Toklat: A gift shop with history and soul
February 10, 2004
How best to capture more than a half-century’s worth of history? In words and pictures, audiotapes and textiles. Natural food recipes and stew pots, hand-hewn sleds and dog prints.
The history of Toklat, that gift shop/ former restaurant/ bunkhouse/ loving home near the end of Castle Creek Road 12 miles south of Aspen, is intrinsically tied to dogs and dog sledding, even though the huskies haven’t worked the land since 1974.
But Toklat’s basic premise has always been its connection to nature. In fact, Toklat is an Eskimo word meaning “a valley formed by a glacier.”
Toklat’s history is best grouped by decade, from the post WWII-days when Stuart Mace, who passed away in 1993, and Isabel, now 81, arrived here from Salida, Colo., looking for just the right place to raise their family, their sled dogs and pioneer what was then a radical live-off-the-land lifestyle.
Stuart had been in charge of the canine corps during the army and was looking for an appropriate place to foster “the whole person — mind, body, artistic self,” he once told journalist Bill Moyers.
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After rejecting two sites closer to Aspen, the family hooked up with Ted Ryan, who owned the Highland/Bavarian Lodge in the Castle Creek Valley that was originally slated to be a ski resort. Ryan offered the Maces the lease on acreage near the former mining town of Ashcroft.
Dog sleds and Jeeps full of materials were hauled up the unpaved Castle Creek Road to build the Toklat lodge, beginning in about 1947.
Just three people, though characters they were, resided there at the time: Joe Sawyer, “The Whispering Swede” and Jack Leahy.
“Joe hunted for his food, but no one knows how he survived,” said Lynne Mace ? who now runs the family business ? with a chuckle. The Swede had his own special talent. “If you threw a watch in his cabin, you could return and it would be fixed,” she recalled.
Legend has it that his spirit performs the same duty to this day.
Dog sledding was the essence of Toklat’s first decade as guests would reside in the lodge and tour the snowy expanses with the dogs or on skis.
The Toklat reputation grew to interest Hollywood: the “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” television series filmed its winter scenes here from 1954-56.
By 1959, Toklat’s focus moved to Aspen, where the Maces opened their restaurant first in the current site of the Hickory House and later, to the Durant Avenue location now occupied by the Chart House.
The Aspen restaurant lasted a decade, before more limited meal service returned to the original site.
Dog sledding continued in the upper valley until 1974, when a young and eager musher proved himself worthy to care for the animals. He moved the operation to Snowmass Village, calling his new business Krabloonik.
That same period saw the Maces help form the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), which remained true to their environmental convictions.
Going hand in hand with that emphasis were the founding of nature walks and “council fires,” where stories of the area are readily shared around a crackling fire.
Self-sufficiency has always been a theme here at 9,500 feet above sea level, but so have hospitality and ecological concerns.
Long before it was trendy, the Mace family was cooking healthily, with quinoa, grains and root vegetables. In the 1950s, critics scoffed at this style of eating and thinking.
The family’s interests shifted to the Malachite farm in Southern Colorado, on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, during the early 1980s.
Stuart also used that time to revitalize his love of art, including the luscious woods that continue to fill the Toklat gallery, and photography. That renewed fervor continued until his death in Aug. 1993.
Lynne Mace returned to Toklat originally to care for her ailing father and later, to run the family business.
“When I was growing up it was a veritable revolving door around here,” Mace said of the “waifs and strays” whom her parents would offer a roof, a hot meal, even a job.
But here she was, after stops in England, France, Washington D.C. and Connecticut, an orphan of the big bad world who had traveled extensively but was ready to stoke the home fires.
Toklat’s current incarnation is as a a gift shop featuring regional artists and one-of-a-kind crafts. It’s managed by Aspen native Sue Wall, who has her own fond memories of the Ashcroft valley, including weekly picnics.
Her remembrances are revitalized by other’s recollections.
“One of the great joys of working here is the number of people who come in and have these wonderful stories,” said Wall. “People walk in here with reverence.”