Westerners watch as the past slips away


There was a grand opening for a Walgreens drugstore in my western Colorado town recently. I’m sure it was a welcome change for some people, but I remember the grand old ranch house that once stood in its place.

The house with the wraparound porch was surrounded by an orchard and majestic cottonwood trees. It had become a restaurant called the Glen Eyrie, and it provided upscale dining for the community of Montrose. Many people in town have memories of celebrating special occasions there, from the birth of a child to a special anniversary. It’s where my wife and I celebrated the closing of the contract for the purchase of our first home.

While the restaurant used to be on the outskirts of town, strip development on the way to booming Ridgway, Colo., had leaped over it and passed it by. I guess the real surprise was that it survived as long as it did, considering that the building was surrounded by chain stores.

Its complete disappearance led me to recall the early 1980s, when I started work at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Many visitors would inquire about any remaining buildings that might have been used by hard-rock miners during the 1930s construction. But all but one of the structures had been torn down or sold off two decades earlier, as the National Park Service upgraded and modernized its facilities.

Much of the public came to regret the loss of those buildings. Visitors wanted to know what it had been like for the people who lived and worked in the park. It took a while, but the Park Service learned that its policy of "out with the old" needed more consideration of the consequences.

Increasingly, Western towns are facing these same decisions about historic buildings. Grand Junction, Colo., decided recently to tear down a house more than a century old to make way for a highway bypass; towns across Wyoming are seeing historic school buildings demolished, including the Central Middle School in Sheridan; and century-old mining buildings are threatened or pulled down in the mountains to increase the market value of the land.

Long ago, I learned an important lesson from a good friend who now works at Grand Canyon National Park. Alice Talakte, a Navajo, said that change, of course, is inevitable, but that conflict over preservation reveals not only who you are, but what you might become.

From Talakte’s perspective, when you lose your traditions — some of which are wrapped up in the walls of the historic buildings tucked into each of our towns and cities — you lose your culture, and as the buildings go, the unique viewpoints and culture of the West are also lost. Perhaps it is this sentiment that makes old-timers so melancholy when growth takes off in a town.

The ranch house that became the Glen Eyrie was built for an attorney after World War I. After it passed through a couple of owners, Jim McCullough bought it in 1976. He and his family lived upstairs and ran the restaurant downstairs, for decades growing the fruit for their own sauces and jams, and making their own bread. Like the miners at Mount Rushmore, the McCulloughs sank roots. They made a commitment to each other, their families and their community to build something lasting. Or so they hoped — but roots can get paved over.

It’s healthy when communities through their local historical societies identify the buildings that hold the most value, and through county commissioners or council members provide incentives to landowners to maintain those old buildings. Not every building needs to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places to be recognized as important, and preservation achieved locally can be the most lasting.

Probably, it was time for the Glen Eyrie to go. A Payless shoe store and its concrete parking lot had moved in close, making the restaurant the odd ball on the highway. Its context was gone. If Walgreens hadn’t snapped up the property, someone else would have.

If we Westerners want to stay as Westerners, we better develop ground level strategies to preserve what’s unique about where we live before everything we’ve created becomes expendable — just a "wipeaway" blocking the next new thing.

Paul Zaenger is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been a park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado since 1993. His other assignments include Death Valley National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.