A meat-and-potatoes kind of place
Long before Aspen became a champagne-and-caviar, jet-set destination, it was a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. Early inhabitants were hell-bent on survival, and the cultivation of food sources quickly became a priority. To endure the harsh mountain winters of this isolated valley was no easy feat. The arrival of hearty European immigrants who were well-versed in farming practices and livestock management from their own homeland mountain origins was a true blessing for the valley’s fledgling populace.
While driving past a large field belonging to a neighboring ranch, the bent figures of men laboring in the afternoon sun caught my eye. They were collecting potatoes, and the results of their hard work were evident by the completely full front-loaders of tractors. The large loaders were brimming with the light-brown beauties where the men had emptied countless buckets. I was not only reminded of the grueling work associated with growing spuds but the potato’s important role in history during the early settlement of this area.
Pioneers of the Roaring Fork Valley first grew potatoes for their families, but commercial production blossomed in the late 1890s. Potato crops flourished in the loamy, volcanic soil found throughout the midvalley ranch and farm areas. The silver boom in Aspen created an immediate market as well as the challenge of feeding thousands of people. With a large diet of meat and potatoes and the rapid decimation of wild-game resources, livestock, hay and potatoes became leading commodities.
With the arrival of the railroads in the valley, ranchers and farmers had the insurance of shipping to outside markets. Train-car pickups in Woody Creek and Snowmass facilitated the delivery of potatoes all the way to New York City. In addition, the acquisition of improved farm machinery (horse-pulled and then tractor-pulled) and construction of strategically located irrigation ditches greatly increased production and crop security.
The two most prolific varieties of potatoes grown during the early years were Red McClures and Russet Burbanks. Irish immigrant and Carbondale potato grower Thomas McClure developed the Red McClure — a red-skinned, white-fleshed potato — in the early 1900s. Colorado government agricultural reports indicate that the potatoes produced from the Roaring Fork, Woody Creek, Crystal, Eagle and Fryingpan watersheds, with Carbondale at the center, far exceeded any other region in Colorado and outproduced the entire state of Idaho.
The importance of this leading crop cannot be ignored. From 1900 to 1950, potatoes reigned as a lead cash crop. So vital was this crop’s success to local residents that schools would be closed for a week so that schoolchildren could help collect the harvest for timely shipment.
My own personal memories of digging for potatoes stem from my childhood stays at the Anderson home in Woody Creek. Mary Anderson maintained a splendid vegetable garden, and with the help of her five children (and guests like me), it was watered and kept weed-free.
One evening I was sent out to the garden to collect potatoes for dinner. I raced out to the garden and walked every perfect row but could not find the potatoes. I returned to the house and reported, “There aren’t any potatoes out there!” The Anderson kids all looked at one another with a knowing look, and Herman, the oldest boy, volunteered to return to the garden with me. We sank to our knees in front of some leafy green plants, and I watched him plunge his hands into the rich soil and pull out a tater in each hand. I was a city kid and had no earthly clue that potatoes, or tubers, grew beneath the ground. I began to feel about beneath each plant and brought up potato after potato until he chuckled and said, “Enough, Miggy!”
Today, there are still several historic potato cellars that can be found in the Woody Creek area on the old ranches that once thrived with agrarian and cattle activity. Carbondale just celebrated its 104th Potato Day, making it the oldest community festival in the valley.
Yes, things have changed a bit since the potato culture of the early 1900s. The men collecting this year’s harvest no longer collect Red McClures or Russet Burbanks but gather Rio Grande Russets and Stobrawas (a Polish varietal) — specialty potatoes for the production of vodka. This bumper crop will be trucked to the local Woody Creek Distillery, where the transformation into vodka will take place.
Each day is a nostalgic journey, whether I’m passing the men hard at work plucking brown potatoes from the sun-kissed mesas of the Woody Creek Canyon or stopping to let the cowboys move herds of bawling cows to their winter pasture. Like the old spud cellars that still stand, this valley is fortunate to maintain remnants of the lifestyle of yore.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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