Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Hear the clickety-clack, clickety-clack, steel against steel, and the deafening roar and rumble, beyond life-size, as 600 or more railroad cars thundered down the valley, Aspen to Glenwood. “Silver, my ass, we’re hauling spuds, boy, tons and tons of spuds.” In an ironic twist of fate, the 1893 demise of silver mining became a boon for the valley’s farmers and ranchers and railroads, creating a symbiotic relationship that endured well into the 1950s. Ranchers, their market once limited to Aspen’s miners, now had the means to transport produce and livestock to other areas. Silver mining had seen its best days, but in the fading light a new age was coming, a dynamic extraction from the earth of a different kind. Potatoes, oats, hay, horses and cattle nourished by the grass and loamy soil of our unique, high-altitude aerie thrived and quickly found a national market, generally bringing higher prices than similar commodities from other areas. It’s a big deal, if you read about those idyllic days, how farm or ranch life was a “family enterprise,” as though that was something unique in America. What isn’t so readily apparent, though, is the fact that the biggest contribution to this area of ranching and farming was the changing of the demographic from a population of mostly single, transient males into a serious, cohesive community of families, largely agrarian based. If not for this demographic change, Aspen likely would have become a ghost town during the period from the 1900s until at least the 1930s. Today, a lot of ski shops in town (used to be a lot of lodges, too) are family-owned and operated, simple family enterprises, so the successful paradigm continues. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad used to leave freight cars on sidings in Aspen, Woody Creek, Emma and Carbondale for the use of the ranchers. Each farmer might order six to 10 cars for his individual potato crop, to be shipped to buyers in Denver. Each car held about 50 tons of tubers, carefully loaded to railroad specifications. If you want to get dramatic with numbers, that works out to about 60 million pounds of potatoes shipped out of the Roaring Fork Valley each and every year. Fried, baked, boiled, raw, twice-stuffed, hashed, diced, sliced, chipped, mashed, any way you like ’em, headed your way. How does that translate into skier visits?There are a couple of guys, still alive, who’ll tell you how they purchased their ranches one year and paid them off the next with a single potato crop. No wonder they let the high schools out for two or three weeks every October for the annual potato harvest – the kids made good money working the fields and helped boost the local economy at the same time. It all ended in the late 1950s, early ’60s. The trains quit hauling spuds and it was a hassle to truck crops overland to Denver. Government interference killed a lot of it, with price controls and required methods of shipping that were unfriendly to the crops themselves. With some surprise last spring, I found myself on a mission to Torrington, Wyo., to pick up a potato planter and digger from a manufacturer up that way. Do they still make that stuff, I wondered? The Chaparral Ranch in Woody Creek, once a Vagneur holding for more than a hundred years that still maintains its agricultural heritage under new ownership by raising hay, is getting into the old-time ranching game in a big way. Like smart investors and ranchers everywhere, they are diversifying by selectively raising and buying foundation Black Angus breeding stock each year, looking to develop a large herd of championship cattle. In addition, they’ve plowed up 20 acres of prime farmland for planting potatoes in the spring. These spuds are going to go into some of the world’s finest vodka, produced right here in the valley. It might be true, although some don’t believe it, that silver mining will never come back, but like the never-ending wheel of life, potato growing has returned to the Woody Creek Canyon.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.