Tony Vagneur: 130 years and still standing, lonely home made with six generations of love
It’s built like an old barn — four-sided, peaked roof falling off in the four corners of a witch’s tale, positioned almost exactly true to the four winds. Built in the 1880s at the far northeastern end of what was known at the time to be Woody Flats (today’s misspelled McLain Flats), it holds far more history than its forlorn, dilapidated exterior might reveal.
Built by my paternal great-grandmother’s cousin, Frederic Clavel, it was clearly a thriving homestead. Several barns built into the hillside, the house standing alone in the expansive meadow, it must have been quite impressive when it all was functioning. Logistically, in the beginning there was no water, with the exception of a primitive road built over the edge of the mesa, down to Woody Creek.
In 1888, Clavel (a Frenchman who never quite mastered the English language) built the Paradise Ditch, which carried water from Woody Creek around the southern steep wall of Woody Creek Canyon, making this property the virtual bread basket of what was to become McLean Flats (correct spelling … see opening paragraph). At the time, this gave Clavel and a man named McCormack the only properties on the Flats that had any irrigation.
My great-grandfather, Jeremie Vagneur, came to this area to work for Clavel, eventually buying the Clavel homestead and neighboring ranches of Pat Monahan on the Flats and one of Charles Hamilton, down in the bottom of Woody Creek. Hamilton, bemoaning the fact that his ranch was so far from Aspen, is famously quoted as saying, “When I first came through here in 1878, I could have homesteaded anywhere I wanted.”
The old house still stands, protected by Pitkin County’s historic preservation rules, but it is likely getting close to its expiration date, say in another 70 years or so. My grandfather, Ben, used to keep hired hands in the house, and I clearly remember a day of some sort of celebration up there, when I was 3 or 4 years old, eating ice cream and cake. Someone found a puff ball and made a big deal out of it — someone else cooked it up, starting me on a lifetime dietary quest for more of the same. Billy Grange’s maternal grandparents, Desandre, lived there for a time, working for Jeremie.
Billy Grange, who ranches across the highway from Basalt and has all the cute calves in the spring, remarked one time that, depending where he stands on his ranch, there are certain things very memorable and important to him that wouldn’t matter to anyone else.
Perhaps the same is true for the ranch I grew up on and for that particular old house, as well. At 11 years old, my grandfather took me to the large hayfield below that house to teach me how to rake hay. We were driving a Farmall 06 and pulling a John Deere rake. It was a very hot day and after a few rounds, Gramps told me to take a break and find some shade. I disappeared into the coolness of the house and watched him go around a few times. Cooled off, I came out and we traded places, Gramps taking refuge in the house. It was a special day between us.
A couple of years ago, my young grandson Cash and his mother rode around that same hayfield with me as I cut hay, making it six generations of my family who have had something to do with putting up hay in that field.
From almost anywhere on the north side of Woody Creek, it is impossible to not see that old house, looking structurally more sound than it is, keeping watch over my grandson and granddaughter. My partner Margaret and I see it on our hikes — when we gather cows you can’t miss it. You can see it from the highway, and it’s probably in the book of life somewhere.
Thinking about the longevity of life in the valley, think about this: The house was probably there when my great-grandfather arrived from Italy; it was there when Granddad was born, as it was for my dad and me. They’re gone now, but every time I glimpse the place, it puts a bit of warmth in my heart for it had special meaning for my ancestors. My daughter and her children, Charli and Cash, see it every day, although my grandchildren don’t have the feel of it, not yet.
The rain, snow, sun and winds of over 130 years have beat against the lonely house, and yet it stands, a beacon of the strength and tenacity of those early pioneers whose offspring and fellow travelers nod in its direction with a deep appreciation of all that it embraces.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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