Tony Vagneur: Aspen history lessons from the bar stools

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

If you could go back with me and saunter into the Red Onion bar with my great-uncle Tom Stapleton and listen to those old boys talk, most of ‘em in their 70s or 80s, what a treat it’d be.

Sit and watch as some topped their beer off with a little salt, others put a dab of ketchup in theirs; hope for a sip or maybe a Coke of your own. They were quiet talkers, looking mostly straight ahead, pulling smoking materials out of denim bib overall pockets, and reviewing what news they thought was important. Lined up at the bar or sitting around Beer Gulch, they seemed to enjoy the camaraderie more than anything anyone said, although history of the “old” days got a lot of mention.

They might bring up E.W.E. Koch, forerunner of the Koch family in Aspen. E.W.E. (Ernst Wilhelm Edward) was a well-educated man of German stock, and prior to his arrival in Aspen had been a professor of fine arts and languages at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. At the insistence of a man by the name of Henry Gillespie, Koch visited Ute Springs, a very young mining community that was soon to become Aspen.

There are varying accounts of the matter, but apparently it was Gillespie’s intention to name the town Ute City but was outvoted by the scallywag B. Clark Wheeler and his crew, who fairly well took over the town. It was either Gillespie or Wheeler (most likely Wheeler as Gillespie wasn’t too happy with Wheeler’s appearance on the scene) who asked Koch to survey and plat the newly named town of Aspen.

In any case, Koch, well-educated but a dilettante of the sciences, failed to adhere to true north in his survey of the town, instead using magnetic north, so however cool we may think we are, we’re a little off-kilter. At least according to the world of proper surveys, as if that really matters at this point in time. Take a look at the four directions as laid out in Gondola Plaza and you will see proof of the original error. Koch, by the mistake of a few degrees, left an unwanted but indelible mark on the town of Aspen.

Returning to Aspen after E.W.E. had left the scene, his son Harry G. arrived in 1884 with his wife Anna. Starting as a ditch digger, he was, within a few days, promoted to become the manager of the Light and Power Co. (for 17 years), and soon began to set up sawmills in various locations around the valley. He was the founder of The Koch Lumber Co., also sometimes known as Aspen Lumber Co., as written across the front of one of his now-demolished buildings, located at today’s Koch Park.

It is interesting to note that Harry Koch built the family house on West Main Street, the unmistakable structure with the rectangular wooden colonnades decorating the front entrance. In the beginning, he couldn’t afford to build the entire house, so he and his family lived in the basement for a period of time until he could construct the rest of the building. Perhaps that is what convinced him to get into the lumber business.

If the name Koch seems familiar to you other than Koch Park, it is likely because Harry Koch’s daughter, Dorothy, married local boy Judge William Shaw, hence Dorothy Koch Shaw. Between the two of them, they owned a good chunk of Aspen, and it’s possible they may have been the only couple to become millionaires during the “Quiet Years.”

Dorothy started the first museum in Aspen, operating out of the corner space in the Wheeler Opera House. Her husband, Judge Shaw, operated a coal delivery operation out of that same location along with his legal practice. They rented out various properties around town for ridiculously low monthly rates and were generous with furnishings, if needed.

Let me close this by saying that the proper pronunciation of “Koch,” as explained to me and others of Dorothy’s glory days in Aspen, is “Co.” Not “coke” as people of today seem to prefer, but “co.” Period. You might think that is nitpicking, but I’m sure Dorothy turns over in her grave a bit every time there’s a mispronunciation.

And by the way, I almost forgot, those old-timers in the Onion probably didn’t have all that much to say about the Kochs, at least not all that much at once, but they sure could give you a good run down when they weren’t reminiscing about this or that silver mine they’d worked or maybe talking about cutting logs in one of Koch’s Lenado sawmills.

You just never knew what those guys might say, but you knew they were the salt of Aspen.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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