Tony Vagneur: The backstory of Woody Creek Tavern
The Woody Creek Tavern may have become a reliable barometer of when the summer season actually starts, at least according to many around the area. This past weekend at the Tavern was clearly a warmup for the official Spandex Season, which, since the death of the Design Conference, is usually attributed to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
The Tavern wasn’t exactly over-crowded, but it wasn’t exactly calm, either, and it looked like mostly a crowd of visitors from somewhere else. There was the predictable line waiting to get an outside table under those great new umbrellas, but fortunately, our favorite corner table was still available inside. Predictably, the local luminaries maintained their usual seats at the bar.
This may come as a surprise to many, but the current Woody Creek Tavern isn’t the first saloon to grace the Woody Creek Canyon. As early as 1885, Woody Creek was known as an up-and-coming mining town (take that, you agrarians), particularly attached to the Varney Tunnel (lead and zinc) in Lenado.
About this time, a stage stop was built near what is now the intersection of Upper River Road and Aspen Valley Downs Road, about a mile below the Tavern. Complete with stables, 10 or so hotel rooms and blacksmith shop, this was a happening place. The stage stopped, going both east and west, all day long. Most importantly, never was there built a stage stop without an accompanying saloon.
When the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad first rumbled up the valley in 1887, a siding and switching station was built at this stage stop, along with a section house for the railroad. The hotel and saloon across the tracks became a convenient stop for those needing a respite before the next leg of their journey. The stables became a stockyard for cattle, sheep and horses, to be shipped by rail.
The saloon was gone by 1906, and perhaps the Woody Creek Store had replaced the bar by then. My great-uncles, Jim and Louis Vagneur, bought the land and leased the buildings to various tenants over the years.
The Woody Creek Store and post office operated out of that location under several proprietors until 1958, when the operation was moved to the current location of the Tavern and Mobile Home Park. For you history buffs, the store was bought in 1922 by Ben Strawbridge, a retired Pitkin County sheriff and hoist operator at the Smuggler Mine. He sold it to Prue and Jess Bogue in 1938 who, like all the other owners, lived in an apartment behind the store. In 1953, the Bogues retired, selling the place to Lee and Virginia Vagneur Jones, who immediately got a 3.2-beer license to help lubricate trade.
In all honesty, the place was falling down, and by 1958, the Joneses packed it in and bought the land where the current Tavern and mobile home park stand from Jim Vagneur. His son-in-law, Jones, who had built our cow camp out of similar logs, was a skilled craftsman and built the log structure that today houses the Woody Creek Tavern.
As you look at the Tavern from the road, the general store and post office were on the right side of the building; the middle section was a garage, and the connected building on the left (where the community center gathered) was the living quarters for the Jones family. Out back, behind the trailer park, they had a large corral that kept their ever-present horses, until some sick SOB poisoned them. That’s another story, which came later.
I didn’t know her in the following years, but there was a very tall, good-looking young girl who summered in Woody Creek. She lived across from Aspen Valley Ranch and every once in a while, she and her paint mare Kumana would get the urge to head to the Woody Creek Store to buy some Cracker Jacks. It was an exercise in futility, for as soon as the girl got the box opened, the Cracker Jacks began to rattle around and the horse would spook, bucking and taking off for home. The Cracker Jacks always ended up in the ditch.
In 1980, George Stranahan took control of the building and had the clever idea to put in a saloon, or tavern if you prefer, and the Woody Creek Tavern was born. It was a brilliant strategy, as many of us crusty, original customers can attest. Names like George and Patti Stranahan, Gaylord Guenin, Mary and Shep Harris, Dan Goldyn, Andy Arasz and others mark a long line of owners over the years.
Today your hosts are Laura Wren and Kevin Willson, who are doing a remarkable job of upholding the tradition of a very unusual bar and restaurant in a strange little roadside town, with its own post office.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.