Founders and Foundations at Slaughterhouse Creek

Article by Marty Rush

Part 2 of a 3-part series.

Local History – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

In the summer of 1970, the first cabin was built at Slaughterhouse Creek.

The deed had been signed, sealed, and delivered to the county courthouse that spring. Two of the founders had coughed hardest, hawking up $1,000 apiece, and were now landed gentry in Colorado. Affairs were tidied up in Minnesota, except for one marriage that wasn’t going to last. By the end of May, the road to the property had thawed and they were driving in. Tents and lean-tos went up. Beers were hoisted in celebration.

They were living in the woods and ready to start building their community.

They were not alone.

Like a magnet, the vision of Slaughterhouse Creek drew other people to the scene. There were friends from Minnesota who thought building a log cabin in the Rockies sounded like a groovy summer vacation. Other dropouts in the area dropped by, hippies from Salida and the Mineral Hot Springs, a commune in the San Luis Valley. Some college kids from Denver University also showed up. They were taking a course in experimental living called Earth Games, staying in tipis on the next mountain. Slaughterhouse Creek was extra credit.

The first cabin was a learning experience for the founders, too. It was the prototype — none of them had ever built a house before. There was free and open debate, not that democracy had anything to do with construction decisions. Debates generally ended in confusion among the beers, and the people who were the least confused and most energetic wound up on the crew.

Somehow, the cabin got built.

Somehow, it got built at the edge of a big meadow, on concrete pilings in a bog below the spring. It got built of logs over a foot in diameter, massive monsters that had to be hoisted in place with a block and tackle. It had just a few tiny windows — the debate on building design had been resolved in favor of R-value.

The result was an imposing, L-shaped, two-story cabin that resembled a cave inside. An impressive structure that sat on a flawed foundation in a bog. But prototypes were meant to be thrown away. And it was a beautiful cabin, anyway.

It was known as the Main Cabin. For all its flaws, it was something special. It was the first cabin built and it had been built communally. It would also be used communally. In the following years, as private cabins went up, the Main Cabin would become the public kitchen and community center, the nucleus of communal life. The kitchen was in the small wing of the L downstairs. An aptly named den occupied the larger wing. There were also two claustrophobic sleeping lofts, which would be highly prized residential property on Slaughterhouse Creek for years to come.

In fact, when the snow began to fall that fall, two of the founders considered wintering in the Main Cabin. Two women, captured from the Earth Games commune, had the same idea. The happy foursome might have succeeded, but there was simply too much snow and not enough money.

In fact, there was no money. It would be a recurring theme at Slaughterhouse Creek over the years, a battle cry like “Remember the Maine!” We have no money! The founders and their girlfriends got by on food stamps, but that didn’t last long. They were passing themselves off as a couple of married couples to the food stamp lady in town, but they kept forgetting who was married to whom. They finally left in confusion before the serious snow arrived.

But the first cabin was up. Slaughterhouse Creek wasn’t just a vision anymore. It was reality now, shaky foundation and all.

DURING THE NEXT THREE YEARS, six cabins were built on Slaughterhouse Creek.

From 1971 to 1974, all of the founders except one built private cabins. Two people who weren’t founders also put up cabins. In later years, well after the commune’s denouement, a third associate would build, too, as would the final founder. Their cabins were nothing like the early ones, though. In fact, they would be frame houses with electricity … But that was later.

In the beginning, the cabins were generally built of logs — logs much smaller than the monsters used in the Main Cabin. The new prototype sat on a solid concrete foundation, out of bogs. L-shapes were out, too — nobody was very keen on geometry. Simple rectangles would suffice.

Despite the new building regulations, the next cabins would all differ considerably from each another. They would embrace a wide range of styles, reflecting the unique visions of their creators.

Three went up in 1971.

One sat on top of the hill at the south end of the property. It was a two-story cabin with a small kitchen downstairs and a cunningly designed loft more spacious than the kitchen. It was a modest and solid edifice that conveyed logic, ingenuity, and a sense of the æsthetic, and included an upstairs deck with a beautiful view.

The builder was the most ambitious of the founders. He was a handy fellow, too — actually, he could hardly keep his hands still. He built a greenhouse and a shop on his enclave in succeeding years. He soon exhausted his building options on Slaughterhouse Creek, and moved to Salida where there was still work for a handyman. Rodents and weasels then established squatters’ rights…at which point the ever-logical handyman conceded defeat and remodeled the shop.

Within a stone’s throw of the handyman’s Slaughterhouse cabin, another founder-cabin went up that second summer. It was at the top of the same hill, directly above the spring and Main Cabin. It was a clear deviation from code, a soaring A-frame, the Swedish version of a Swiss chalet. The founder who built it — let’s call him Sven — had a fondness for geometry, though it sometimes baffled him. He built gabled windows and a jaunty balcony over the front door. It was roomy inside, with a kitchen/den downstairs and a loft with plenty of headroom upstairs.

It was an expansive, eccentric place, much like its builder. But there was a brooding, Scandanavian quality about it, too. Because of its orientation — and because building gabled windows required lots of geometry — the interior was somewhat somber and cave-like, reminiscent of the Main Cabin. Bears proved especially fond of the place over the years.

The third cabin in 1971 was far removed from the other two. It sat farther out on the ridge that ran north from the hill above the Main Cabin. Out on the exposed ridge top, it commanded an awesome view of the mountain ranges to the east and west. This founder had built with the view singularly in mind. He erected a two-story log cabin and crammed it with as many large windows as possible. And books. The vision was pure and direct: to read every book in creation, while gazing out from his private Berchtesgaden, solitary and proud, king of all he surveyed.

In the end, though, gravity overthrew him. While conquering the kingdom, the single-minded monarch had ignored the laws of physics (along with the building codes on foundations and structural support). He’d set his square cabin with airborne loft on four stumps. It raised the whole structure two feet off the ground, which improved the view, but it turned out to be a rotten idea. The stumps began going the way of all wood. Loft logs began sagging over the center of the cabin, bringing the kitchen roof with them…The monarchy was dissolved a few years later, and the logs salvaged against a day of restoration.

In 1972, the fourth founder-cabin went up. This one was near the bottom of the big hill, but well away from the bog. It was the simplest cabin yet — it also turned out to be the best, the Slaughterhouse Creek entry in Better Homes and Gardens. The founder who built it was a crafty devil and almost as restless as his handy friend up the hill. Over the years, his one-room cabin would undergo relentless improvements. It would be sealed inside and out with his own concoction of homemade chinking. (Which he nearly marketed as The Founder’s Own.) There would be a kids’ room added with bunk beds, along with a handmade refrigerator.

But in 1972, when the showcase cabin was first built, it was just a well-made well-lit log studio in the woods. It was a comfortable bachelor pad, which was important, since this founder was also crafty in matters of romance. Ever mindful of obstructions (and restless), the Crafty Devil quickly followed the cabin with a geodesic dome, hand-cutting 100,000 boards for the inside and turning it into the communal sauna. Thus female visitors were now parading around in various states of undress, which pleased him to no end, not to mention the other founders.

IN 1973, THE FIRST NON-FOUNDER built a cabin on Slaughterhouse Creek.

He was one of three quasi-founding associates who would build houses there, a lost Jew from New York who’d wandered in during the second summer and never left. Another of the associate founders was from Denver, one of the Earth Games women who’d married into the family that first year. The third was a former Mormon from Idaho, who’d gone to sea and wound up beached in the San Luis Valley.

The vision of Slaughterhouse Creek wasn’t just for a few good Norsemen anymore — it had become multi-cultural. It was open to Gentile and Jew, short people and fat people, men and women. Anyone could join, actually, if they were strange enough to want to and eccentric enough to fit.

The lost Jew found a site at the north end of the property, far past even the Monarch’s ridgetop domain. He built a smaller, less crafty version of the studio bachelor pad, which wasn’t surprising, since the Crafty Devil was his mentor in matters of construction. He badly needed mentoring, too. He’d never pounded a nail in his life, let alone used a chainsaw (which he quickly discovered must be kept away from nails). But with a little chutzpah and a lot of luck, he erected a house of many windows, including a huge picture window built by his guru. It was a solitary, dreamy place with lovely forest vistas, the ideal refuge for a would-be writer.

This was, perhaps, the reason he’d been accepted in the first place — a struggling writer in the woods fit nicely with the commune’s romantic theme. Or it might have been his eccentric humor, which also fit. Most likely, though, it was the fact he had some money — in the beginning, at least. He’d appeared from nowhere in 1971, pitched his tent in the bog by the Main Cabin, and began financing various civic projects. (There were rumors he came from a family of tycoons, but the bitter truth was he’d worked for the post office.) He eventually finagled and financed his way into the hearts of the founders and was issued a building permit.

The second associate built her cabin in 1974. She had joined the group early and cemented the relationship in following years. But she went outside the family for a cabin-partner and mate, which broke at least one heart. Still, her permit was unanimously approved. She was a welcome yin among the many yangs of Slaughterhouse, that most revered of all countercultural deities: a Hippie Earth Mama. Besides that, she played guitar and sang like an angel.

Her cabin went up on the ridge, between the Lost Jew’s dream house and the Monarch’s ærie. It was a two-story structure, nearly as imposing as the Main Cabin. There was a spacious 20-by-16-foot kitchen/living room downstairs and an almost equally spacious loft. It was hard work finding logs that length, but her mate was another restless, handy fellow, so it worked out. It was an airy and inviting place, especially when the lady of the house could be coaxed into playing her guitar.

The last quasi-founder to build waited another 20 years, but his permit had been granted the moment he showed up in 1970. This was the fallen Mormon from Idaho, who’d run off to join the Navy. He’d seen the world — mainly the coast of Vietnam — then mustered out all the way. He’d landed first at the Mineral Hot Springs, then at Slaughterhouse Creek, where his genius was immediately recognized. He was dubbed the “Captain,” and he would become the commune’s resident troubador and stand-up comedian.

His building exploits were pretty sad at first, though. Claiming a site near the showcase cabin, he unloaded a camper shell and optimistically christened it The Ballroom. His first attempt at a permanent structure was an octogonal log nightmare, the geometry of which would have baffled Euclid himself. This was abandoned in favor of a truck box with a huge painted sign on its side that said, “McGovern for President.” The former campaign truck soon sported a few punched-out squares for windows and a deck. It became known as The Presidential Palace and was once written up in the magazine Boxcar Life. Much later, the Captain would add a modest frame structure, making the palace a place fit for at least an earl.

It was about this time that the final founder claimed his rights and finally built a house on Slaughterhouse Creek. He had wandered undomiciled for years, a man without a cabin, although he did have a tipi. There was a sense of symmetry in the wait, though — he had been the founder longest delayed that first summer because he was married then, and other liaisons would divert him over the years. He was a man of keen insight and wit, except when heartbroken. Then he became listless and morose, much like the melancholy Eor of Winnie-the-Pooh stories, which he sometimes read aloud to rapt audiences in the Main Cabin after dinner.

It was in the throes of a fresh heartbreak that this Eor finally roused himself to construction. Forswearing listless morosity, he started building the cabin he’d been talking about for 20 years.

It went up on the forested ridge, a large and sturdy one-room frame house with finished cabinets. Sliding glass doors commanded a stunning view of the Sangre de Cristos, 50 miles away. One of the many visible peaks was the highest point in Colorado. Hence the name for Eor’s house, the final addition to the cabins on Slaughterhouse Creek: Casa Blanca.

(Next month: The Naked and the Dead: Daily Life on the Slaughterhouse Creek Commune.)

Marty Rush is a former Salida resident who’ll never tell whether he’s part of this story. He now lives in Lakewood, and is studying journalism at Metropolitan State College when he’s not working at a federal laboratory.