Bartending legend says goodbye |

Bartending legend says goodbye

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
AE Ernie Nelson PU 11-3-07

Much has changed in the town that Ernie Nelson calls home.

He moved here on July 28, 1974, or rather made his way from Vermont by train, bus and car across America and Canada, to catch up with his brother who already lived here. When he arrived, the development juggernaut had not yet ripped through the valley leaving behind high-priced real estate and second homes. All that existed was a few small houses, restaurants and bars; and everybody skied.

Nelson quickly got a job at the Ore House bartending, the job that would become a career for the self-described ski-bum.

“It was a way for me to drink for free. As a bartender you didn’t pay for your drinks. You were a god if you were a bartender,” Nelson said.

Nelson seems content with his choice, and his voice sounds content as he speaks of the glory days in a time when you had to ski a hundred days or more to be cool and life was one big party. There was a time, he recalls, when you could ski Vail’s Back Bowls all day long and never run into another set of tracks.

After 12 years at the Ore House, Nelson decided to turn the page on his time in Vail and move to Denver. That didn’t last long and he soon found himself back in the valley with all his old friends. That’s when Andy Kaufman, part owner of the Minturn Saloon, got hold of him.

Kaufman and Steve Campbell (also part owner of the Minturn Saloon) were overjoyed when Nelson said he was interested in coming on board as their bartender. They had known him since he moved to Vail.

“I remember the feeling when Ernie told me he would be interested in talking to us about coming to work at the Saloon,” Kaufman said. “I got very excited because I know that someone with Ernie’s personality and how well known he was around the valley, that if Ernie comes to work at the Saloon with us that he’s going to draw people in.”

Twenty two years later, Nelson, now in his 50’s, is getting out of the bartending business. The Minturn Saloon hosted his retirement party this past Saturday and about 75 friends came out to celebrate.

“I have done basically nothing else in my life other than be a social animal behind the bar and serve liquor to people,” Nelson said. But he doesn’t back away from his chosen profession, he embraces it.

And why shouldn’t he?

It has brought him in contact with personalities like Gerald Ford, pro-golfer Ernie Els, and baseball legends Yogi Bera and Whitey Ford, not to mention allowed him to make people laugh, which he said is one of his favorite things to do.

Behind the jovial storytelling hides another voice, this one saddened by the end of an era.

“I just want to make a living and enjoy the rest of my life in Vail and try not to be an interference. I’m irrelevant anymore, you know, my kind is such a dinosaur in this town. There’s so few of us left because it is a professional community now and guys don’t tend bar for 35 years … resort living isn’t for everybody,” Nelson said. “I’m probably the poorest person that lives in this town that has lived here over 30 years. Everybody else I know has become millionaires with all the development and everything going on.”

But realizing that partying until three in the morning isn’t an option anymore won’t keep him from having fun. He still aims at skiing over 100 days this season, and his cleaning business, Ernie Nelson Enterprises, keeps him busy otherwise.

Others come here and pay thousands of dollars a week to experience what Nelson experiences on a daily basis.

“He remembers why most of us came to this valley and the importance of getting in the outdoors and enjoying life is something that Ernie has never forgotten,” Kaufman said.

Arts and Entertainment Writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or

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