Turn-of-the-century barroom celebrity
December 3, 2009
Ski tourists of the 1950s settled on bar stools to hear Aspen’s aging miners tell tales of the underground. Just a half-century earlier those same miners delighted in the barroom stories of early western pioneers. Even though Wyatt Earp rode in to Aspen in the 1880s to arrest a criminal, Aspen had not been a shoot-’em-up Western town. But Aspen had provided a resting place for some rugged Wild-West characters. Captain Jack Barrick held court as Aspen’s most popular barroom barrister in the early 1900s.
Captain Barrick enjoyed telling war stories. He had enlisted in the Union Army at an early age. He was captured during the Civil War and claimed that he had spent four months in Libby prison, a Confederate operation notorious for the number of prisoners who died from overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Barrick embellished his story as he described having no implements to eat his cornmeal other than his own cupped hands. Libby imprisoned only captured officers, so Barrick may have fabricated that story entirely. He never claimed to have served as an officer until after the war, when he continued his career in the Army.
The Captain recounted travels throughout the West. He had worked in courier services and had spent some time guiding a group of Mormons from Omaha to Salt Lake City. For many years he had guided settlers through Wyoming.
Barrick’s story of chasing after stagecoach robbers in South Dakota earned his listeners’ respect. His accounts of tracing gold bullion gave him a “Sherlock Holmes” reputation. His claim that a couple of bullet slugs still lodged in his body, received while chasing a couple of desperadoes, increased his stature as a rugged lawman.
Captain Jack’s most gruesome, and perhaps most exaggerated, story occurred at Fort Yuma, Ariz., in 1886. Barrick claimed a 14-year-old boy came into town inquiring about a bounty offered for several Apache chiefs advertised on a wanted list. The boy carried two giant pistols strapped to his chest and he looked like he meant business. Three days later the boy returned carrying a gunnysack. When he opened the bag, out fell the heads of the three chiefs.
Barrick worked on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Colorado survey. He described setting up survey markers, stacks of stones six miles apart. He said that when the Survey had worked near Snowmass, they met with a minor disaster. One day the horses ate “poison weed” the nickname for larkspur, a deadly plant when it is in bloom. Their loss of 12 horses postponed work for two months until replacements could be found.
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Despite that postponement, Barrick became acquainted with Aspen. As life became boring in camp, members of the party would head for town. His enjoyment of each stay led him eventually to retire in Aspen, in 1900, when he reached his late sixties. He spent most of his days telling stories over free drinks offered by the reporters and miners who were captivated by the good old days of the Wild West, especially if they were embellished, and maybe even entirely fabricated.