Avon is celebrating 40th anniversary of incorporation, but its history goes back much further | VailDaily.com

Avon is celebrating 40th anniversary of incorporation, but its history goes back much further

Sarah Smith Hymes
Special to the Daily

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series celebrating Avon's history. Pick up a copy of the Wednesday, Sept. 12, edition of the Vail Daily to read part two.

AVON — Without a quaint old downtown to trigger your imagination, you may think there was nothing here until the ski industry came calling and brought it to life, but Avon was a community long before the 1978 milestone that declared it a "real town."

From displaced Ute Indians to trappers, miners and homesteaders, ranchers to developers, Avon shares a history common to much of the Rocky Mountain West. It was shaped by federal policy that expelled Native Americans, offered free public land to homesteaders and propped up the price of silver to incentivize mining innovation and develop transportation into the remotest reaches of the American West.

Avon owes its character today to the people who decided to take the risk, to stick it out, to figure out a way to make it work. They came from everywhere — not just Iowa and Ohio and Virginia and Illinois and Maine — but England, Scotland, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Most were lured by the prospect of striking it rich in the gold and silver mines of Leadville and Battle Mountain, but filtered down to the Eagle River Valley to a cut timber and raise livestock and crops to feed the booming mine towns.

Life was hard; tempers ran high. It was commonplace to settle an argument with a six-shooter. Infant mortality was high, medical care primitive or nonexistent. Isolation, deprivation and the challenges of teasing a living from an unforgiving climate tested the resolve of even the most determined and self-reliant. Some gave up after a few months; others stayed for generations.

Avon wasn't defined by the boundaries set in 1978. As of 1882, it was the center of life for the settlers of Beaver Creek, Eagle-Vail, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead. Although their school house, community center, general store, railroad depot, lettuce sheds and most family homes and barns are long gone, some reminders of the early days can still be found around town.

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WINDOWS TO THE PAST

• The cabin in Nottingham Park near the performance pavilion was built in May 1882 by John Metcalf for his wife, Lizzie, and their infant son. Now a far cry from the original 20-by-20 unpeeled log cabin with a sod roof and a single window, in 1977 it was moved from its original location north of the Eagle River near West Beaver Creek Boulevard.

Metcalf, who was originally from Ohio, came to own most of western Avon. He rode with Oscar Traer to Central City to witness the "proving up" of each other's homesteads. He served as one Eagle County's first commissioners after the county was carved out of Summit County in 1883. He joined forces with fellow homesteaders to build the Metcalf irrigation ditch to open up more land for agriculture. In 1896, he signed all the property over to his wife and left town for the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon Territory, never to return.

• Remains of the Traer 1882 homestead are visible across the Eagle River uphill from the Colorado Department of Transportation facility on U.S. Highway 6 in Eagle-Vail. The original homestead included outbuildings and a bridge across the river. Like many other homesteads in the area, it passed through several families before becoming part of the extended Nottingham family holdings. Willis Nottingham purchased it in 1945; his son Bill sold it to the Lindholm family in 1992.

• The Mirabelle Restaurant at the entrance to Beaver Creek is the site of George Townsend's 1876 homestead patent. It was the second filed in Avon after William L. Swift's patent of 1874. (Swift's homestead encompassed the land where today's City Market sits.) Townsend, who is credited with giving Avon its name, had settled here to raise cattle. His sister-in-law Allie and her young son moved to George's homestead in Avon in 1882 after her husband, Sam, a well-regarded lawman in Leadville, was shot and killed by a young lawyer over a court dispute.

George and Allie married and ran a traveler's inn, post office and stagecoach stop and were instrumental in establishing Avon's first school district in 1888, which enrolled 19 students the first year. In 1898, the Howards bought the Townsend's 400-acre ranch (today's Beaver Creek golf course) for $4,000 and built the first wing of the Mirabelle restaurant house that stands today.

• The Hahnewald Barn, easily visible from the bike path or from Highway 6, has been in continuous use since it was built by Albert Hahnewald around 1908. It sits on Eagle River Water & Sanitation District property on the original Metcalf homestead just east of Lakeview Condominiums. The Hahnewalds were German immigrants who funded the purchase of ranches in Avon and Edwards with proceeds from a rich lode of ore they struck in Leadville in the 1890s. The barn supported their cattle operation, which ran up to 1,000 heads of cattle.

Paul Kroelling, another German immigrant, purchased the barn in 1915. The Kroelling family used the barn to support their livestock and agriculture operations, which included head lettuce during the lettuce boom of the 1920s. Harry A. Nottingham purchased it in 1948. The Nottingham family retained ownership of the barn until they sold to Benchmark Holdings, a real estate development company, in 1972. The barn ultimately was purchased by the water and sanitation district and has been used for storage ever since. Efforts are currently underway to save the barn from demolition, as it needs to be moved to make room for expansion of the water treatment facility.

• Through the trees on Hurd Lane, just east of the Canyon Run complex, you can glimpse the original 1908 Clyde Nottingham farmhouse and other outbuildings that were moved in 1984 from their original location where Building A of Canyon Run now sits. Clyde was the oldest son of William Nottingham, the original Nottingham settler in Avon. The house is still in Nottingham hands — Clyde's great niece, Tamra Nottingham Underwood, lives there with her family.

• In front of Canyon Run is the restored Nottingham Power Plant, dating from 1928. It was designated a historic site by the Colorado Historical Society in 2006 and refurbished in 2011, thanks to the efforts of local preservationists. It is best viewed from the marker on the bike bath railing just east of the new Basecamp development. Built by Emmett and Willis Nottingham and engineered by Emmett's wife, Myrtle, it provided electricity to the Nottingham Ranch and the Avon Railroad Depot until rural electrification came to the area in 1942.

• Other telltale signs of Avon's heritage are hiding in plain sight. The railroad tracks date back to 1887, when the slogan for the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad was "Through the Rockies, not around them." Irrigation ditches built by original homesteaders still snake their way under our streets, daylighting occasionally. Hiking the hills around Avon you may stumble upon the occasional arrowhead or remains of makeshift shelters used by trappers, sheep herders or timber cutters.

If you go …

What: Town of Avon’s 40th Anniversary Community Picnic.

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13.

Where: Harry A. Nottingham Park, Avon.

Cost: Free.

More information: Free food and drink provided by the town on a first-come, first-served basis. The picnic provides community members with an opportunity to meet members of the Avon Town Council and town staff and offer comments and suggestions.