Reckling: When the cabin came down
It was the quintessential log cabin built from logs and caulked with aged mortar resulting in imperfectly beautiful architecture. It was perched on an outcropping that offers a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the Woody Creek canyon and its verdant valley floor. This is where the cabin had sat for nearly 65 years, after being moved from a neighboring cattle ranch in 1949. History of the American West and mountain rusticity literally oozed from between the log beam siding and the old gray chinking spoke of times gone by.
In the late 1930s, widowed ranch owner Margaret Arlian had the cabin built to provide housing for the family to whom she had leased her land. Margaret’s husband had died, leaving her with their two young children and a sizable working ranch to manage. She decided to lease her land to someone who could continue its productive crops of hay, grain and potatoes. Eventually, Margaret Arlian sold the ranch to Otis and Mary Smallwood in November 1943.
The Smallwoods also had two children, daughter Doris, 13, and son Norman, 7. Norm Smallwood recollects that the cabin was occasionally used for guest quarters during hunting season and the only time the cabin was rented out was during the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival held in Aspen in the summer of 1949. He remembers, “During that event, visitors far exceeded the lodging resources. Any space available was in demand despite the primitive amenities.” A lot like modern-day Aspen’s population influx during the high seasons.
Smallwood also reflected that “very few (people) living in the Roaring Fork Valley knew anything about Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, at the time.” The typical response of the local people was, “What’s this all about?” This reaction is still the attitude of locals when something new and unfamiliar comes to the valley.
In 1949, the Smallwood property was sold to Al and Alma Barbier. Shortly after the Barbiers took possession of the property, nearby rancher Cliff Vagneur purchased the cabin to house his seasonal hired hands who helped work his family’s spread, the Elkhorn Ranch, about a half a mile farther up Woody Creek Road.
The Elkhorn Ranch was a working cattle ranch homesteaded by Jeremie Vagneur in the late 1880s. Jeremie’s five sons would eventually acquire thousands of acres to form their own respective ranches throughout Woody Creek and McLain Flats.
Two generations later, it’s easy to understand why Jeremie’s grandson Cliff had moved the cabin onto his family’s place. The Elkhorn ran a few hundred head of registered Hereford cattle, had a prime herd of Brown Swiss dairy cows, a large chicken house and utilized a variety of horses to help manage the labor intensive hayfields and crops. It made a perfect bunkhouse for the extra cowboys hired to help out on the 1,200-acre ranch.
In 1964, the Elkhorn was sold to Carol Gallun Craig and became known as the Craig Ranch. The cabin remained on its scenic perch alongside Woody Creek Road and was more recently home to artist Michael Cleverly, a tenant of the Craigs, who lived in the cabin for the last 15 years.
In keeping with Cleverly’s creative expression, the cabin quickly became a memorable roadside landmark. All summer long pink and purple petunias spilled from its window boxes, the artist’s strikingly bizarre, wood-carved totems filled the front yard and a handsome cat, or two, could usually be spotted watching the world go by from the cabin’s front window.
One of the loveliest Woody Creek landscapes that I’ve ever seen was painted by Cleverly. It is one he rendered from a photograph taken by his friend, Nancy Pfister. It captures the mesmerizing beauty of fall color in Woody Creek and is one of the many unforgettable views the old cabin offered.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discourse about the size, scale and style of new development, but it can be equally disappointing and emotional when something seemingly permanent to the landscape suddenly disappears.
On an early August morning, the cabin was razed as a result of the owner’s wish to make the 1-acre property more desirable to potential buyers. As the splintered pieces of the old structure were noisily deposited into the large construction dumpster, I couldn’t help but see the lives and times spent in this historical cabin vanish into the dusty bin.
A long thread of Woody Creek’s history was wiped out in just a couple of hours, and the road to Lenado has lost a big chunk of irreplaceable mountain character. It seems strange, but I keep thinking about the spirits of the many people who took shelter in the ramshackle log home, shared meals within, sought warmth by its fire and were inspired by its lovely setting.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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