Town Story: Golden

Golden Says Howdy!

American Mountaineering Center - Golden.

Joshua Hardin

People come from across the world to Golden to take the Coors brewery tour. While longtime Golden residents are proud of their hometown brewery, many have taken the tour so many times that they know it by heart. Still, they’re big fans of the complimentary beer at the tour’s end, so they take “the short tour,” which skips the brewing part and goes straight to the Fresh Beer Room.

There’s also a “short tour” for exploring the city of Golden itself. All you have to do is go to the Washington Avenue Bridge, stand in one spot and slowly turn around in a full circle.

To the east, you look down the rippling water of Clear Creek to see Coors’ script logo emblazoned across the world’s largest single-site brewery. The enormous facility is nestled between two rugged mesas, North and South Table Mountain, whose monumental size disguises the fact that metropolitan Denver is just 12 miles behind them.

To the west, people below the bridge stroll along Clear Creek Trail or tube down the creek in the summer. Gazing above the creek, you see the peaks of the Front Range, the nearest of which, Mount Zion, is adorned with a huge, white letter M. This stands for Mines, as in Colorado School of Mines, Golden’s world-class university of engineering and applied science.

Looking south, you see the busy shops, restaurants and hotels of Washington Avenue. And standing astride the main thoroughfare is a massive arch that reads: “Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden … Where the West Lives.” For all the iconic scenery in Golden, the welcome arch is the most iconic, or at least the most photographed. Customers on the patio of the Windy Saddle Cafe get first-row seats as visitors dodge oncoming vehicles to get their picture snapped beneath the arch.

Marv Kay, one of the patrons at the Windy Saddle, said he recently saw a just-married bride and groom, still in their wedding attire, attempt to stop traffic to strike a pose at the arch. “I couldn’t believe it,” he chuckled. “I thought I’d seen everything.”

As far as Golden goes, Kay has indeed seen just about everything. He’s lived most of his 74 years here, starting from the beginning. His father was a junior at the Colorado School of Mines when Kay was born, and after growing up on the Western Slope, Kay returned to attend Mines himself. After a stint in the Army, Kay came back to coach football at the school, where he had been a standout player. Not only was he head coach from the 1960s through 1990s, he also served eight years as Golden’s mayor.

With a lot of help, Kay worked to transform downtown Golden from a sleepy area with vacant storefronts to a bustling place that somehow manages to preserve its small-town charm. As mayor, Kay backed a one-penny sales tax increase that funded a complete overhaul of the Washington Avenue streetscape. Though that measure passed by just a handful of votes 25 years ago, Kay said, “now it’s hard to find anybody who was ever against it.”

He played a supporting role with groups like the Golden Civic Foundation to turn abandoned buildings into stunning places like the Table Mountain Inn or the Golden Hotel. And if it weren’t for Kay’s personal efforts, the American Mountaineering Center, just down the road, likely wouldn’t be in Golden at all.

Housed in what once was Golden’s junior high school, the mountaineering center is the headquarters of the American Alpine Club, Colorado Mountain Club and Outward Bound. It’s also where you’ll find the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, home to some of climbing’s most revered artifacts. Prominently displayed is the ice axe used by climber Pete Schoening in an incident that’s known in mountain lore as “the belay.” During the 1953 American ascent of K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain, Schoening saved five fellow climbers from plunging to their deaths by digging the axe into a boulder and holding on as the falling men’s tethers pulled on him. Next to Schoening’s ice axe is a photograph of 28 children and grandchildren who never would have been born without his heroics.

There are even more exotic artifacts across the creek and up the hill at the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum. Among the startlingly beautiful gems and minerals are a few tiny, drab rocks that are nonetheless some of the most popular, as they were collected from the moon during the Apollo missions.

Not all geologists stick with rocks. Near the geology museum is the Golden City Brewery, which cheekily bills itself as the town’s second-largest brewery, founded 20 years ago by geologists Charlie and Janine Sturdavant. The couple started the brewery in the machine shop behind their Victorian home, with the tasting room in the old carriage house and beer garden in their backyard.

The Sturdavants’ children, Derek and Tamara, grew up helping out with the family business – and occasionally redirecting people who entered the front door of their house, thinking that was the brewery entrance. Derek is now Golden City Brewery’s general manager, while Tamara helps out in the taproom while preparing to attend graduate school to study – you guessed it – geology.

On the other side of town, at Golden’s largest brewery, people line up in the parking lot at 13th and Ford streets to take the shuttle to the Coors tour. Competing with the telltale brewery scent of malted barley is the mouthwatering aroma of grilling hamburgers, which comes wafting over from Bob’s Atomic Burgers across the street.

As you enter the yellow, retro-looking building, Caitlin Schwonke calls out customers’ names when their orders are up. Or rather, she calls the names the customers have been assigned. “Fat Albert!” Schwonke yells. “Mark Twain!”

“There were so many Steves and Jasons and Mikes, it got confusing,” she explains.

The man overseeing the Atomic kitchen isn’t worried about being confused with anyone else – he’s probably the only guy in Golden who simply goes by “Captain.” He watches carefully as customers take their first bite. They sink their teeth into the burger, give it a few chews and then, hopefully, do “the nod,” as if to say, “Oh yeah, this is the stuff.”

Bob’s Atomic Burgers’ owners, Bob and Jen Toohill, opened the place just over a year ago. Bob wanted to get out of the construction business and start a burger joint, but he wanted it to be in this exact spot, across from the Coors parking lot. When it became available, he sprang into action, calling in restaurant-veteran friends Jeremy Cartwright and Captain to helm his kitchen.

Everyone working seems to be a personal friend of the owners. Schwonke, who moved to Golden from New York this year, considers Bob and Jen her Colorado family and babysits their kids when she’s not minding the front counter. Working alongside her is Christian McDonnell, whose elementary school bus stop was in front of the construction site where Bob was building his own home. After gently telling McDonnell and his brother not to play in the dangerous excavated area, Bob befriended the boys and made wooden swords for them out of construction scraps. Now that he’s grown up, McDonnell clearly relishes working for Bob at the premier burger place in town.

“I don’t mess with condiments anymore,” McDonnell said. “I just like the taste of the burgers.”

Besides Bob’s Atomic Burgers, another popular stop for folks returning from the Coors tour is the bronze statue of the brewery’s founder and namesake, Adolph Coors, which stands in front of the Old Capitol Grill on Washington Avenue. This restaurant’s name is accurate: It’s situated in the stone edifice that from 1862 to 1867 was Colorado’s state Capitol building.

Golden is proud of having been the capital city before Denver, and to this day, some people maintain there was bribery involved in moving the seat of government away. But nearly everyone you talk to would decline an offer to have the capital moved back. With around 19,000 people living within city limits, Golden still has the aura of a small, Western town, and its residents are happy to leave the big-city hassle to their neighbors on the plains.

Golden has major Wild West credentials thanks to its most famous resident, Buffalo Bill Cody. If you want to split hairs, Buffalo Bill is, in fact, dead, and he isn’t in Golden proper but buried just a few minutes from downtown at the top of Lookout Mountain. The town celebrates Buffalo Bill Days every July, but open year-round on Lookout Mountain is the Buffalo Bill Museum. Director Steve Friesen has spent the last 18 years clearing up modern misconceptions about Buffalo Bill, who was actually ahead of his time in his fair treatment of American Indians in his Wild West Show and was an early advocate for preserving bison herds.

“Where the West Lives” is Golden’s motto, but come December, it might as well be “Where the West Meets the North Pole.” Santa Claus must be neglecting other towns, because he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time in Golden. Kids can meet him at the Colorado Railroad Museum at the bottom of North Table Mountain, where he and Mrs. Claus hold court in a caboose. After meeting the big man, people ride the Santa Claus Special, a steam train whose passenger cars feature red velvet seats and pot-bellied stoves to keep warm.

When Santa’s not riding a train, he can be spotted riding an old-fashioned, high-wheel bicycle around town. While we have no doubt this bike-riding Santa Claus is the actual St. Nicholas, it’s worth noting that he’s never been seen in the same room at the same time with Steve Stevens, owner of the Golden Oldy Cyclery. The cyclery is actually Stevens’ home, part of which he’s converted into an authentic facsimile of a 19th-century bicycle shop. There are dozens of old-time bikes on display, including the beautifully painted Santa bike, with its giant, 54-inch front wheel.

“It’s widely known that St. Nicholas did his deliveries by bicycle,” Stevens said. “He did that until Orville Wright sent Wilbur to the North Pole to teach Santa how to fly.”

If you call ahead to make an appointment, you can see the Santa bike and many others at the Golden Oldy Cyclery. There’s a lot of cool stuff to see, but it’s a worthwhile experience just to get a chance to talk to Stevens, who can tell you about his record-setting, 29-day trip across the United States on a high-wheel bike. He also can tell you why he calls the cyclery “the sustainable museum of sustainable transportation.” Stevens has done just about everything possible – including putting airlocks on every door – to make the building as energy efficient as possible, reducing his natural gas use by 95 percent and actually creating more energy with his solar panels than he uses.

You might just catch Santa riding his bike down Washington Avenue at Olde Golden Christmas on Parade, which happens the first three Saturdays in December. Each week’s 30-minute parade offers something different, but past years have featured llamas dressed as reindeer, Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars and even Elvis, plus free carriage rides of the horse-drawn or dog-pulled variety.

The Colorado School of Mines Orediggers marching band is always there, decked out in red flannel shirts and hardhats, and led by a drum major wielding a plunger in lieu of a baton (few people are sure how that tradition started). The band has a clever way of marching twice in the same parade: When they get to the end, they pull a U-turn into Miner’s Alley, which runs parallel to the parade route, and run back to the starting point to take another lap.

But the most magical part of Olde Golden Christmas is the Candlelight Walk that kicks off the season on the evening of Friday, Dec. 6. Thousands gather at the top of the hill in front of the Foothills Art Center to get their candles, complete with a cup so they don’t blow out. As people walk in the winter darkness, the twinkling candles turn Washington Avenue into a river of stars; you rarely hear the word “celestial” used in everyday conversation, but it seems to be the go-to adjective in this situation.

Many in the crowd sing carols, and even those who aren’t so confident in their singing voices are guided by Golden High School’s 24th Street Singers or any of a number of groups along the way. Christmas lights turn on at each successive block as the procession passes. The walk ends by the Washington Avenue Bridge, where an antique Coors flatbed truck becomes a stage for performers in front of the Golden Visitor Center.

At the appointed hour, Santa Claus, Mayor Marjorie Sloan and one lucky kid flip an oversized light switch, and miles of lights pop to life up and down Clear Creek Trail. People stroll the trail to admire the illumination, and many make their way to the frontier village at Clear Creek History Park for a sing-along around crackling fires.

Across the creek at the Golden History Center, everyone wants to get a roasted chestnut, even though few people are big fans of the taste. A few years ago, a chestnut blight meant there was only a limited supply, provoking a less-than-merry reaction, said Nathan Richie, director of the history center. “We tried serving cookies instead of chestnuts,” Richie said. “There was almost a riot.”

A lot of people in Golden consider the Candlelight Walk one of the highlights of the year. Among them is Barb Warden, an author and historian devoted to chronicling the city. She adores the unabashedly old-fashioned, small-town feel of the evening. “I’m not particularly sentimental by nature,” Warden said, “but this town has just captured my affection.”

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