In 1953, John and Anne Holden, teachers at the Putney School in Vermont, bought a green International Harvester truck. They searched the American West in that truck for an ideal place to start an independent, coed boarding school, in the model of Putney, “for college-bound boys and girls who are sound of body and mind, and full of a spirit of adventure.” After surveying numerous locales, the Holdens came upon the Western Colorado town of Carbondale, a rugged ranching town in the shadow of 13,000-foot Mt. Sopris. In Carbondale, they knew they had found the place for Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a new school that would be “an antidote to modern, easy living.”
Philanthropist and rancher Harald “Shorty” Pabst was fond of the Holdens’ educational ideals, which recalled his Dartmouth alma mater. Pabst donated to CRMS the Bar Fork Ranch at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers, whose 350 acres would form the school’s Carbondale base. In keeping with John Holden’s view that “work breeds confidence, self-satisfaction, the will to live,” students were instrumental in building and renovating early classroom and dormitory space, cooking, and tending the ranch—in short, building CRMS from the ground up.
CRMS’s academics merged the rigor of a traditional college-prep school with a broader, community-based philosophy that emphasized the student's role as part of a larger whole. A typical day might begin with Latin, Melville, and Camus and segue into a geological exploration of a nearby coal mine.
The deserts and mountains of the Southwest would compose CRMS’s extended campus. Taking cues from renowned experiential educator John Dewey and Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn, wilderness trips and other outdoor programs became a substantial aspect of the curriculum in 1971. CRMS was ahead of the curve in instituting the nation’s first kayaking program, a comprehensive ski program in both Nordic and Alpine disciplines, and a well-rounded climbing program, in addition to conventional secondary school sports.
Arts at CRMS have a distinctive history as well. The Adobe Arts Building, a campus landmark built by faculty and students, dates to 1962, and the Whitaker Forge—one of the nation’s only high school blacksmithing programs—was established (and run for 13 years) by Frances Whitaker, one of the 20th Century’s most renowned blacksmiths. Students’ paintings, sculpture, silversmithing, and more rotate through regular displays in primary buildings.
The Holdens felt that the development of a well-rounded, aware student should not be left to extracurricular activities. So service to the community became ingrained in the fabric of the CRMS experience. In 1965, students established Scholarship Work Day to help two foreign students obtain airfare from their native countries. Then 1972 saw the advent of the Interim Program, during which students frequently participate in off-campus service projects around the country or even internationally; in May of 1973, senior-class service projects were instituted. Students were also instrumental in helping the town of Pearlington, Miss., recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
CRMS’s community focus led naturally to a leadership role in regarding stewardship of the land. The late '70s saw classes and experimentation in solar energy, leading to the construction of the Solar Dorm—the first of its kind in America. An organic school garden, xeric-landscaping demonstrations, and other elements of responsible agriculture took root in the '80s and '90s, and a biodiesel-fuel work program was established. Sustainability pervades conversations throughout CRMS, as the school participates in environmental solutions on and beyond the school campus.
Today, CRMS boasts a student body of over 160, brand new dormitories and state-of-the-art academic buildings, a half-acre solar array, and programs in state-of-the-art disciplines such as sustainability and environmental stewardship. The Roaring Fork Valley, in which it sits (just 30 miles from Aspen), has evolved as well from a predominantly ranching community into a sophisticated, rapidly growing locale with upscale amenities; CRMS has gone from being a boarding-only school to offering a premier, competitive day-student option. But amid change within and beyond the Roaring Fork Valley, CRMS holds firm to the educational values of the Holdens. We still have the green truck.