Love blossomed early for old-time Hot Sulphur Springs couple
Grand County, CO Colorado
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS – It was the spring of 1924 when an 8-year-old girl from Hot Springs, Ark., arrived in Hot Sulphur Springs by train to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle Hattie and Omar Qualls, homesteaders from Parshall who had recently purchased the Riverside Hotel.
It wasn’t the first time Margaret Wilson had been to Hot Sulphur. Her father had tuberculosis and was frequently prescribed treatment at the sanatorium on the Front Range. She was 6 years old the first time she made the train trip.
She remembered a boy and girl twin she had befriended on her first visit. When she saw the twins again on this second visit, they told her there was a boy in town who was calling her his girlfriend.
His name was Lloyd “Barney” McLean. Margaret made sure to attend the opening of the new school in Hot Sulphur that spring (now the location of Pioneer Village Museum).
When Margaret first laid eyes on her future husband, she wasn’t all that impressed.
“I immediately knew who he was, and I thought, ‘Ugh.'”
He was wearing wool knickers, leather boots, a V-neck sweater and a flat cap.
“He had white hair and millions of freckles,” she recalls.
That white-haired boy from Hot Sulphur went on to become one of Grand County’s earliest and most heralded Olympic skiers. He and Margaret would eventually travel the world together. They danced with Hollywood stars and shook hands with presidents.
But their love story began right there, in a that little neighborhood schoolhouse.
“We all had a crush on Barney until Margaret came to town, then it was all over,” one of Margaret’s best friends used to say.
At some point, she said, the banker’s son asked her out, but she found him dull compared to Barney.
Barney was the oldest of 10 children – five boys and five girls. When the family outgrew the house his dad built a tiny shack for Barney in the backyard.
Barney was barely big enough to see over the dashboard when he started driving a truck for his father’s garage, which was located just up the street from the hotel. He was just 12 years old when he drove a load of dynamite over Trough Road.
There were stories of the brakes overheating on Rabbit Ears Pass and Barney riding down on the fenders in case he had to bail and hairy trips over Berthoud Pass.
Margaret said she never realized how good Barney was at skiing. He worked all the time driving the truck (his dad pulled him out of school for good in 10th grade), and he would head straight to the jumping hill in Hot Sulphur after work and wouldn’t come home until after dark.
“He didn’t have the proper clothing,” Margaret said. “He wouldn’t even be able to open the door when he got home and he would stand at the door crying until his mother let him in.”
His mother would bring him in, take his boots off and put his feet in a bucket of hot water to thaw them.
“For him, it was skiing for the joy of skiing,” Margaret said.
Barney raced on the weekends. Margaret rarely made it out of the restaurant to join him. It never struck her that skiing would someday become her husband’s career.
“He was never one to blow his own horn,” she said.
He qualified for Nationals in jumping in 1935 at age 17, and his dad gave him a quarter to make the trip.
“Here was a kid from a town that nobody had ever heard of who shows up at Nationals and wins it,” his only child Melissa McLean Jory said. He qualified for the 1936 Olympics but was badly hurt on a wind-blown landing that winter and missed going.
Hot Sulphur, ski town
Margaret returned to Hot Sulphur almost every summer of her life after that, and by the time she was a teenager she was working for her aunt full time.
“My friend Telly and I were the best waitresses in the county,” she said.
Hot Sulphur had four ski hills back then and Margaret recalls that in February 1936 the Rocky Mountain News sponsored an excursion train to the 25th Annual Winter Carnival in Hot Sulphur. More than 2,000 passengers arrived on three trains that weekend. (That same train later became the official ski train.
“There were no restrooms and no restaurants except for the hotel,” Margaret said. The Riverside was inundated. It was shoulder-to-shoulder people, she recalls.
There wasn’t much to do for fun in Hot Sulphur back then, like now, so the young couple would drive up to Grand Lake – to the Pine Cone Inn – on summer nights to dance. It cost 10 cents per dance, and since they didn’t have much money, they would have just three dances … “Oh, Barney could dance,” … drink a Coke and then drive home.
Margaret would wait by the front window of the hotel to watch for Barney, who she knew would be going to meet the train at 11 a.m.
One time, she was out there waiting, the snow was still piled high, and Barney got so caught up looking for Margaret in the window that he nearly ran the truck off the bridge. The only thing that saved him from plummeting into the river was the dual wheel that got stuck in the steel girder.
On the road
Barney was 19 in 1937 when the couple married, not old enough for a marriage license and barely able to afford the suit he bought to get married (the first suit he ever owned) not to mention a big wedding. The couple eloped in Denver.
Shortly after they married the couple started traveling the country for ski races and Barney switched from ski jumping to slalom. He was named as an alternate for the 1940 Olympic squad after skiing alpine for only two years.
But, then the war came and everybody was signing up. Barney, with his skiing experience, would have been a perfect candidate for the 10th Mountain Division, but another Hot Sulphur friend who had already joined wrote and said, “Don’t join this outfit. It’s a mess.”
So he signed up for the Air Force instead. As luck would have it, somebody recognized his name as it came across his desk, and Barney was assigned to the Army Air Force Arctic Survival School in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he was in charge of teaching pilots how to survive in snowy conditions should their planes go down.
Margaret came back to Hot Sulphur during the war and worked in the county courthouse.
After the war, Barney earned a spot on the 1948 Olympic team. After that, he went on to work for the Groswold ski factory in Denver, losing his amateur status and disqualifying him from FIS ski racing. He was inducted into the US National Ski Hall of Fame in 1959 and the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1978.
Barney had spent his whole life on the snow. He skied all over the world, from Europe to South America.
“But Hot Sulphur Springs was always home to him,” his daughter said. “He was an ambassador from Hot Sulphur wherever he went.”
Barney was 3 years old the first time he skied and he skied the spring before he died – at Mary Jane in 2005 – in a foot of new snow. His grandsons skied down with him, wing men on either side. His health was bad that last time he skied, and he had a hard time walking from the car to the chairlift. But as soon as he hit the top of Mary Jane Trail, everything eased, Melissa said: “He could ski better than he could walk.”
It was the things that made Barney McLean a world class skier that Margaret loved most: He loved speed. Bumps didn’t bother him. And, when faced with a challenge he just picked a line and was gone.
– Learn more about the life of Barney McLean at Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs. The Grand County Historical Association is organizing a county-wide celebration of 100 years of skiing in Grand County, beginning on the anniversary of the first winter carnival in Hot Sulphur Springs Dec. 30, 2011. Contact the museum to learn how to help, 725-3939.
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