Vagneur: A large part of the bedrock
One of the more iconic photos of “modern” Aspen shows Matthew Drug, now known universally as Carl’s Pharmacy, its shiny, red exterior soaking up the rising Main Street steam and sunshine just after a fast-moving afternoon rainstorm had rolled through. People love that photo for various reasons and for different memories, but the comments most often heard relate to the ever-popular soda fountain.
Matthew Drug was named after Walt Matthew, a man who loved the outdoors but who wasn’t a skier. He was a hunter, fisherman, horseman and an involved, popular citizen, but he didn’t ski and he sold drugs. What kind of guy was this, anyway? Would you want your kids hanging out in his store?
He started coming to Aspen in 1946 on summer vacations, and each time he returned to his drugstore in Wichita, Kansas, his customers remarked on how good he looked upon his return. He took the hint in 1949 and moved here with his second wife, Hy.
It might be important to know that before coming to Aspen, Walt was happily married, had three children and owned two or three previous drugstores before landing in Wichita. Unfortunately, his first wife died in 1941.
Matthew Drug was born in December, 1949, a simple cinder-block building gracing the corner of Main and Monarch. It wasn’t a walk in the park for Walt, what with his staid competitor Jimmy Parsons and his Aspen Drug over on Hyman, but Parsons had been around long enough to make a few enemies and besides, in a thriving metropolis like 1949’s Aspen, the west side of town was somewhat drawn to Matthew’s apothecary shop as the more convenient choice.
Matthew sold fishing gear, some of the best rods around, and if you needed a gun or ammunition for hunting or target practice, Walt would personally see to your needs. He knew his merchandise and how to use it. One of his favorite big-game hunting grounds was Woody Creek, and the Vagneurs packed plenty of game out for Walt.
By the way, those were the days when the local hospital had what it called the Hospital Benefit, one of the biggest social events of the year held at various locations around town like The Red Onion or the Red Brick School. Local hunters were encouraged to donate their buckskin or elk to the cause as the main meat course consisted primarily of such donations.
That’s all good, but the soda fountain was what intrigued most of us. I mean, where else in the world could you have a Coke made especially for you — cherry, lemon, vanilla, root beer — from whatever flavor you chose, stocked in that impressive row of hand-push dispensers behind the counter. Simple sandwiches, like ham and cheese, grilled while you waited, or doughnuts or cinnamon rolls for those who needed a little extra edge in their day. Maybe even a cup of coffee.
You can’t talk about the soda fountain without mentioning Dick Strudivant, a savant of sorts who worked that counter almost every day. Many kids thought they were smarter than Dick, a man who went on to hold several Colorado River fishing records, but in the end we all had to acknowledge that he managed to stay ahead of us most of the time. In the ’90s, before his untimely death, he and I sometimes got together over a beer at the Woody Creek Tavern, him talking fishing and I’d tell him stories, getting him to let loose with that unique, high-pitched guffaw he had.
Walt was a member of the famed horse-mounted Pitkin County Sheriff’s Posse, along with such notables as Had Deane, Bob George, Mike Magnifico and Tommy Zordel. He was one of the founders of the Aspen Saddle and Bridle Club, which built the rodeo arena west of town where the Pomegranate is now located. Walt and his dark chestnut mare, Beauty, won Silver Stampede parade honors more than once — the Silver Stampede being the precursor to the W/J Rodeo on McLain Flats. Walt also was one of the original sponsors of the Woody Creek Raceway.
Popular local pharmacists Dick Long and John Wenisch got their starts at Matthew Drug, both of whom went on to eventually own their own pharmacies.
In the ’60s, Walt sold his store to Carl and Katie Bergman and moved to his small ranch, a showcase property across the highway from Cozy Point Ranch. It’s still there, only much smaller today. Walt had simple dreams for his retirement: he just wanted to raise some nice horses and travel through the mountains on a mount reminiscent of his Beauty. And he tried so hard, valiantly fighting the rapidly encroaching blindness that inexorably robbed him of that very dream.
Walt was a unique man, a large part of the bedrock that helped make Aspen a great place to live.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.