Town Story: Montrose

Just beyond the cliffs of Black Canyon lies historic Montrose, agricultural hub and hidden gem of art and adventure.

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The turnaround efforts seem to be working. In the last two years, nearly 30 new shops have opened downtown. One of that number is A+Y Design, a custom furniture and art gallery owned by Adam and Yesenia Duncan. Adam, a Montrose native, had been making and selling rustic and modern wooden furniture for eight years before taking a gamble on opening a gallery on Main Street last year.

“There’s a huge sense of community downtown, even with the other galleries,” he said. “We try not to compete. We try to promote each other, tell people to check out another place if they don’t find what they’re looking for.”

That friendly, neighborly spirit is apparent from the moment you hit town. Dennis Vanderwist owns the Boardwalk Shops antique complex in Montrose, but 40 years ago he and his wife were recent college graduates thinking of moving to the Western Slope. They arrived in Montrose with a list of three or four other towns to look at. After spending a day talking with folks around town, they crossed the other cities off their list.

“We fell in love with the town,” Vanderwist said. “We rented a house that day, having no idea what we were going to do” for work.

Chuck Presby is another non-native drawn in by Montrose’s charm. Presby owns the Red Barn Restaurant & Lounge, a Montrose institution since 1967 that truly is shaped like a big red barn. There’s a giant fiberglass steer on the sign outside; inside there are some of the best chargrilled cowboy ribeye steaks you can get. On any given night, Presby can tell you the name, occupation and back story of practically anyone in the place. He still likes to tell a story of a winter night during his first year in town. Heavy snow was falling outside.

“I had probably 30 guys in here that night,” Presby said. “A couple young guys came in and said their car broke down the street, is there anybody who could give them a hand? And everybody jumped up. I’m looking around and I was shocked. I mean, not one – everybody jumped up.”

Montrose has a way of drawing natives back home. Dee Coram moved away for college, then spent 10 years working in the entertainment department of a Las Vegas casino, where he met Phuong Nguyen, now his business partner. The two had a dream of opening a coffeehouse in Sonoma County, Calif., but fate intervened before they could act on it. On a visit home, Coram discovered the perfect location for their shop, right on Main Street in Montrose.

Since they opened The Coffee Trader in 1999, it has become a community gathering place. Coram confesses he was initially a little nervous about opening a hip espresso joint in a small town. Not long after they opened, Coram remembers seeing two men standing in line, both in their 70s, one a farmer wearing a seed company cap and the other a rancher from south of town.

“I said to Phuong, ‘They’re used to truck-stop coffee – our coffee’s going to kill them!’” Coram said. He and Nguyen discussed whether they should water down the coffee for them. “Then they got to the front of the line, and it’s the story of how you should never judge a book by its cover: The farmer ordered apricot tea and the rancher gentleman ordered a chai latte.”

In retrospect, Coram shouldn’t have been surprised. Montrose is a town that can’t be pigeonholed – and for all the natural beauty that surrounds the city, its people are what make it special.

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine.)

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