Bill’s Sport Shop: 75 Years of Turns
The Coppers Impact on Leadville Skiing
At one point, it was one of only three ski shops in Colorado. And while that seems almost inconceivable in today’s flooded recreational retail market, the fact that Bill’s Ski & Snowboard Rentals in Leadville will mark its 75th year in business in 2020 is easy to understand. That kind of business success is about hard work, product knowledge, and quality customer service.
And that’s what you’ll still find today at the bright blue building conveniently located at the “Y” junction of Highways 91 and 24, north of Leadville. Inside the sports shop, the rows of photographs proudly display generations of kids who rented their first set of skis from Bill’s and now return with their kids to do the same. It’s also where you’ll find Bill’s son Paul Copper who now owns the shop with his wife Dee Dee, relying on longtime employees, friends, and family to get the job done. And that’s saying a lot this time of year – it’s a busy place!
But Bill’s is more than a ski shop. Its namesake’s contribution to the sport is legendary, even now more than 30 years after his death in 1989. His involvement with youth skiing in Leadville, as well as the Professional Ski Instructors Association, and Rocky Mountain Ski Instructors Association, afforded Bill Copper an entry into the Leadville/Lake County Sports Hall of Fame in 2016. Here’s a page from that biography that sets the stage for a lifelong love of winter.
Bill Copper arrived in Leadville as a young boy during the thirties with his parents, who served as caretakers of the Carleton Tunnel on Hagerman Pass. Bill used the opportunity to sell candy bars and soda to the caravans of cars that utilized the toll tunnel. In high school, Bill started making winter trips on snowshoes and skis to the Carleton Tunnel with his father, who had to replace the water measuring chart every Saturday. Starting at the cemetery – the closest spot to the tunnel in the winter- the trip would take three days. One day up, one day to complete the duties, and the third to return. The intrepid skiers wore full-width skis that were strapped at the toe, pine tarred and coated in paraffin. With no sunscreen products at the time, the men would rub charcoal into their skin to avoid intense burns. Protective glasses were also hard to obtain, heavy welding goggles were the most popular option. Cementing his lifelong involvement in the ski industry was ‘snob hill,’ where Bill was employed in high school to run the 450-foot rope tow on weekends.
Bill Copper graduated from Leadville High School in 1943, served in the Army Air Forces, and returned home to Leadville to fulfill his dream of starting a sporting goods store. Turns out, it was one of only three ski shops in the state of Colorado, providing access to state of the art equipment not only for the rising sport of skiing but also for Leadville student-athletes, who were transformed into state-championship teams. The era afforded Bill the ability to carry all the best brands available, with the idea that athletes competing should not be hindered by their equipment. Even though Bill’s Sport Shop (now Bill’s Rentals) was small, it gained and maintained the highest respect of ski suppliers at both national and international levels. Bill met his wife Mary Jo, who would go on to be his partner in marriage and business. From there, a family’s legacy surrounding the love of mountaineering was born.
“Where are you going skiing today?” asks Paul Copper as he sizes up an eight-year-old girl, a returning visitor with her family from Texas. “Looks like maybe you grew a little since the last time you were here,” he adds and the conversation turns familiar, like relatives catching up over Thanksgiving dinner, only a lot friendlier! In fact, Paul and Dee Dee’s own children are grown, with fast-growing children of their own who often return to their Leadville roots for some winter fun. Bill Copper passed away in August 1989 and Mary Jo just a year ago last summer in June 2018.
Bill’s is still the kind of place that you can find the traditional values of hard work and commitment. The stories are legendary of the Coopers offering discounts on gear for student-athletes, even providing charge accounts to young athletes if they promised to pay using their allowance or funds from their part-time jobs; they had to work for it, no hand-outs here. Bill’s Sport Shop always hired local boys and girls for part-time help after school, and on weekends.
One of Bill’s unlikely sports milestones was winning the 1951 Leadville Boom Days Burro Race Championship. While he was not a racer on the circuit, Copper returned with his trusty burro Bosco to defend his crown in 1952. That race saw a slightly different outcome as told by Mary Jo Copper in a 2012 Leadville Today interview when she was honored as Grand Marshall for the Boom Days Parade. As is often the case, once the leading runner-and-beast team hit the pavement on historic Harrison Avenue, those stubborn beasts-of-burden can have a mind of their own.
“Bosco just stopped; it was only about 39 feet from the finish line,” recalled Mary Jo. Seemingly there was nothing that Bill was going to do to get the burro motivated to complete the race, keeping his glorious victory crown in place. In fact, it was only when the team in second place passed the Copper/Bosco team and continued on to the winner’s circle, that the stubborn ass finally got some renewed giddy-up-and go, dragging his teammate across the finish line in second place.
Many long-timers may fondly recall the different locations Bill’s Rentals (Sports Shop) called home during its 75 years in business. From the historic Vendome (now the Tabor Grand Apartments) to its first spot directly across from the courthouse (where, ironically, another ski shop is now housed), to their most lasting and memorable mainstay, anchoring down the corner of W. 3rd and Harrison (now Leadville Outdoors/Mountain Market), until they sold the building in 2010, and moved north to the edge of town where they are now at the “Y” intersection of Highways 24 & 91.
But don’t let the quaint building, the old-school customer service or hand-built boot shelves fool you, when it comes to ski equipment, Bill’s Rentals offers top of the line gear to make your slope time a first-class experience. So if you are you looking to rent some gear for your upcoming ski vacation in Leadville, or maybe you’re starting to check out those spring break deals before everything is SOLD OUT (and yes, it happens, so plan ahead), when it comes to ski & board rental in Leadville Today, there’s one that has been serving slope lovers for over seven decades of from Breckenridge to Vail to Copper Mountain, and certainly Ski Copper in between. Located on the edge of town, Bill’s location makes it super easy to get in and out, with plenty of FREE parking!
© Leadville Today
Publisher’s Note: In 1885 the Hagerman Tunnel was constructed as part of the Colorado Midland Railroad line (1887 to 1922) to connect Leadville with Aspen and Glenwood Springs. This 2,061-foot long tunnel sits at 11,528 feet altitude just south of Hagerman Pass. And if Paul’s dad Bill was a snow adventurer, his Grand Dad Harv led the way. Check out this video of some old film from his homemade snow-machine in 1950. Made out of a 3 wheeled Harley Davidson motorcycle. Pictures on the west side of Hagerman Pass in Colorado.
Harv’s Homemade Snow Machine