Scattered around the Vail Valley are reminders of an earlier era. Every so often in open space, a partly dilapidated shack continues to stand despite overwhelming odds of a harsh environment and a caretaker who long since surrendered a fixture of his or her life to the high country.
Each of these cabins bears its own story, and all too often it goes largely untold outside of historical society circles.
The Cordillera Preservation Foundation’s recent effort to renovate its Bearcat Stables offers a model that links the past with the present, and is an important thread in the tapestry of Eagle County history.
“It’s one of those things where it’s the last opportunity to get it done,” said John Rainey, chairman and co-founder of the foundation, who stood in the doorway of Bearcat’s cabin looking up the hill at the Bearden cabin. “That building would have been gone. We started the Preservation Foundation in 2002, and that was our first project. That would have been gone, and this one was about to go.”
The Bearden cabin has been perched at the entrance of Bearcat Stables near Squaw Creek for almost a century, possibly longer, as it was abandoned in 1914 when the Bearden family arrived and then started living in it.
“It’s different if you come from the South or the East. Old in the South is the 1700s, and, here, old is the 1890s. That’s why everything in Edwards has Victorian architecture, because the earliest anyone was here was the 1890s or so,” Rainey said. “So 1914 was really early for people to live there, and fitting five people in that one room is quite remarkable.” He said the family outgrew the small structure, and may have sought a better location than on a precarious incline.
It may also have been abandoned for another practical reason.
“I really don’t understand why they had the latrine on the creek. The old outhouse is sitting there, up gradient from the creek,” Rainey said, laughing. “Not good engineering!”
Centered on the valley floor below, “Bearcat’s cabin,” named after Ellis “Bearcat” Bearden, who made it his home from when it was erected in 1941, until just before he passed in 1993. It’s an idyllic spread, with slate gray mountains and an explosion of aspens in every direction.
Bearden was best known as a rancher and bare-knuckle brawler in the 30s, but also had a stint as an outfielder with the Padres.
“He proved he could raise livestock here, and kept getting approval for additional
land. He wound up with about 200 acres,” said Gavin Selway, founder of Bearcat Stables. “He kept getting land grants because if you proved you could provide livelihoods for other people, the government would give more land.”
Bearden’s 1946 Dodge truck, which he nicknamed “The Blitzwagon,” still rests to the side of his cabin, while the other antiques strewn about the grounds were found at auction, Selway said.
“We tried to get the type of things they used to have here, because when the (Bearden) family moved out, they sold everything in a big auction, and everything left except for the pickup truck. In fact, somebody bought the truck but never came to collect it.”
When the Preservation Foundation began work on Bearcat’s cabin, it was barely standing. The roof had caved in on itself and the foundation threatened to give way after years of battling an unforgiving spring runoff.
“We built new flooring and a foundation, because the crawl space would fill up with water. The foundation was shot, but we gutted the place, took out all the walls … put the old tin (roof) back on, stripped it back to the basic walls, and it’s solid as a rock now,” Rainey said.
The next step is to turn Bearcat’s cabin into a walking history tour. Rainey said 50 photographs would festoon the cabin’s wooden walls, adding a personal touch to the story behind the building.
“So people will walk around the walls, see pictures of the family who lived here, and see how we reconstructed the cabins,” Rainey said. “We’ll also have photos of the Penny cabins at the top of the hill and tell people where those are located (at the “summit” opposite the Bearden cabin). For those we just squared (the foundation) and put a roof on them.”
Outside Bearcat’s cabin, the foundation added a nice amenity ¬” an outhouse with a septic system.
“We want this to open up for school groups, functions and weddings, campfires ” that sort of thing,” Rainey said, explaining the picnic tables, hitching posts and other on-site amenities. “It’s very hard to get people interested in doing events without toilets. Those are not happy places. But this is very nice looking, and cost us $30,000 plus. It’s built like a fortress, and environmentally sound.”
It’s this sort of attention to pragmatism that makes the preservation effort notable, as it’s understood that to attract the greatest number of people to a historical site, the set-up should be as accommodating as possible.
So the ramshackle buildings near Squaw Creek in Cordillera, nearly decimated just a decade ago, are now fully restored, and one corner of Eagle County has a more complete history.
With the Bearcat Stables project all but finished, the Cordillera Preservation Foundation has set its sights on other locations throughout the valley.
“There’s so much disappearing here, and not many efforts at preservation … We’ve done three preservations and we want to do three more so that they’re spread all over the property, but there’s so many more that need to be done throughout the valley,” Rainey said. “What we really need to do is get the Vail Valley Foundation involved so we can preserve some of the others around the county.”
Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
>> For more information, visit CordilleraPreservation.com.
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