The Wild West … in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

The Wild West … in Carbondale

John Colson

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Carbondale resident Michael Chandler is living out his dreams of life in the Old West. On his land, on the shoulders of Mount Sopris, stand a dozen prairie schooners ” some all alone, others lined up in a short wagon train.

The covered wagons, with their rusting hardware and canvas sheets, as well as an array of other historical artifacts, are mute testimony to Chandler’s deep connection to the past.

“I think it’s great,” said Chandler’s wife, Jackie. “I love that the schoolkids can come up and see what it was like.”

Local schoolkids visit this outdoor museum regularly, wandering through the sagebrush and stopping at each wagon for a story and a long stare at the century-old gear. The tour ends at an old Texas chuck wagon (he’s also got one from Iowa), where a bonfire blazes in a ring of stones and a coffee can filled with hot chocolate hangs from a crossbar above the flames.

“That’s what they always remember,” chuckled Chandler, “the hot chocolate.”

Chandler’s wagons come from across the West, as well as from spots along the Oregon Trail, where it snakes its way north and west along the Missouri River and over the Rockies.

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“All these wagons are 120 to 150 years old,” he said with pride, “as is the debris that’s on them.”

That “debris” includes such priceless heirlooms as an intact butter churn; a large tin that once held Mica Axle Grease for keeping the wagon wheels turning; glass bottles that once held whiskey and liniment, unearthed in the basement of the old Shaft restaurant and bowling alley in Aspen (which reputedly once was a whorehouse, hence the liniment); ancient saddles on a crossbar of wood strung between two posts; a washtub that cowboys might have used on the trail (“basically, they’d only get their butt wet,” Chandler said, pointing to the small tub); and so much other gear it would be impossible to list it all.

Off the back of one wagon hangs a steamer trunk Chandler said came all the way from Russia, a fact he determined from the Russian-language newspaper that lines the trunk’s interior.

Behind one of the chuck wagons is what he says is a rare “hooligan,” a small wagon with one axle and two wheels that was towed behind the larger wagon, to provide extra space without requiring an extra team of oxen or horses.

Other wagons are oddities.

One is a large freight wagon from Chihuahua, Mexico, which Chandler bought from a couple of Mexicans who were hauling it on a flatbed truck to Aspen. It once belonged to their great-great-grandfather, they told him, and was used to haul beans from his small farm to the nearby town market some 160 years ago.

Another is a Swiss sleigh, more than 150 years old, that he bought from a rancher who had it sitting in a barn. And there’s a two-bench buggy from Witchita, Kan., that looks like it might have carried a doctor and his family.

Chandler’s been asked why he simply parks the wagons out in the oak stands and sagebrush, making only one concession to the concept of preservation ” he buys a new “sheet” of canvas to stretch over the wooden hoops every seven or eight years, when they dry-rot and start to disintegrate.

“Where else am I supposed to put ’em?” he asks in return.

How about a museum, he is asked.

“This is a museum,” he replies, adding that he thinks it fitting that the wagons are slowly disintegrating into the ground.

“I’ll enjoy them as long as they allow me to enjoy them,” he said. “They’re returning to the earth the way they should. Everything is happening as it should.”

Western roots

The West truly is in the Chandlers’ blood. Both sides of Michael’s family came to Colorado in covered wagons more than a century ago; Jackie is a direct descendant of the famed Buffalo Bill Cody.

The 57-year-old Chandler started collecting the wagons because, growing up in Denver in the early 1950s, “I’ve had a love affair with the Old West, and I never got over it.”

His obsession didn’t begin with covered wagons, though. In the 1960s and ’70 Chandler was an Aspen cop. He was sometimes assigned to instruct bank tellers on what to do if they were robbed at gunpoint; the training sessions would end with a mock robbery, complete with guns loaded with blanks and an officer playing either a customer or a teller who gets “shot.” Chandler said “blood” would spurt from a “blood bag” taped to the “victim’s” shoulder, and everybody had a fine time.

At some point, a local convention organizer approached Chandler with the idea of putting on a mock gunfight for the conventioneers to spice up their stay in the Wild West. He agreed. It was a hit. And he was off and shooting. Soon after, he began collecting the covered wagons.

“I’m a recovering gunfight-aholic,” he remarked, adding that gunfighting gigs took him to towns from Arizona to Montana, Missouri to New Mexico. He still hands out cards of “Kincade,” his alter ego, as being available for “Train Robberies, Bank Holdups.” The card advises those interested to “Wire Glenwood Springs, Colorado” to get in touch (a tip of the Stetson to the television gunfighter, Paladin, who would pass out a similar card on the old “Have Gun, Will Travel” Western show on CBS).

These days, Chandler runs his own business, The Chandler Marketing Co., in Glenwood Springs, which he started after tiring of police work. He also is an author, having written a book on business practices, a children’s nonfiction book about an event involving the late John Denver, and a cowboy novel featuring Kincade as the central figure.

And though he’s basically retired from gunfight re-enactments, he will still put on a show for a special occasion since, “I still have all the stuff.”

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