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A toast to the tavern

Chad Abraham
Woody Creek Tavern regulars Gaylord Guenin, left, and David Steele watch sports on TV and catch up on the daily news. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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Man has always needed a place to get a beer.Even if he wasn’t a drinker, where the beer was served was critical because, throughout centuries, such places were more than drinking holes. They were gathering spots for politicians, businessmen and citizens looking to discuss the politicians and businessmen.”Most colonial taverns were the only available public meeting place in early American towns and countrysides,” says the website for the Dobbin House Tavern, a historic site in Gettysburg, Pa. It was built in 1776. “Throughout the colonies everyone drank liquor, from babes to ministers, due to their rigorous lifestyle, scanty diets, bitter cold winters without home heating and lack of medicines.”Woody Creek in 1980 was a lot like an early American colony: It needed a gathering spot and virtually everyone drank.

“We put out a petition on how we would like to have a tavern in our neighborhood,” recalled George Stranahan, the longtime Woody Creek resident and philanthropist who opened the bar with his wife, Patti, and Mary Harris and her then husband John Kent. “Something like 95 percent of the residents signed our petition.”The Woody Creek Tavern turns 25 this year, and those responsible for its existence remember well all the work, weirdness and happiness it has wrought since it opened on Sept. 4, 1980.Genesis of a tavernEarly in 1980, a communal crisis was developing in Woody Creek. The hamlet’s only grocery store was under new management; the owners of the store, Lee and Virginia Jones, had sold the business to a real estate firm.The company “had put together a bunch of investors, and they were going to manage the thing as a store,” Stranahan said. “This investor group had paid too much for it. The next thing you know, the investors are saying where’s the return? The real estate firm basically was unable to satisfy their investors with a return. It just wasn’t working, and they were going to fold.”It wasn’t just another store closing. Stranahan said the old grocery store was pivotal in allowing neighbors to catch up and discuss the local doings.

“For a lot of us here, that [site] had been the Woody Creek store, post office and it was our chat room,” he said. “It wasn’t very seriously a store, but it was enough. It was central to our community.”We’re sitting around [saying], ‘We’re going to lose our place.’ It really was our place in that sense of a special place a community has. So we’re brooding about, ‘Well, there’s three kinds of special places in any community: One is the tavern, the other’s the church and the other’s the school. We already got a school and we’re not up for a church, so therefore it’s got to be a tavern.’ Process of elimination.”The four approached the real estate company and asked to rent the store space. They requested a reasonable rent – $400 a month – to get started and told company officials that the rent could be raised as the tavern’s success grew.The company agreed. “It was better than what they were doing because they had been losing money,” Stranahan said.The Bucket of Blood After working all day on local ranches or at other jobs, the four would work on the tavern’s infrastructure and eclectic interior design. For the critical kitchen equipment, they traveled to a giant warehouse in Denver that sold used culinary devices.

“This guy goes to the broke restaurant and buys the stoves and the pots and the pans,” Stranahan recalled. “They’re maybe third, fourth, fifth-hand by the time [we] got it. But it’s how you do it.”The stove was so heavy that it busted the floor joists, necessitating more repairs. In April 1980, signatures for their petitions were collected, and the four went through the process of obtaining the requisite permits. Eight months later, the place was polished up and ready to open. A final, bureaucratic hurdle remained, however.”Then there was the liquor license,” Stranahan said. “Stanley Natal – his grandfather settled here, his dad lived here. He was a third-generation Italian rancher – came down to the county commissioners’ hearing and spoke against it. He said, ‘Once before, long ago, up at the top of the hill, there had been a tavern. And it was known as the Bucket of Blood because they had such vicious miner fights on Saturday nights.’ Stanley evoked his whole memory of the Bucket of Blood up by Lenado.”One of the guys in the trailer park spoke against it. He said, ‘Look, I’m a drunk. You put a tavern next to me it’s not going to help me recover.'”Unfortunately for Natal and the alcoholic, the commissioners approved it. Unfortunately for Stranahan and the other restaurateurs, the commissioners approved it quickly.”In five minutes, they basically said, ‘You got it.’ The unfortunate part was they scheduled 15 minutes for the hearing. They voted yes in five minutes; they had 10 minutes to kill. Disaster,” Stranahan whispered. “They started looking at the map, and they said, ‘You guys don’t have a good parking plan.’ Well, we had only thought about it for about six months. They had thought about it for two minutes.

“They redesigned our parking plan in the remaining 10 minutes. Their parking plan is now 400 yards across the street, with drunks going through traffic. Thanks a lot.”The commissioners’ plan remains today.Part of the legend”I was here opening day,” said Gaylord Guenin, a permanent figure at the Woody Creek Tavern. The maitre d’, as Stranahan called him, of the tavern would later help keep the watering hole afloat through a difficult period in the mid-1980s.Guenin said the tavern gained an ominous notoriety immediately upon opening.”When this place first started, people were afraid to come in. It had a rough reputation,” he said. “We still had the working cattle ranches around here, so we had the cowboys [coming to the tavern]. It was dark and it was out of the way. The people in town and families weren’t comfortable.”

Stranahan said “the first 18 months were a real struggle. It was not a tourist attraction.” But it was fun.”Up at 6 [a.m.], get the irrigating done, come in in the afternoon and make the specials for dinner, go out and reset the irrigating, come back in, bartend and Patti [was] the line cook. And you know what? It was really, truly fun,” Stranahan said.But after a couple of years, the four original owners had had enough. They were burned out on running the restaurant and looking to other areas of interest.In stepped Daniel and Doreen Goldyn and Andy and Marcia Arasz. Photographs of Danny and Andy adorn a wall toward the back of the tavern. Inscribed beneath both pictures is, simply, “Part of the legend.”Guenin said their business acumen was key in attracting new species of customers. The new owners put in the well-lit patio area in front of the tavern, where gas pumps used to be, which was crucial in drawing a more genteel clientele.”All of a sudden people felt comfortable,” Guenin said. “They could come and sit on the patio, and then go inside and look around and see if we were killing one another. Once they realized we weren’t a bunch of Neanderthals down here running around, they started coming in.”

The patio meshed nicely with another phenomenon gaining popularity at the time: the advent of mountain and road biking.”Danny’s watching all these people ride by in bicycles and not stopping, and that was another reason for the patio: He wanted to attract them in,” Guenin said.Of course, it wasn’t all business at the tavern. The staff managed to find time for Dionysian parties, weddings and frequent mischief. Few likely know that the tavern was an “official” sponsor of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The staff even made shirts.”We took the Olympic logo, which is illegal, and in the middle circle we put a shot glass depicting a ‘Biff,’ which was our favorite drink down here for years,” he said. The restorative’s ingredients are Bailey’s Irish Cream with a floater of Irish whiskey. “I think it was NBC covering [the Olympics] that year, and I sent a bunch of T-shirts to them. It made Time magazine, NBC, ABC and even CBS.”But there was fallout. A few months after the Games ended, “some guy came in, obviously a lawyer – three-piece suit, carrying his briefcase. I happened to be bartending. He asked if we were selling these shirts. I said, ‘No. Some guy in the trailer park was doing it and he didn’t even have our permission.'”

With Hunter S. Thompson living just up the road, dangerous madness was never in short supply. Especially after the place closed for the night.”I was bartending at night, it was essentially after closing,” Guenin recalled. Just a few barflies remained. “He walked in and he had a pistol in his hand and he started screaming at me – what an asshole I was, how I had ruined the tavern. I’m standing at the end of the bar and he points it at me, and I know Hunter, he’s not going to shoot me, I thought.”He pulls the trigger and that son of a bitch went off. It was a blank in there. It just scared the hell out of everyone in there. He started laughing. Dangerous stuff.”The author loved the place, and the feeling was mutual. “He liked to do his breakfast in there about 3:30, 4 in the afternoon,” Stranahan said. “It wasn’t on the menu, but he’d get a plate of eggs and hashbrowns, a Bloody Mary and a Heineken.”He said tourists began hearing that Thompson and cowboys were frequenting the tavern. But over the years, the writer’s popularity proved too much, and in the last few years, Thompson, looking to avoid fans and tourists, only came in a handful of times. But his impact is lasting.”Hunter was a factor,” Guenin said of the tavern’s immense popularity. “People came down to see Hunter. You got used to that. We used to autograph books for him. All of us learned how to do the HST signature.”

“I think it gave us a jump-start as far as getting attention,” said Mary Harris, one of the founders and now current owner.Thompson’s affection for Dunhills also played a factor.When Aspen enacted its smoking ban in 1985, the Woody Creek Tavern became the last restaurant in the upper valley to allow smoking. But the bar’s employees breathed a sigh of relief when it, too, banned smoking about six years ago.”We were happy because we were the only place in the whole area left that had smoking,” Harris said. “Sometimes [patrons at] every table were smoking. It’s a small place and it was getting bad. All of us who work here were happy. People grumbled a lot at first just like people do when you make rules.”The decision helped curtail Thompson’s visits. “He didn’t come as often. He would come in the summer when he could sit out and smoke,” Harris said. “Or he would just wait until we were closed.”

In the late 1980s, Harris, remarried and living downvalley, again took over the tavern reins.Goldyn had terminal cancer and was down to his last option. He asked Stranahan to buy the tavern back.”Gaylord brought Dan up [on a] Friday afternoon. We knew Dan had cancer,” Stranahan said. He recounted what Goldyn told him: “There’s an experimental program at the University of Nevada. They have one bed left, and if I can come up with $250,000 on Monday, I can have that bed. And if I can’t, I’m dead. The only asset I have is the tavern.”Stranahan said that between Friday and Monday, “I borrowed $250,000. So we bought it back.””George did not want the tavern back, but he did it anyway because he just wanted to help [Goldyn] out,” Harris said. “He didn’t really want it so he asked other people [to run it]. Gaylord actually ran it for a while, and the employees kind of ran it for a while. They asked me if I would come back and manage it.”Cancer claimed Goldyn’s life shortly after he sold the tavern. Andy and Marcia Arasz later started a midvalley restaurant. Andy died of a heart attack at the restaurant in 1990.

In the current operating agreement, Stranahan and wife Patti and Harris and her husband, Shep, jointly own the three buildings that house the Woody Creek art studio, store and gallery.”It’s a love-hate relationship, just like any business, especially a restaurant,” said Harris. The hardest thing about running the tavern? “Just the time it takes to keep track of things – employees, bills, quality control.”Nowadays, tourists are the majority of tavern customers in July and August, during the 10 days around Christmas and for nearly three weeks in March.”That’s when you make your money, and if you’re smart you save it and get through the offseason,” Harris said with a laugh.The Woody Creek Tavern is not for puritans. Bumper stickers on the refrigerators, which were in the previous store, include: “Work-free drug place,” “I started at the bottom and I kind of like it here” and “Sorry I missed church. I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.”

Hundreds of pictures, articles and other oddities dot the walls. Alongside white Christmas lights on the ceiling is a menagerie of lighted objects: a pineapple, a cow’s skull, a No. 3 pool ball.On a recent offseason day around noon, small-town mellowness was back at the tavern. A few locals sat at the bar. Rachel Smith, who has been a waitress there for almost two decades, helped a customer relocate to the patio, where the patron had her own ashtray and two Fat Tires.Harris agreed with the opinion that Smith is an institution unto herself. “She’s got her own little following,” Harris said.And while the Woody Creek Tavern’s following can no longer be called little, some days it appears little has changed in the gathering spot’s 25 years.”I’m damn proud of it,” Stranahan said. “I’m not proud of the tourist traffic, but in the offseason it belongs to us.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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