Heicher: Make no mistake, Hahnewald barn is historically significant (column)
When the Avon Town Council votes on the preservation of the Hahnewald barn, finances, land planning and local politics will most certainly be a factor. However, contrary to the opinions of some opponents, there should be no doubt about the historic value of the barn. In a town where history is just about impossible to find, that barn is the last remaining physical link to the community’s past. It is a historically valuable community asset.
Local history is elusive in Avon because the area was an unincorporated ranching community prior to the development of Beaver Creek ski resort in the 1970s. Unlike Minturn, Eagle, or Red Cliff, the community does not have a historic downtown to tell its story. Residential and commercial development has swallowed up the once-productive ranches.
The old Avon general store actually does still exist — but it is located in Eagle. Thirty-some years ago, a group of local volunteers with an interest in local history cared enough to dismantle the store log-by-log, then rebuild the structure as part of the Eagle County Historical Society’s museum complex. The reconstructed and well-stocked store is now a history lesson for several thousand visitors annually.
The Hahnewald barn represents an important aspect of local history. It tells the story of European immigrants who found new opportunity in a Colorado mountain valley. Some of the names are still familiar in the community (Metcalf, Hahnewald, Kroelling, Nottingham). Typically drawn here by the lure of instant wealth from the silver and gold mines, many of those early settlers were savvy enough to recognize the Eagle River Valley’s agricultural opportunities as a better economic option. They brought in cattle and sheep, and raised hay, grains, potatoes, peas and lettuce. For nearly a century, agriculture was the primary economic engine in the valley.
Avon was particularly a force in the county’s agricultural economy in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Colorado State Agricultural College established an “experimental farm” in what is now East Avon and Eagle-Vail. Rich soil and the 7,600-foot elevation made the land ideal for testing seeds and crops and experimenting with farming techniques. Trainloads of agricultural professors from western states were brought through the county to observe and learn from the experiments at Avon. The annual “Farmer’s Day” exhibits and programs at Avon drew up to 1,500 high-altitude farmers and ranchers from throughout Colorado and neighboring states.
In 1912, a trio of Avon farmers, Albert Hahnewald, Mack Fleck, and G.C. Nottingham, went to the county commissioners seeking an investigation into the impact that mining waste at Gilman was having on the Eagle River. The county commissioners and mine owners wanted to deal with the issue with a simple verbal agreement. The farmers, warning that the mine wastewater would eventually “kill the land,” demanded a formal contract. Sixty years later, mine waste turned the Eagle River orange, and Gilman was declared a Superfund cleanup site. Those Avon farmers were prophetic.
A number of communities in Eagle County have saved and repurposed old barns. In Eagle, the Chambers Dairy barn is now the Eagle County Historical Museum. In Gypsum, the town modified the unique Lundgren barn to serve as an outdoor stage. Basalt leaders preserved that town’s history by locating the Arbaney barn in a town park, where it is used for community gatherings. All of those towns recognized value in protecting a legacy.
People are drawn to communities that have a strong sense of historical identity and character. Understanding the past gives citizens a stake in the present and future.
Since the time it became an incorporated town, Avon has been struggling to define itself. Preservation of this bit of history could bring the town the kind of soul it needs to establish itself as more than a just a bedroom community for Vail and Beaver Creek.
It will be a little sad if Avon residents have to drive to Eagle to find their community history.
Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society. She can be reached at ECHS@eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com