A history of Owl Farm
July 8, 2005
There has been so much written about Hunter S. Thompson and Owl Farm out in Woody Creek lately, maybe it’s time a little history gets thrown at the subject.The road from Highway 82 to Lenado and parts unknown was dirt, mostly red, fertile dirt that was stirred into dust with the passing of every car, horse or buggy that traveled it. Woody Creek was a ranching community and the as-yet-unnamed Owl Farm was owned by Margaret Arlian, a woman who made cheese, wine and brandy, which, according to my cousin Wayne, was not always predictably mild. It was probably in the late ’40s or early ’50s when she sold the place to a man named Otis Smallwood and his wife. Smallwood was a large man who smoked cigars, wore white shirts, worried about his frail wife, and made model railroad engines, a big draw for me when I was a very young boy. Of the two Smallwood kids, the girl married a bronco rider from Meeker and the boy, in between stints with the Forest Service, became well educated and went on to a stellar career in the world of business. The Jehovah’s Witnesses figured in there somewhere. I’m not sure what happened to the Smallwood parents, but one day they were gone, replaced by Al and Alma Barbier, a hard-working couple who always had an eye toward a better way to get things done. Early on their watch, the original ranch house that stood along Woody Creek Road burned down, giving the Barbiers the welcome opportunity to build a new house of logs, one more suitable to their style of living. That same house, with the now infamous kitchen, stands there today. The Barbiers were innovators and willing to try most anything to increase production and sales in their various enterprises. They not only sold eggs, they guaranteed them; their milk barn, now a guest house, was the finest in the valley with an immaculately clean concrete floor and, of course, automatic milking machines. They were also innovators in land development, in a way, and were among the first in Woody Creek to subdivide, long before Pitkin County had heard of zoning. In the early ’60s, the Barbiers sold what remained of the place, still a large ranch by today’s standards, and moved to town, opening up the Sweet and Snack Shop, the coolest teen hangout Aspen ever saw, then or now (Freddie Fisher was also a regular). They had sold the ranch to the Sandersens of Aspenhof, Maine, who owned the namesake Aspenhof Lodge on Aspen’s Main Street. Of course, this lodge was sold and renamed the Christiania. The Sandersens were great neighbors, particularly since their eldest son, William, or Billy, was in my grade at school and it afforded us both the opportunity to share “guy” stuff with someone. I hadn’t seen Billy in a long time and then came the tragic news that he had been killed in Vietnam. I was in college then, and the true cost of the war was inextricably brought home with his death. Billy was buried on the ranch in Woody Creek, a fitting and proper resting place for a kid who gave everything for his country. Late in her life, his mother called me to reminisce about Billy and we covered some territory that was very important to her. The grief of a mother who loses a child is never gone, its dilution measured in minuscule drops. Apparently, the ranch was cut up a little more, and Hunter Thompson ended up with part of the land north of the Woody Creek road, including the main log house and dairy barn the Barbiers had built. There wasn’t much fanfare when Thompson hit town, as I recall, and soon the main house seemed to have most of the life sucked out of it. Quiet and uninviting during the day, it didn’t have the allure that would make it a neighborhood stop. His writing ability notwithstanding, it appears from this quarter that the continuum of time will judge Thompson’s celebratory era in Woody Creek as a hand-me-down thought unneeded, but tolerated, by a unique neighborhood. Tony Vagneur welcomes your comments at email@example.com. Read him here every Saturday.