Flying W rides again

By Anthony Welch

Flying W Ranch has been a major part of Aaron Winter’s life.

“I started out as a ranch hand as a student in 1997. I cooked chuckwagon meals, worked within the little western town, drove the train, parked cars and waited on tables,” he said.

In 2004, the Flying W promoted Winter to assistant manager and eventually to director of sales and marketing. The ranch was near and dear to Winter’s heart.

The summer of 2012 changed everything. On June 26, 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire crested over a hill and torched everything in sight, completely decimating the historic ranch. Twenty-nine buildings, old west artifacts collected over several lifetimes and ranch homes were gone. Out of the entire western town, only one small building, one teepee and one wooden cross remained, according to FlyingW.com.

“It was hard. I didn’t cry until NPR called me. Once I started talking on the radio about the ranch and what we had lost, that’s when it really hit me the hardest,” Winter said. “These last few years, it’s hard to let go of the past and bring in the new, but I think we’ve done a good job of it.

The Flying W will reopen on July 10. It’s been an eight-year process. The ranch has spent a majority of that time working with government agencies on fire mitigation on the property, planting saplings and restoring the landscape, according to Winter.

Five years ago the Wolfe family, who own the ranch, met with architects to start plotting out what new structures would look like, Winter said. A year ago in June, construction crews broke ground.

“It’s been an evolving plan ever since,” Winter said. “We’re trying to build back what we can, but not all of it will be there.”

Russ and Marian Wolfe started the original chuckwagon with just 12 paying guests back in 1953, according to the ranch website.

“Russ would hire Colorado College kids to come sing for the guests,” Winter mentioned.

Over time, brick by brick, Russ and Marian built the unique and diverse Western Village. Eventually 29 structures, including the church, jail, school house, Taos Pueblo, printing press, kiva, library, drug store, homestead, Ute Theater, train depot and more were built or transferred to the Red Rock enclave, the website says.

Marian passed away in 1999, and Russ passed away in April of 2019. Coincidentally, one of the few structures that survived the fire was Marian’s House, which housed 3,000 of her cookbooks, Winter said.

“The fire took everything, but it didn’t take Marian’s,” he added.

The family tradition continues, as Russ and Marian’s daughter Leigh Ann Thurston now oversees the ranch.

The new ranch includes an open-air pavilion that, when there are no COVID-19 restrictions, will seat 900 patrons. An newly-constructed outdoor amphitheater will seat around 1,500 people, Winter said. Under COVID-19 restrictions, the ranch will open to 350 guests a day. That will allow the ranch to split patrons into two groups of 175 people.

“One group will tour the western town, while the other eats in the pavilion,” Winter said.

All staff will wear masks, and patrons are asked to do the same other than when eating, he added.

The ranch will feature a silversmith, blacksmith, a Navajo rug weaver and the Sweetwater Native American Hoop Dancers. New to the ranch are animal attractions that will include donkeys, pot belly pigs and oxen.

“The oxen come from the same bloodline of the original oxen that pulled wagons from the east to west,” Winter said.

Health department restrictions are putting plans for a new train on hold for now, he added.

The Flying W auditioned 300 musicians to put together a new Flying W Wranglers band. The new band features  Aaron Weil (guitar), Seth Weil (fiddle), Cassy Weil (upright bass) Jesse Friesen (guitar) and Ross Huskinson (steel guitar).

The Flying W has upgraded its menu. While the chuckwagon suppers used to just include barbecue roast beef, the new offerings include fully-smoked brisket, turkey and sausage, according to Winter.

“I’m feeling more nervous than excited. I haven’t operated a chuckwagon in eight years,” he said. “I like to say I’m getting back in the saddle. It’ll be an emotional experience.”

Chuckwagon suppers and shows are hosted at 5 p.m. seven days a week through Sept. 30. To purchase tickets, visit flyingw.com.

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