Vagneur: Celebrating the Italians of the Roaring Fork Valley
D ’Amici Italia! Friends of Italy picnic is held in Glenwood Springs each summer, Covid-19 years of interference excepted. For those who don’t know, Italians have had a huge influence on the Roaring Fork Valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and beyond.
The first to arrive, most likely, was Fred Clavel, who settled in Woody Creek around 1884. The area reminded him of his native Italy, the climate was good and opportunity surrounded the upper valley.
Silver-mining towns needed food for people and animals. Economic times were slow in the area of Val D’Aosta, northern Italy, and, for a younger generation, America had the sound of possibilities attached to it.
Clavel wrote home telling my great-grandfather and great-grandmother that times were good in Woody Creek, and Jeremie Vagneur could come to work for him. Which he did — and then spent the rest of his life raising five sons and expanding his ranch holdings to include most of Woody Creek and part of McLain Flats.
Word was out about the Roaring Fork Valley, and others came, wrote home and worked hard to make a living in this area.
At one time, most of the farm and ranchland between Aspen and Glenwood was owned by families of Italian descent. Some of these names are surely familiar if you’ve been around a while: Gerbaz, Cerise, Letey, Grange, Arbaney, Jammaron, Trentaz, Natal, Duroux, Bionaz, Vagneur, Creton, Dossigny, Vasten, Diemoz, Montover, Gianinetti, Arlian, Durrett, Glassier, Bosco, Desandre, Gamba, and you know I’m no doubt leaving a bunch out. Billy Grange and Ken Jammaron, long-time friends of mine, and I tease each other, claiming to be members of the Aosta mafia.
Glenn Jammaron hollered at me across the crowd, “Come on, Vagneur, us old-timers are gonna toast our ancestors.” Trust me, that’s how quick you become an “old-timer.”
The Italians are excellent wine makers, been doing it for generations, and, for a potent punch at the end of the process, grappa drips off the finishing end of the still to become a popular after-dinner drink.
Naturally, our toast consisted of glasses raised high, filled with grappa.
“Don’t leave,” said Jammaron. “I have some peach grappa in my truck. I’ll be right back.”
He and Mike Gamba are connoisseurs of the wine- and grappa-making process and gave us novices a quick rundown on how it gets done. Gamba had also brought about 10 cases of his excellent homemade wine for the picnic.
“It makes commercial wine taste a little weak,” he said.
In this short column, it’s impossible to give each Italian family credit for its contribution to the valley, other than to say they all did, whether in farming and ranching or other business enterprises along the way.
Some earlier, established settlers loaned money to newcomers to help them get started; the Bosco family used to take grape orders from the ranchers in the valley, and, after the California grape harvest, railroad cars lined sidings up and down the valley, waiting for the local Italians to come pick up the grapes they had ordered.
Freddie Gerbaz started out cleaning auto parts at Berthod Motors, eventually owning the company.
His brother, Ernie, started as a janitor at the First National Bank and ended up as its president.
Each family has a similar story: They started small, stayed persistent, worked hard.
Bosco’s started selling liquor to tourists in the basement of a saloon across from the railroad station. Eventually, they owned the Hotel Denver.
Leroy Duroux and Mike Gamba were both long-serving mayors of their respective towns.
One of my favorite people was there at the picnic this year — Ed Grange, the 95-year-old retired president of Holy Cross Energy. Eddie, as I call him, and I go back a long way. He dated my mother when they were both students at Basalt Union High School. We’ve traded pictures and stories over the years and have a genuine friendship.
We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and he can give a welcoming hug as strong as any person around. He walked off toward another area, his cane an almost unneeded appendage, his step crisp and lively, the walk of a man who might know more about the Italian history of this valley than anyone.
The culinary fare at the picnic is potluck, a feast that only great Italian women and men could put together. Delicious salads, homemade sausage, roasts, pastas, potatoes, desserts — the list goes on. It was all displayed on a line of tables, maybe 50 feet long, accessed from both sides. Perhaps if you’re hungry when St. Peter opens the gate, that’s what will great you.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to succinctly relay the import this gathering of friends has to those whose roots go back to the beginning of European settlement around here. Third, fourth, fifth and sixth generation family members. Kudos and heartfelt thank you to the organizers of this important get-together. D ‘Amici Italia!
Tony Vagneur thanks his friend Linda for making sure he got this on his calendar. He writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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