Red Onion Tales

RED ONION TALES

 

My family moved to Aspen in 1956, when I was nine, and the Red Onion soon became the hub of many of our family activities.  My mother, Rose Crumpacker, worked as the “one woman chamber of commerce”  in a tiny cinderblock building next door to the Isis Theater, and every Friday night we had a week’s end ritual of dining at the Onion.  I can well remember the delicious salads, dressed with Werner Kuster’s oil and vinegar dressing, that accompanied our steak and baked potato dinners.  Werner would greet us and seat us in the dining room, far from the commotion of the bar. 

My older siblings, three of whom were in college, preferred “Beer Gulch”, and usually went there directly apres ski.  Often, during summer or college breaks, they would never make it home for dinner, worrying my mother. 

Everyone loved the nightclub, which featured smoky-voiced singers and jazz combos, on weekends – even I was allowed to enter and sit at one of  the small tables, drinking cokes and feeling quite sophisticated.

My great grand uncle, Thomas Latta, had built the Onion in the 1880’s, and a tile with his name still presumably graces the entry to the bar. The building also sports the Latta name on the very top.  My sister Marguerite Maddalone’s middle name is Latta…the Latta family was from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and my grandmother, Rose Latta Turner, was born there and lived there until she moved to Indiana to marry my grandfather.  The Latta family was very, very proper – my mother remembered having to present her calling card to a butler with a silver tray, when she traveled to Pennsylvania, at age twelve, to visit her grandmother. Thomas Latta was the uncle, and the black sheep of the family.  He came out west, searching for his fortune, and ended up building and running the Red Onion as a dance hall, bar, and brothel.

When I was eleven or twelve, we had a little gang of kids who liked to get into a bit of trouble during our lunch hour from school.  Several of our parents had charge accounts at the Delice Bakery, so after grabbing a sandwich or pastry, we would adjourn to eat our lunches on either the fire escape of the Wheeler Opera House, or the fire escape of the rooming house for the Red Onion employees, across the alley from the Onion, in the building that became the Paragon.  It was on the latter fire escape that we all witnessed sex for the first time….as we furtively peered in a curtained window of one of the rooms…I think it was the hostess of the Onion, as we all recognized her.

Several years later, there was a terrible knife fight between two Swiss or Austrian Red Onion chefs, beginning in the kitchen and ending in the alley, at night, when we were having a Friday night dinner.  The police were called, and both chefs were taken to the hospital.  Not too long after that, Werner Kuster sold the Onion.  His wife, Rosemarie, moved to Santa Fe and owned the Palace Restauraunt there for many years.

The Red Onion always stayed a little tied to it’s wild west roots.  My brother Tom, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan law school, brother-in-law Danny Maddalone, an Aspen ski patrol, and cousin Bob Brown, captain of the U. of Michigan football team,  were involved, one spring break, in an awful brawl that began in the nightclub.  The brawl moved out onto Cooper Street, and they were all dragged by a car down to Pinnochio’s.

“Beer Gulch”, with its horseshoe-shaped table and bench at the front window, was home to the Aspen ski patrol and packing crew for many years.  The wonderful blue caricatures of celebrities and famous visitors graced the booths and hallways.  Many, many tales and stories were told in beer gulch, usually skiing stories, and I was an enthusiastic participant while in my twenties, after work at Gretl’s or the Sundeck.  Peter Luhn was a habitue, as were Shady Lane, Scott MacDougal, Richard Tapley, Hanuman,  Steve Wishart,  David Wright, and Defoe Dushane. 

In the mid-seventies, when new owners bought the Onion and turned the bar into a more upscale “fern bar”, replacing the gulch and booths and caricatures, there was a big revolution.  The habitues all couldn’t take it, and staged a protest by throwing all the new potted ferns out onto Cooper Street, and hundreds of dollars of ferns were ruined  There may or may have not been arrests, but a statement of priorities was certainly made.

–Posey Melson

 

Dr. Robert Oden, 1922 – May 18, 2008

 

Bob Oden 1922May 18, 2008

Dr. Bob Oden (that is pronounced ODane for non-Scandinavians) is one of the kindest, most beloved physicians in Aspen a description he shares gladly with his close friend, Harold Whitcomb, aka Dr. Whit. The stories of his generosity and caring would fill many books as he has extended the principles of the Hippocratic oath to every facet of his life.

My husband tells me he “got to go to college” because of Dr. Bob. While Aspen stories abound about the good doctor, not many know this one. Bob was serving as chief flight surgeon in the Air Force during the Korean War. He was appalled to discover that his wounded colleagues were not getting proper care and seemed to have been forgotten. He lobbied acquaintance General Curtis LeMay (who was unaware of the veterans’ plight) to assure that proper benefits were allocated by the government. As a result, the G.I. Bill was successfully carried through the U.S. Congress, and many veterans were deservedly rewarded.

Dr. Bob served for many years as a U.S. Ski Team doctor and has been inducted into the national, Colorado, and Aspen ski halls of fame. He holds other honors too many to list. However, his personal sense of accomplishment comes not with recognition but with the pleasure of watching his handiwork give success to people’s lives.

Georgia Hanson

Bridger Gile 1999

 

Bridger Gile 1999present

Hi, my name is Bridger Gile. After being featured in two Warren Miller Films, winning a NASTAR national title and skiing 80 days a year, I am finally attending kindergarten. At first I was worried that school was going to squeeze my ski time, but like any true Aspen local, I think I’ve figured out a way to get in plenty of vertical half-time kindergarten and the new Deep Temerity lift at Highlands!

I can’t wait for winter, although summer hasn’t been so bad. I’ve been playing soccer, golf, competing on the swim team, riding my bike, and working on my cliff-hucking (jumping the punchbowl at the Grottos). I even got to go to France to see Lance Armstrong win the Tour. That was exciting!

Wax up those skis and I’ll see you on the hill soon.

(written by Bridger 2005 – with a little help!)

Bill Heron – 1897 to 1970’s

 

Bill Herron 1897circa 1970s

Bill Herron was an Aspen-born, lifelong silver miner who staunchly believed that the mining glory days in his beloved hometown would return.

As a newcomer in the early 1950s, I first saw Bill and a few old-timers clustered around the brass spittoon wisely provided by the postmaster, Alton Beck, in the post office (now Amen Wardy’s site). They were peering through the steamy window, watching skiers on Aspen Mountain. They used the P.O. as a warm place to meet and talk. “Look at them crazy snowsliders. You ask me, they got rocks in their heads, messing around like that!”

That was Bill Herron addressing his cronies. It was mystifying to them that these strangers were paying money to play in the snow, on the same steep mountainside that all the miners had to climb to get to work during the “good old days.”

I met Bill at his mother’s home on Main Street (now Herron Apartments). He lived with Cassie, his 85-year-old mother, but his real headquarters was the Red Onion. Since our family’s bed-and-breakfast inn was across the street, I’d visit with Cassie often and hear the latest gossip.

Bill and his pals took comfort in “Beer Gulch,” sharing pitchers and moodily recalling how things used to be before the music people and snowsliders discovered Aspen. Beer was the drink of choice, unless someone stood them to something a bit stronger. It was beer, and Bill’s fondness for it, that was undoubtedly the reason the town marshal took Bill’s driver’s license away: “For his own good and that of the rest of town too.”

His ancient Ford was retired among Cassie’s lilac bushes, between the rhubarb patch and the woodshed. “When are you going to get rid of that thing?” she’d ask. Bill would shrug, “Don’t know, maybe when I get my license back.”

Almost every night, Bill would carry a hot meal home to his mother. He’d get the cook to wrap up the Onion’s special, and he’d walk clear across town with it, through stormy weather, if need be. It would always be a surprise meal for Cassie, because she never knew when he’d arrive or what he’d bring.

His Irish charm and inborn gallantry was a delight. There was always a slight bow, a tip of his hat and a flattering word when we met. He complimented our children and our “lucky husbands.” He was a gentleman.

Bill moved to a boarding house in Glenwood Springs when Cassie died in 1962. We’d see him down at one of the riverside bars, where his portrait hung on the wall and he still held forth with a diminishing group of old-timers. He’d insist on buying us a beer, and we’d try to satisfy his curiosity about Aspen’s goings on.

When we asked about him a few months later, a grizzled old man mournfully shook his head.

“Old Bill has gone and died left us for good.”

Jony Larrowe

Bil Dunaway – 1923

Bil Dunaway 1923

present

 

Bil Dunaway was a great newspaper publisher and has a huge heart, but what he was known best for around The Aspen Times was his fiscal conservatism. On any given day, he could be found up on the roof dabbing tar on a leak, shoveling the sidewalk, repairing a toilet with baling wire or whacking the furnace into compliance. Often when talking with me at my desk he would, unable to bear the waste, reach out and turn off my electric typewriter.

One morning, shortly after I had pointed out that his vinyl office chair was in tatters, we found what appeared to be a crop circle on the carpet of the ad office. Bil had cut out a circle of newsprint, laid it on the floor, placed his chair in the center and spray-painted it, leaving a ring of black sunburst.

God love him, he is the least pretentious person in Aspen.

Su Lum

 

Aspen State Teachers College

Dr. Slats Cabbage “The Dr. of Fluid Mechanics” (aka Marc Demmon) 1951present

Slats was the manager for the Aspen Mine Company and announced “this will be your headquarters for the new mall construction.” He told me about the Aspen State Teacher’s College and immediately dubbed me the Dean of Destruction. I think the “Cabbage Racing Team” was the spark that made the college a reality. Slats and I walked into City Market and he was carrying a 6-inch bolt in his hands. He walked up to the produce manager and said he wanted a big cabbage.

“How big?”

“One that will fit on this bolt!”

It became the hood ornament for the “Screamin’ Eagle” No. 137 race car.

ASTC was one of the cleverest ideas in America, and Slats and Al together were a formidable, hilarious team to watch. “Who the hell is Slats Cabbage?” Those who don’t know him have really missed something!

Big Jim Furniss, ASTC alumnus

Al Pendorf “Dean Fulton Bagley 1938present

What can I say? It was the ’70s. I moved into an apartment with Jack the Butcher and a third “mystery roommate.” I lived there for weeks before I ever met this other guy, but we left notes trying to figure each other out.

Finally, we bumped into each other in the hall and I met Al Pendorf, a man on the go (and it was not just work). As the offseason waned (there really was an offseason then), we looked at each other one fall evening and decided to go into town to check out the “freshman class” of new winter season arrivals. Ah, thought Al, we had a freshman class but no school.

That was the start of it all: Aspen State Teacher’s College, a spoof in which “the whole town is the college. Classes are taught everywhere.”

Al was in the printing business (not to mention a very strange puzzle contest “business”). It was a natural fit to produce a handbook and a school paper called “The Clean Sweep.” Al, known as Dean Fulton Begley, teamed up with Slats Cabbage and Aspen State Teachers College became very real (including T-shirts, a marching band, a football team that always won by default) to all of us “students of the ’70s.”Don’t miss the ASTC alumni reunion at the Elks on Oct. 8. We are still trying to find someone who actually graduated.

Maddy Lieb, Class of …

Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial

Crystal Palace Not Always So Palatial

Yore Aspen


The Crystal Palace in 1962, with the Owl Cigars
advertisement on the side. Aspen Laundry was in the one-story white building to
the left. (Frank Willoughby/Willoughby collection)

Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
September 22,
2007




Imagine dump trucks inside the Crystal Palace, staying warm so they
could start on cold winter days to haul miners up the backside of Aspen
Mountain. Before Mead Metcalf started his dinner theater there, the Midnight
Mine had its headquarters in the building. It reeked of old timber molds,
carbide lantern fumes, rock dust and machine lubricants rather than today’s
captivating aromas of broiling prime rib and uncorked merlot.



Owned by the Midnight Mine, this
Coleman truck in 1927 used to park in the Crystal Palace. (Willoughby
collection)

Click to Enlarge


The pending change in ownership of
the Crystal Palace may alter more than names on the title, especially if Mead
Metcalf takes the stained glass and crystal chandeliers with him. His colorful
remodel in 1960 made the building more Victorian than it was in 1891 when it was
built. Victorian structures in Aspen, with the exception of St. Mary’s and the
Community Church, had simple windows of small squares of colored glass
surrounding plain glass rectangles. Most colorful and elaborate stained glass
was imported from New Orleans and Denver during the ’60s – the 1960s. The Palace
and other buildings were reinvented more than restored.

The Palace from
the mid-1930s to 1951 was the company office of the Midnight Mine, Aspen’s major
employer. It was the ideal building for three reasons. Like most commercial
buildings in the downtown core, it had a second-floor office area where the
company could accomplish its paperwork. It had a very large ground floor, big
enough to park and service its trucks and store equipment and materials.
Finally, it was just one block from general manager Fred D. Willoughby’s home.
He lived at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Aspen Street in the white house that
looks today like it looked back then.

In its
Victorian heyday the Crystal Palace was a commission house much like today’s
wholesale distribution warehouses. Goods traded hands on the ground floor where
ice cut from Hallam Lake cooled a walk-in meat storage box. E.M Cooper was the
proprietor in the early 1900s and in addition to White Owl cigars, as advertised
on the exterior wall, he sold produce grown in the agricultural boom areas of
Delta and Mesa counties.

The Midnight Mine acquired the building after
it had been abandoned for a number of years. The older roof was flat and in
desperate need of repair. The Midnight changed the pitch to shed snow, giving
the building the odd shape it has today.

The Midnight office accommodated
55 employees in the 1940s. Miners and mill operators worked both day and night
shifts, plus the building was the center of business activities and vehicle
repair. As Willoughby served as mayor of Aspen through many of those years, it
also doubled as an unofficial city hall office.

Aspen’s elevation is too
high for most fruit trees. Crabapples are one of the few species to prosper. The
Monarch side of the building provides great sun exposure with the brick wall
holding enough heat to incubate trees. Begun with an apparent toss of a plum
seed, a tree still grows there. The Midnight staff marveled at the seedling’s
survival and gauged the passing of years by the growth of the
tree.

Other than The Aspen Times and a few
lodges, it’s unusual for commercial buildings in Aspen to retain the same use
over the long term. Metcalf’s nearly half-century as the occupant of this
building has provided countless visitors with a unique Aspen experience. Old
buildings, especially the brick commercial-core buildings of Aspen, are hard to
maintain and to adapt to modern uses but their historical soul is a major
ingredient in the Aspen ambiance.

May the next occupant make the most of
the legacy.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began
sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado
Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical
perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

First Grade Fears in 1914

First Grade Fears in 1914

Yore Aspen


Washington School in Aspen’s West End. (Willoughby
collection)

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Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
September 29,
2007




Starting school is a tough transition for children. The prevalence
of preschool has eased the transition between home and school, but the first few
weeks are still a challenge for 5- and 6-year-olds.

Kindergarten teachers tell hundreds of humorous stories about the
distorted perceptions and fearful experience of first-timers. The student who
asks, “Is it lunch yet?” a half-hour after the day starts. “Did I eat my lunch?”
asked a half-hour after the PB and J was consumed. Finding their lunch, knowing
what to do with an unpeeled orange, and the buckets of tears shed over the
slightest deviation from a home routine round out those long first days in
school.

When my mother started first grade in 1914 there were more
ominous challenges.

For one, it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a
larger first-grade class. Aspen was a shrinking-but-still-large town in 1914.
The Panic of 1907 had cut the population of the county by 25 percent but in 1910
it was still 4,600, about half the size of Albuquerque at that time. The 1914
first grade was the last big class. In 1917-1918, Aspen’s largest mine, the
Smuggler, shut down over an electricity rate dispute and the influenza struck,
reducing Aspen’s population an additional 30 percent.

Like most cities
of the time, Aspen was proud of its schools. Aspen had three elementary schools:
Lincoln, Garfield and Washington. In the beginning they were multi-grade
schools, each located in a different section of town. When the Washington School
opened in the West End in 1890, they began separating students by grade rather
than by location. First through fourth grades were located at the Washington
School.

There was no kindergarten in Aspen’s
schools until 1955, so my mother entered school in first grade at the Washington
School. Most students in those days did not make it through high school, leaving
after eighth grade. The Washington School was a large, permanent brick structure
with big windows and Victorian flourishes, larger than the high school and still
a “modern” model, but it had one component that confounded my mother.

In
1914, indoor plumbing was rare. Children like my mother were used to using an
outhouse. Her term was “the chick sail,” a name popularized from a play about an
outhouse builder written by Chick Sale. Cold in the winter, smelly and always
too far from where ever you were, they still served their purpose. Spiders and
bees were a bother, and children always feared they might fall through the hole
into the gaping pit below.

The Washington School had a more modern
facility, an indoor one. It was located in the basement and had a whole line of
holes. What filled my mother with fear was that instead of the usual pit there
was a continuously running torrent of water running below the holes, a kind of
partially open sewer. Further complicating the situation, the holes were not
calibrated for first-graders; they were adult size. At least they seemed that
way to a first-grader.

“I was so afraid I would
fall through and be carried off to God knows where,” my mother told me.

She remembered little else from her first year of school. A 6-year old’s
nightmare aged into a senior’s amusing remembrance.

Tim Willoughby’s
family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for
Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his
native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Yore Aspen


Jeanne Willoughby Englert sitting atop a 1950s
Willys in front of what later became La Cocina restaurant on East Hopkins
Avenue. (Doris Willoughby/Willoughby photo collection)

Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
October 13,
2007




Recently a caller to National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” asked if
something could be done about his Jeep brakes. The Magliozzi brothers’ answer
was a derisive laugh. Jeeps are notorious for poor brakes. They became dangerous
when they put bigger motors in them so they could go faster than the brakes
could slow them down.

In the 1950s, Jeeps were the vehicles of choice
for anyone in Aspen who could afford one. They were the perfect match for
Aspen’s unpaved streets and the most reliable way to navigate deep snow in the
winter. The Willys Jeep, made by Kaiser in Toledo, Ohio, was not designed for
fast travel. Speeds over 45 mph could be attained only if you were traveling
downhill on pavement. At 35 mph on gravel washboard surfaces like Maroon and
Castle Creek roads, you signed up for a noisy, teeth-shattering
ride.

But if you wanted to tackle Aspen Mountain
you could slip the Willys CJ (civilian jeep) into four-wheel-low range and it
would purr straight up Little Nell. The low gearing enabled it to climb any
slope at any altitude, even with its low-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

Coming down was more interesting. You could stand on the brakes and even
at slow speeds you might not stop, at least not for a long, nail-biting
distance. However, shifting into low range held your speed to a reasonable
crawl. Many Aspenites tell stories of careening down Aspen Mountain or Pearl
Pass, top to bottom, with no brakes at all. Not by choice, but because their
brakes had gone out altogether.

Then there was that other Willys
quirk.

While going downhill with the gears holding back the speed, a bump
from hitting a rock (on four-wheel-drive roads that’s all there is) could throw
the vehicle out of gear. The law of unanticipated consequences ordained this
catastrophe when you were on the steepest grade, the sharpest turn and the
narrowest of roads with a precipitous cliff alongside as far ahead as you could
see.

John Healy worked on all the Jeeps in
Aspen, making him the most likely the national Willys expert. He devised and
patented a device to keep jeeps from slipping out of gear, and installed it on
many Aspen jeeps. Who knows how many fatalities he prevented.

Some Jeeps
had a forward-facing back seat, but most didn’t. Children, or any other
passengers, sat facing sideways on the narrow metal benches above the rear
wheels. There was just enough room for a big dog and a small child, or a big
child and a small dog, and a couple bags of groceries.

There was no
upholstery in a Jeep. The only hint of extravagance was a tiny glove compartment
where you could keep a spare fan belt. Early models, which lacked a keyed
ignition, sported a button you pushed to run the starter motor. That was OK in
Aspen because most people, even if they had keys, left them in their
vehicles.

Except for the brake, the Willys was
one of the most reliable and durable vehicles ever built. They started in the
coldest weather and required minimal maintenance. Because you wouldn’t take a
trip to Denver in one, and usually just used them to get around town, even the
old ones had low mileage accumulations.

Those blessed with having one
will never part with it. Admire them, but if you see one coming up fast in your
rearview mirror, then remember their brakes.

Tim Willoughby’s family
story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen
Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native
town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

Clearing the grizzly – mining’s most dangerous job

Clearing the grizzly – mining’s most dangerous
job


Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
October 20,
2007




Blasting required careful handling of explosives. Drilling was a
silent killer from rock dust cutting up your lungs. But the really dangerous job
was tending to the “grizzly” – and that didn’t mean chasing bears
away.

Mining is the business of moving quantities of heavy rock, and the
more mineral content the heavier the load. A pile of mineral-bearing ore the
size of a hay bale weighs about a ton. For this reason miners prefer to work
using gravity rather than against it.

Large
mines drive tunnels below ore deposits and then work their way up. Using this
“caving” method, miners easily move tons of material from the ore source to
waiting mine cars for transportation out of the tunnel. The connection is like a
laundry chute, usually about 3 to 5 feet in diameter, and sometimes more than
100 feet long.

Ore dumped into the chute from above, because it was
basically in free fall, could do great damage if left to fall all the way to the
waiting mine car below. The grizzly was a large grate, made of logs or steel,
placed near the end of the fall to slow the flow.

Because the grizzly was
a grid of squares about a foot wide, larger rocks would get caught and
eventually block the flow of ore. Men were employed to keep the grizzly free and
to dislodge rocks stuck in the chute.

My father,
20 years old in 1926, decided to leave Aspen to “experience the world.” The
Depression had already begun in the West. He was a skilled miner, having worked
in Aspen’s mines in the summers and on weekends since he was 14, and he talked
his way into a job at the copper mine in Miami, Ariz. It was a swing shift
clearing the grizzlies, but he was lucky to find any work at all.

The
work, at first, was not too strenuous because the copper ore was soft compared
to Aspen’s silver-lead-zinc ore. It was easy to break up the rock using a
sledgehammer. It was hazardous because someone far above might push ore into the
chute to fall on the unsuspecting workers below. In earlier years ore was sent
down continuously; workers moved back and forth at the side of the grizzly,
dodging rocks. It was not unusual to have teens doing this work, and injuries
and fatalities were common.

Clearing the chutes was even more of a
challenge. The usual method was to climb up the chute, like bouldering today,
wedging between the sides, carrying an explosive attached on the end of a
10-foot pole. Once under the snag you could push the charges between the lodged
boulders. The explosive was 40 percent nitroglycerine in a gelatin stick form.
You set it off using electric primer wires. A day of blasting would fill the
tight air spaces with blasting fumes. At the end of the shift, pills were issued
to deal with the headaches from the explosive smoke.

Being young with no fear of death, my father’s partner was placing
the charges without using the pole. He would climb right into the tangled rocks.
No matter how you did this job, there was always the chance that while setting
the charges you might dislodge the rocks above you, many weighing much more than
you did, and they would fall on top of you and force you down the
chute.

One day his partner went up the chute to free a stuck chute door
from below. The door was in the middle, so after he opened it an unexpected
amount of material rushed past him and then got stuck on the grizzly below him.
There was no way for him to make his way up to the top of the chute, so he was
stuck there for 10 hours until the grizzly could be freed and the material
pulled out.

Fortunately, after a few anxious days working the grizzly, my
father was moved to tunnel timbering, a much safer and more skilled position.
Miners at the time worked six days a week and were paid $5 a shift. There was a
medical benefit, though: The mine had an unmanned underground medical station.
Your chances were not much better than if you had been attacked by a grizzly
bear.