Vagneur: Always a fallback position |

Vagneur: Always a fallback position

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

From Carbondale, Mount Sopris is incredibly significant. From the top of Mount Sopris, Carbondale is hard to find. It was a place I didn’t really know existed, not until I was in my 20s. Sure, we played Carbondale (Roaring Fork Rams) in high school football and basketball and ran a couple of track meets there, but other than that, I had no idea about the town.

In 1970, fresh out of college, a girlfriend needed an auto-body shop for repairs to her brand-new car and someone sent us to Carbondale. The guy’s shop was across from what’s now the Pour House — the building only had three walls at the most and looked like the victim of a World War II bombing raid. What about security?

“It’s a good town — nobody’s dishonest here,” the proprietor said.

My friend Buck Deane had a ranch near Carbondale, and I found myself hauling horses and hay for the T-Lazy-7 down to the ranch in the early ’70s. The summer heat in Bonedale was much greater than up here in the mountains, and one day, Buck took me into Kenny’s Pharmacy, a drugstore with a soda fountain in back, and I never went to Carbondale again without stopping at Kenny’s to cool off.

The ’70s were getting long in the tooth, many people were leaving Aspen to move downvalley, and Buck, who grew up in Aspen, kept telling me how great it was living in Carbondale. I wasn’t sold until he mentioned that the 3-foot tall Maroon Creek snowbanks in March were completely melted in Carbondale by then. My wife, Caroline, and I bought a house and made the move. All in all, it worked out fairly well, although it was close enough to the police station that the cops would occasionally walk catty-corner across the street to give me hell about something.

Mid-Continent Coal & Coke, later revised to Mid-Continent Resources, was operating the mines at Coal Basin above the Redstone coke ovens and the truck traffic on Highway 133 along the Crystal River and alongside the edge of Carbondale was incessant. First it was Morrison-Knudson, then later Savage, doing the haul, and it was not without incident. There were a couple fatalities and a lot of near misses, but that was life for the times. It was even more dangerous in the mine. In 1959, nine men died in a mine explosion, and April 15, 1981, 15 local men died in another.

Naturally, once the coal was dumped at the storage and load-out site along Colorado Road 100 (the giant tin building is still there), a train was dispatched to pick up the black gold and haul it to market. Two or three days a week, the roaring engines of the D&RGW provided a soothing sound to my soul. We lived in a great, two-story Victorian on Garfield and Second very near the tracks, and the train whistle took me back to the old steam engines that hauled our cattle to market from Aspen and Woody Creek. I would take my very young daughter down, wave at the train men and marvel at the behemoth beasts pulling all those cars. Sometimes, like the kids we were, we’d lay a penny on the tracks.

Carbondale has been in the news most recently for trying to enact a carbon tax on household utilities, but probably more importantly, since 1909 the town has been famous for Potato Day, a celebration in honor of the obvious. Carbondale once was a great producer of potatoes, most recently accomplished on a commercial scale by the Nieslanik family, well-known local ranchers. But it must be said that the voluminous volume of potatoes produced in Woody Creek always fetched a higher price due to better soil and a cooler climate.

Buck and I always rode our horses in the Potato Day Parade, and once we rode in an antique buggy pulled by a team of perfectly matched black mules and accompanied by two beautiful women dressed to the nines in historical attire. One year we rode with state-of-the-art rubber face masks we bought in a costume store in Hollywood. Later, we tried to act serious when people asked us if we knew who the anonymous horsemen were.

I haven’t spent much time in Carbondale for many years — it just never was my kind of town. I bailed out sometime in the ’80s, but not completely. The Diamond Arrow Farm just outside of town has me put up their hay, and I stop by the co-op on a regular basis. Looking like a gaper, I slowly drive down Main Street.

Skip Bell still runs the Pour House, once a home away from home for some of us, and as long as that bar is still open, I figure there will always be a fallback position.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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