and hauled them up. We had less than 1,000 skiers that first year. Some even paid! I think lift fees were $6 for adults.”

As it turned out, Blake’s suggestion turned out to be good advice as sporadic snow conspired against the family dream. “It was such a struggle,” daughter Sally said. “My folks would say they ‘poor boy’d it.’ The winter they opened, it didn’t snow and it didn’t snow much the following year either. And that was long before snowmaking equipment. It was just such a gamble. You never knew whether you were going to have good snow or not.” (Note: Today the ski area features extensive snowmaking.)

A fun place to be

Many of Angel Fire’s “old timers” (a few who have since moved away) worked at Angel Fire’s ski area at one time or another. Here are a few of their memories, a few from previous Chronicle stories:

Bill Burgess teaches a ski lesson. (Photo provided)

Bill Burgess, former ski school director and marketing director — “In that premier ski season, the day lodge housed… a ski rental shop with .… a ski designed and named for the neophyte schusser that left no doubt what ability you were, because emblazoned across the bright yellow ski in black was the word NOVICE! The Austrian who managed the rental shop would tell all of the new skiers it just meant they had no vices and were ‘pure’ skiers. They loved it.”

Jeannine Neal, former base lodge operator who did “everything from A to Z” recalls that, while working with Burgess, “we never had enough money to buy stamps, which were $8 for 100 then, so we would sell patches and when we got enough money, we’d run to the post office to buy stamps. We never dated our letters ’cause we never knew when we were going to mail it.”

Neal’s late husband Tal Neal also worked at Angel Fire, so very often she toted her baby daughter Kim to work. “She had her bed there because they paid me $1.35 an hour and my babysitter charged me $1.50 an hour!”

The late Bets Loving, former food concession and bar operator told The Chronicle the first few years, “A lot of our skiers would come back weekend after weekend so everybody knew everybody. It was a close-knit group.” Since the day lodge also doubled as a nighttime hangout, “We’d have to vacuum off the mud, put on the dance floor and get the juke box going at night. It was fun. Hard work, but fun. And everybody … everybody pitched in to make things work.”

There was nowhere else to go at night in Angel Fire back then so, “Everybody partied — all the guests and all the people who worked there. I used to run Sunday morning Bloody Mary’s in Mason jars by the gallons up the lift in the morning.”

The late Rosanne McQuarrie Broughton once recalled how residents would keep an all day bridge game going at Mother Mogul’s, the Back Basin ski lodge. “You’d play bridge awhile then pass your hand to someone coming in off the slopes and go out to ski.”

The Back Basin Ski Lodge A-frame

Better days …

The Lebus family sold the resort in 1972 and since then, it has changed hands a few times.

The late Stu Lassetter with his retirement watch courtesy of Angel Fire’s former management. (Chronicle file photo)

The late Stuart “Stu” Lassetter, former mountain manager and later general manager for the Baca Grande Corporation, told The Chronicle in an earlier interview, “When I started out  our ticket office was a trailer.”

Lassetter also helped build a lot of trails. “We had archaic equipment but we did the best we could.”

At that time the area only had a few runs in the back — a professional study stated the front of the mountain would never support ski runs. But the corporation had started to build roads so then general manager Ray Tucker authorized the use of bulldozers on the weekends. “We would come down off the front cutting trails like Jasper’s, Tucker’s Doubt and Bodacious. We built them and they’re some of the best on the mountain.”

Pigman, a heavy equipment operator who worked 10 years building “slopes, streets, alleys, everything,” told The Chronicle, “I built 11 miles of ski trails there (“Leon’s Lane” is named for him.).” Daughter Donna Holst noted, “Daddy was building a run so steep he couldn’t turn around without all his hydraulic fluid and oil leaking out. He had to cut sideways to go back up so they called that run “Tucker’s Doubt” (now called Prospector) because Tucker doubted he could do it.” Adds Leon, “I just had to go around to come back up, it was that steep.” 

Angel Fire ski Team members (date unknown)

Angel Fire resort timeline

1954 – 56:  Roy and LaVena LeBus bought 25,000 acres of ranch land in the Moreno Valley.

1960s:  The cattle business was bad and the LeBuses conceived the idea of a year-round resort with a ski area, country club and golf course which they built with the help of family members.

1966:  Angel Fire opened for skiing

1972:  The LeBus family sold the development in 1972 to Arizona-Colorado Land and Cattle Company, parent company to the Baca Grande Angel Fire Corporation. It has since changed hands a few more times: to Tosco Corp (January 1983), Dan Lasater, Lasater Inc. (August 1984), and to Ron Evans, Gary Plante & Walter Fagan, 1987.

1995:  Groups headed by Texans (the late) Tim Allen, brother Gregg and Craig Martin bought the resort out of bankruptcy.

1999:  Allen bought out the interests of Martin and his investors.

2008: Tim Allen passed away leaving ownership to his brother Gregg.