Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the world’s largest rising organ was at Gold Slipper. It should have stated that the organ was at Cat and Fiddle. The story also stated that the mountain bike was invented in 1988. The correct year is 1978. Mountain bikes became available for purchase in 1981.
Debbie Hull has been pouring drinks and taking orders with a smiling face at multiple Durango restaurants for decades. The Mancos native saw the once-hip stucco be peeled off Main Avenue buildings to reveal the historic facade that exists in many places today. She’s seen the population grow, and new businesses replace the old.
“When I was here in the ’70s, we didn’t have a McDonald’s,” Hull said. “We’d have to go to Farmington.” That was a big deal back then, she said, and so was going to The Chief Restaurant for a $2.95 20-ounce T-Bone, then later to Ozone, a college bar that only served 3.2 ABV beer.
Hull can no longer savor a hot cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie fresh out the potbelly stove at Panhandler Pies. No more Manhattans can be sipped under a Victorian-era nude painting at the Solid Muldoon cocktail bar. No one will ever hear the resonating notes from the world’s largest rising organ, which appeared from under the floor at midnight at the Cat and Fiddle. (So, this is what people did before the Internet?)
Things have changed a lot since the ’70s – the price of cocaine, for starters and STDs, to name a few – but there are a few places still around to keep the bell-bottomed bygone decade alive. For a current blast from the disco ball-sparking past, follow this guide to the ’70s-era hot spots that have survived in Durango the last four decades, and have a bitchin’, far out day.
8 a.m.Breakfast at Durango DinerA couple from San Antonio sits at the Durango Diner’s bar top. They use their fresh-cut hash browns as a sponge to soak up the runny over-easy egg yolk. They hadn’t been to Durango in over a decade until now, and the diner is their first stop because they love the food (and the owner Gary Broad). Their afternoon fuel tastes the same as it did 10 years ago, when they last visited. That’s because the menu hasn’t changed much since the place opened in 1965.
Other than adding green chile and house specialties, the hot cake options, burgers, and sandwiches are all still there. A grease-stained menu from the ’70s hanging on the wall is available for comparison.
That long, narrow wall is a time capsule of partnerships, friendships, and the diner’s 50-plus-year history. Broad bought the place in 1980. At the time, the restaurant was further south on Main, where Fired Up Pizza is now located. He and partner at the time moved the restaurant to a spot on Main Avenue, the spot of an old motorcycle handlebar store. Another framed snapshot on the wall shows Broad and his partner moving the bar table to a new location, where it still sits today. The table top has held up against a half-century of countless elbows, coffee drips, and soda spills.
“Why shouldn’t it?” Broad asked.
Before Broad owned the place, he was a patron. When he moved to Durango in 1977, he worked at Purgatory Ski Resort during the day and Tamarron Resort at night. After work, Broad and his coworkers would go to the Solid Muldoon and then hit the diner to soak up the night’s drinks, although he doesn’t remember what he ordered back then.
It was the ’70s; nobody remembers much, he said. But he does remember Jim Roberts, the owner of the diner before Broad took ownership.
“Jim was a great guy,” Broad said. “He took care of you.”
Based on the interactions Broad has with his employees and the couple from San Antonio, he has maintained the same hospitality that existed back in the ’70s.
10 a.m.Spend the day at Purgatory Resort or on the waterMany people moved to Durango in the ’70s for the same reason outdoor lovers move here in the 21st century: to play. That often means dropping out of college and working multiple services industry jobs to do so. Rent back then was much cheaper – $35 per month for a cabin without electricity off Florida Road seems affordable, albeit uncomfortable – but Durango was still pricey back then. Goods and fuel had to be trucked in, according to the Animas Museum staff.
To live here, young people worked on ranches and farms, the ski resort, or in restaurants. Places like Sweeney’s fostered camaraderie between servers, with a work-hard-play-hard mentality. Their tips would go toward the $100 ski pass and $6 ski, boots, and pole rentals in 1973.
Purgatory Resort opened in 1965 with one chairlift and eight trails. By the late ’70s, there were four double chairlifts and 450 acres of ski trails, according to a 1978 ski pamphlet from the Animas Museum archives. In the ’77-’78 season, there were 218,000 skiers, and the only reason it was ever busy was because the lifts ran so slow.
A tradition that has stayed alive (accidental Bee Gees pun) since the ’70s is now the biggest event of the year: Snowdown. A 1979 article from Purgatory Press, found in the Animas Museum archives, previews the inaugural year:
“The winter celebration will include such events as snow sculpting, ski jumping, cross country races, snowmobile races and even a ‘skijoring’ event where a horse and rider pull a skier. … For the less energetic there will be a yodeling contest, canine fashion show and lots of demonstrations of winter sports.”
The same article outlines how Boudreaux trail was laid out. Purgatory employee Don “Boudreaux” Miller accidentally drove one of the maintenance vehicles off the mountain and plowed down enough trees to carve a new path.
In the summer, if you weren’t working construction or playing in a basketball league, people would hit a few rounds at Hillcrest Golf Club after it opened in 1969, or check out Fiesta Days at the fairgrounds (since 1935), or maybe a powwow at Hozhoni Days at the college (since 1966).
Casting out into Vallecito or pulling on waders to fly fish over the Animas has remained popular since a Chinese proverb taught a man to fish, and so has hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities, with one major difference: the toys.
The mountain bike didn’t hit the market until 1981, paddle boarding hadn’t exploded across the U.S., and Walmart wasn’t available for last-minute $5 tube purchases. For the most part, people were content with a cooler full of beer and a free-floating swim or cliff jumping into Navajo Lake. The river, on the other hand, was not nearly as popular as it is today. It wasn’t a tourist attraction that required nerdy release forms for guided rafting tours. According to the Animas Museum staff, locals still floated down the river, but they traveled further north to calmer waters to avoid the familiar pain of a having a large rock sneak up on your vulnerable spine.
7 p.m.Dinner at Ore HouseAfter a day on the slopes or a show at Kiva Theater (before it burned to the ground in 1974), or prior to one of the melodramas at The Strater Theatre, the Ore House, 1972, was a popular dining destination for those with a hearty appetite. Still in its original location, the steakhouse is one of the few restaurants in Durango that has weathered the test of time, and even outlasted the predecessor in Vail it was modeled after.
Co-owners Beatle Abshagen and Jim Arias lured Durangoans and tourists all the way to the rough end of town to College Avenue, which was 6th Street then, with their savory mountain steaks and buttery lobster tail.
An old ’70s guide describes the place: “Favorite apres ski drinking and dining establishment. Steak, lobster, and spirits are featured. We LOVE skiers.”
Many people who are known in the community today, such as John Wells of Wells Durango Real Estate, delivered hot entrées and cold beers at the restaurant back then. These days, the majority of the servers punching in orders on a digital system were not even a twinkle in their parents eye in 1972. But the classic arched brick walls and an old plaque with the restaurant and bar hours still hangs over the steakhouse’s front door in a nod to the restaurant’s history. The menu and the atmosphere have been updated, but the artwork and steaks can still be enjoyed today.
9 p.m.Drinks at The PalaceThe Solid Muldoon was a popular spot for a nightcap, but the fancy cocktail bar closed in the ’90s. The Palace, on the other hand, located to the train depot, is still around. In the late-’70s, the bar was described as “providing a fine nouveau Victorian atmosphere for sipping cocktails and enjoying a meal of the highest quality.” Sounds much fancier than the casual tavern-style restaurant that we see today.
After The Palace, if anyone had a wild hair, they could stay out until 2 a.m. and go dancing (or maybe drive to Farmington to go to the strip club). For pitchers of beer and drunk munchies, people would go to Farquahrts and Pizza Mia.
Honky tonks like Sundance were also popular, and Durango was relatively unscathed from the platformed wrath of disco. People were more interested in John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, and George Thorogood than Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes.
And, after closing time, you could sneak onto the train with a good buzz, blow the whistle, and steal parts to make mobiles. The train wasn’t the Fort Knox it is in 2018. Back in the ’70s, there were only two or three cops patrolling the streets, so you could be a wild thing without fear.
Ah, the good ol’ days.