GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — This is a tale of two saloons, both with storied historical identities in the towns they serve, and both of which have been resurrected, in a sense, by new ownership.
The towns, Carbondale and New Castle, are not very similar to one another, and the saloons each have their distinctive feel and decor.
But looking beyond the details and the decorations, one can tell that the similarities are deeper than the differences.
The new owners of the Black Nugget Saloon in Carbondale have returned the venerable institution to its roots, reviving the bar's focus on the coal-mining culture that once was the predominant economic engine for the Crystal River Valley.
"It's going to be, like, a bar-museum for the miners," said Czech native Dasha Balasova. She and her husband, Vit Blanar, both of Avon, are the new proprietors of the bar.
For close to half a century, according to old timers in town, The Black Nugget has occupied the southeast corner of the historic Dinkel Building, offering everything from a quick fist-fight with a drunken coal miner or cowboy, to live music and a dance hall atmosphere, or a chance to sip at an exceptional, micro-brewed local beer, depending on the year.
It has been through multiple ownerships and styles over the years, as well as several name changes. Regardless of who owned it or who ran it, it was always viewed as home to the rougher element in Carbondale.
At and one point in 2002, the Nugget was deemed such a troublesome establishment that the police advocated withdrawal of its liquor license.
But the bar's fans pushed back, as evidenced by a Feb. 15, 2002, letter from resident Valerie Harriman, who noted the bar has a "long and colorful history here and is somewhat of a legend."
If the bar were to be shuttered, she continued, "You will rip out a part of the heart and fabric of our town." The license was not pulled.
Today, the Nugget is owned by Vit Holdings Inc., the corporate identity of Balasova and Blanar, and managed by Balasova's son, Hans Balas, 24, who lives in Carbondale.
The bar features an array of coal-mining memorabilia on the walls, along with two wooden arches displaying the names of miners killed in the Coal Basin mines of Mid-Continent Resources, in accidents in 1965 and 1981.
"I wanted to have it nice, in the memory of the miners," said Balasova, explaining that coal mining is a big part of the Czech Republic's economy, just as it once was here.
The mining gear, Balasova confided, is not local. A close examination of the authentic equipment will reveal words in the Czech language, because that is where it is from.
"In Czech, there is coal mining, lots of coal mining," she explained.
Unable to locate mining paraphernalia at reasonable prices, she paid $15,000 to import 59 boxes of mine badges, lanterns and other antique equipment, some of it 100 years old or more, from the old country.
After buying the business in July, Balasova spent several months working behind the bar and remodeling the entire place to open it up from front to back.
"I designed everything, the way the bar looked, how it's going to be," she remarked proudly.
Balasova held her grand opening party on Nov. 17, and recalled, "More than 200 people came, I couldn't fit everybody inside. And we didn't do any advertising, just word of mouth. That's the way Carbondale works."
Dasha said she came to the U.S. in 1991 as a political refugee from what was then known as Czechoslovakia, two years before the country split into the Czech and Slovak republics.
Coming from a middle-class background, with training in engineering from the Stavebni Skola in Valasske Meziriei, she was placed in Los Angeles by a refugee agency, and ended up on welfare until she got a job washing dishes at a restaurant.
A determined entrepreneur, she said she ultimately bought and ran several bars and other businesses in the Los Angeles area.
But she always wanted to go back to live in the mountains.
She met Blanar through mutual friends in Los Angeles, and came back with him to Vail, where he had been a ski racer registered with the Federácion Internacional du Ski.
By late 2005, she had sold her businesses in the Los Angeles area and bought the Brush Creek Bar and Grill in Eagle and went back to her old business plan of buying, refurbishing and operating down-on-their-luck businesses.
After hearing about what was then called Carnahan's in late 2011, she came to Carbondale and checked things out.
"I saw the night life in Carbondale, and I was very impressed," she said. "In Carbondale, it's alive, you have lots of restaurants and places, and people are very friendly."
By July 9, she had signed a lease-purchase deal and went to work as a bartender at Carnahan's to get to know the community.
She was planning to call it the Blue Creek Saloon, she said, but her customers soon taught her otherwise.
"People will always call this place Nugget," she said with a smile. "So then I changed the liquor license and everything to the Black Nugget. That was to please the people."
The Nugget is open seven days a week, from about noon to 2 a.m., offering sustenance in the form of a "build-your-own hot dog" to green chili in a bowl and various snacks.
Balasova proudly noted that there are 20 draft beers at the bar, including Colorado micro-brews.
Historical identity has played an important part in the revitalization of the old Silver Club Saloon in New Castle, according to owner Seth Graby.
First opened as a saloon in 1894, it was called Schneider's and Sessler's Saloon, after the two entrepreneurs who got the business started. Graby said he has always been a history buff.
The name was changed to the Silver Club Saloon three years later and stayed that way until about 20 years ago, when it was changed to The Canyon Club.
Through the years, the bar got a name as a rough place, according to Graby, who said "people knew it as a knife and gun club" where violence frequently flared.
But now, Graby said, the historic name is back on the window where it first appeared in 1897, and his plans are to relegate the club's bad reputation to history.
Graby, 30, is a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq for the U.S. Army.
He and his wife, Amber, have lived in Parachute for the past five and a half years. They moved to Colorado from their native state of Kansas when she got a job as a physical therapist at Grand River Hospital in Rifle.
He studied sociology and history at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, on the GI Bill, before deciding to look for other opportunities.
His interest in sociology and history, Graby said, is "why I'm in the bar business now.
"I get interested in people of all different types," he explained, and being a bartender seemed a perfect way to exercise that interest.
Graby was searching online for a business opportunity and last October he discovered that the old Canyon Club was up for sale.
Learning about the history behind the place satisfied his love of things historical, so he bought the business and the property for a price he declined to name, using a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to swing the deal.
"It just seemed like the only thing to do," he said.
He refinished the oak flooring of the place, and replaced the ceiling with a drop-frame, faux-hammered tin ceiling.
For furniture, he went to Habitat For Humanity's ReStore outlet in Glenwood Springs and snapped up wooden tables and chairs that once graced the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.
He left the log walls of the building alone, along with wainscoting covering the lower logs and a stage at the back for live music. He built some new bar shelving, painted black, to supplement the small, historic back bar that was already in place.
"That's supposed to be original," he remarked, gesturing toward the small, natural wood back bar.
Graby has quit school to run the bar, along with his cousin, Daniel Madill, 28, and he said he and Amber are planning to move closer to the Rifle and New Castle area.
Graby said he is still learning about the history of New Castle, and has discovered that the original owners of the saloon also owned several other businesses in town.
The reaction from locals has been positive, he said.
"I think people are really glad to have it back."