Slaughterhouse Creek: the story of a commune

Article by Marty Rush

Part 1 of a 3-part series

Local History – March 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Author’s Note: Early in the 1970s, small towns in Central Colorado experienced a barbarian invasion. Salida was one of them. The barbarians were pagan tribes of long-haired hedonists — hippies, in short. As with many ethnic/cultural migrations in human history, this one caused some tension. The new people were different.

But not that different, as it turned out. Over time, the hippies began blending into their adopted community. Eventually, the barbarians found acceptance or civilization or both. Salida’s invasion scare was forgotten, and faded into the realm of myth.

In the interest of mythology, then, a fresh look at the legend is offered here. After 20 years, some historical perspective may also be possible. This three-part series will examine the barbarian invasion of the early ’70s — from the barbarian point of view. It is the story of one particular tribe who founded a commune in the mountains near Salida.

It Looks Like Snew

In 1970, the hippies arrived in Salida and everything changed.

Salida had seen changes before, of course — it was 90 years old by then. True, this wasn’t very elderly compared to the cities of the East Coast, which were over 300 years old, or to the ancient metropoli of Europe, which were absolutely decrepit with age. But 90 was pretty advanced for a town in the state of Colorado, which was itself only 94 that year.

Salida had seen lots of changes in 90 years.

It had been born in change, during a mining boom when the whole state was shaking with gold fever and silver seizures and copper convulsions. The D&RG was practically hallucinating when it founded the town in 1880, frantic to be the first railroad to reach the fabulous silver mines of Leadville, 60 miles to the north.

After the railroad, the Arkansas Valley did not go begging for settlers. There was land and water and a favorable climate. It was Manifest Destiny in the flesh — busy WASPS and passionate Italians and prolific Spaniards were everywhere. There were railroadmen and smelter workers, ranchers and merchants, schoolmarms and madams. Over the years and decades, Salida absorbed them all. It worked hard for 90 years to make a town of them, the white and the brown, the Democrat and Republican, Protestant and Catholic, even the odd Jew who’d wandered hopelessly off course.

Salida even came to enjoy a modest prosperity over the years and decades. It was a county seat and on many maps. It was a town of 5,000 people with a river and a railroad, ranches and stores, churches and schools and bars. It was, in short, a rough but respectable outpost of Western civilization in the heart of the Rockies. Isolated from the world outside, yes, but not insulated from it. There were lots of changes to be absorbed there, too. A depression, two world wars, the assassination of a president — Salida was feeling a little tired when the ’60s arrived.

After almost a century of work, the town was ready for its nap. It didn’t have the energy to boldly endeavor into a New Frontier or to build a Great Society, which was coming apart at the seams, anyway. National leaders were being murdered. American kids were dying in Vietnam and turning political conventions into nationally televised riots. Blacks were burning the inner cities.

America had become a foreign country.

It took a few years, but Salida responded to the national crisis. Sometime during 1968, the city council went into executive session and voted to secede from the Union. It was in none of the papers, but everyone knew. Eisenhower was quietly but officially recognized as the last legitimate ruler of the United States. The ’60s were more than any respectable 90-year-old matron could be expected to endure.

But in 1970, the ’60s came to Salida and everything changed.

THERE WERE JUST A FEW hippies at first. They lived in the old flophouses downtown, or in shacks out in Smeltertown, or on communes in the surrounding mountains. It was quite a shock, after reading about them in newspapers and seeing them on TV. Suddenly, you were running into hippies on the street and in the local stores: Norma, you’ll never guess what I saw in Cady’s this afternoon…

The hippies weren’t actually bothering anybody, but the people of Salida weren’t fooled. They knew in their municipal gut what the hippies were: an invasion force from a foreign country. They were bad news, ne’er-do-wells who stopped taking drugs and having promiscuous sex only for long enough to burn draft cards and collect food stamps. Charles Manson’s murder trial was front page news that year. Suddenly, the dregs of Charlie’s family were moving in next door.

Fear had arrived in Salida.

The hope that the hippies would simply vanish was quickly dashed. Word-of-mouth had spread: Salida was a groovy place. More hippies showed up, and they were apparently moving in to stay. They found odd jobs and founded even odder businesses. Some actually proved to be shrewd entrepreneurs. Before long, hippies were buying houses in town and property around Chaffee County. They had kids without benefit of clergy and sent them to Longfellow and Salida High. They started showing up at school board meetings. Some got hired as teachers.

The town began to accept them.

IT WAS ONLY COMMON SENSE, really, something Westerners were famous for, anyway. With one or two exceptions, the hippies minded their own business and were decent enough neighbors. Sure, they spent too much time in bars and none in church, but some of the native population was hardly without sin on that account. And while the hippies were incorrigible about sex and drugs, no one had been murdered helter-skelter after five years…or ten…or twenty…

At some point, Salida simply absorbed the hippies.

But the hippies absorbed Salida, too. The laid-back rural lifestyle suited them. They found comfortable niches in a small-town outpost of Western civilization — a few even began revising their opinion of Eisenhower. The passage of time had a lot to do with it, also. Many hippies just got too old and materialistic to be hippies anymore. As they became absorbed by the middle class and middle age, the hippie invasion began to fade into legend. It became a forgotten footnote in the century-long history of a small town in the Colorado Rockies.

But in 1970, when the hippies first arrived, it was not like that at all.

In the beginning, the hippies were as memorable as flatulence in the church pews. In the beginning, there was distrust and fear and a thousand nagging questions. Who were these hippies? Where had they come from and why had they come to Salida? What did they really believe and what in God’s name did they do in those flophouses and communes?

To answer these questions, we have to travel back in time. Back to those days of yore when the hippies were young and Salida was old, when a counterculture had seized the national imagination and paralyzed the body politic. We have to travel back to that fabled land of the ’60s, when a commune with the Mansonesque name of Slaughterhouse Creek was being born…

My name is Sven Svensen

I come from Wisconsen

I werk in a sawmill dare

–Sven Svensen

The Slaughterhouse Creek commune was in the mountains, an hour’s drive from town. In 1970, it was just ten acres of land near timberline, covered with pine and spruce and aspen. By the time the communers were done with it, there would be nine cabins on the property, and a multitude of dubious structures with enchanting names like the Ballroom and the Gingerbread House, the Presidential Palace and the Wood Tent, the John Deere Shack and the Lightning Bar.

The commune was, at various times during its heyday, the permanent residence of some two dozen people. It was also a temporary haven for about 100 others. No one ever got an accurate count. A census-taker did show up once, but he went away confused after interviewing a girl who was just visiting and reacting to some bad mushrooms.

The residents of Slaughterhouse Creek were pioneers who didn’t mind living without the frills that are so valued by modern society, such as electricity, running water and money. They didn’t mind living so far back in the mountains that they were snowed in all winter, which lasted six months at almost 11,000 feet. They didn’t mind skiing five miles to get to their vehicles on the county road, assuming they had one and it would start.

The young men who founded the commune at Slaughterhouse Creek didn’t come from Wisconsin, but Minnesota was pretty close. They didn’t speak with lilting Scandanavian accents like Sven Svensen…except for one of them. It looks like snew. Scandinavians aside, they were of English, Scotch and German ancestry, tall and sturdy North European stock to a man. They were descended from Vikings and Celts, Angles and Saxons — there was likely a Druid or two in the group. They came from ancient tribes of forest dwellers.

You could say Slaughterhouse Creek was in the genes.

But it was also their upbringing that inspired the communal vision of Slaughterhouse Creek. They grew up in Minnesota, where Arctic cold and endless winters were something to sneeze at. Even more important than the where of their upbringing, however, was the when.

They were Baby Boomers.

Some were suburban kids from the Twin Cities, and some were from small towns with poetic names like Sleepy Eye. But they all enjoyed the privileges of membership in the most privileged generation in human history. They grew up in an age when biological parents stayed married, and Mom stayed home to raise the kids. They grew up with peace and prosperity and polio vaccines. They had TVs and stereos and their own cars. They had sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Life had never been so good.

The only hitch was their government was trying to murder them.

In 1968, 300 American soldiers were dying every week in Vietnam. The soldiers were kids exactly their age, between 18 and 21 years old. It was an awkward period in a young man’s life. The government suddenly began taking an interest in your personal affairs — a masculine, paternal sort of interest. Suddenly, Uncle Sam wanted to know if you had health problems, or deeply held religious convictions, or some other hardship that might prevent you from getting maimed or killed in an Asian jungle.

THE FOUNDERS OF Slaughterhouse Creek weren’t fooled for a moment — they belonged to the best-educated generation in human history. They enrolled in the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. They joined the Peace Corps and went to India. They played every angle in the book, and probably a few Saxons as well. Some were so traumatized by their murderous uncle, they had to seek psychiatric help.

But their trauma was being shared by a lot of people. In fact, the whole country was coming unglued. National leaders were being murdered. Kids exactly their age were dying in Vietnam and turning political conventions into nationally televised riots. Blacks were burning the inner cities.

America had become a foreign country.

It’s impossible to say exactly when the communal vision started, or who had it first. Probably, it just began one day in a Minneapolis slum near the university, where the founders had found each other. Or one night, after visiting the far reaches of the cosmos without leaving the comfort of the seedy houses they now called home. It might have started in 1968, the most disturbing year in American history since the Civil War. Or in 1969, the year of Woodstock, when people were getting back to the land and getting their souls free.

But it was an infectious vision. It spread quickly and nothing could break the fever. The founders would fill Dr. Leary’s prescription and then some. They would not only drop out, they would drop off the face of the earth. They would build their own community in the wilderness, as far removed from the insane asylum of America as they could get.

They were going to secede from the Union.

THEIR TIMING WAS PERFECT — the Union was falling apart and so were they. They were flunking out of school and being drummed out of the Peace Corps. They weren’t cut out to be college lettermen or ambassadors of American culture, uniformed or not. They hated structure and authority and John Denver. (They were as full of sap as any red-blooded American boy, but they were not sappy.) They were a dedicated cadre of pseudo-revolutionaries, a motley crew of romantic anarchists. Utopians with an attitude.

In March of 1970, an advance party came to reconnoiter Colorado.

In a ski town in northern Colorado, they got a tip. Like all the best tips, it came at a bar. Someone told them about a strange old lady who had some remote land for sale in the mountains. Two scouts drove 200 miles to a virtually abandoned mining town. They spent the night sleeping in their car, parked under a sign that said, “Land Office.”

They went in the next morning — the bar tip had been a good one. The old lady did, indeed, have remote mountain property for sale. And she was certainly strange, of indeterminate age (between 50 and 80 was their best guess), with flaming red hair and the haunted air of an inhabitant of a ghost town.

The eerie old gal was sharp as a tack, though. She asked some pointed questions. She satisfied herself that it was not impossible for hippies to cough up $2,000 in cold hard cash. Then she rounded up the snowshoes and led them back into the mountains to show them the property.

It was the vision come true.

It was ten acres of woodland, a mining claim that had been patented in 1889. (During the same silver boom, in fact, that had given birth to Salida.) It was surrounded by national forest, by a cornucopia of resources. There were creeks and springs, fish and timber and meat-on-the-hoof. It was damn near on top of a mountain and inaccessible half the year.

One of the scouts, tromping over the huge drifts amidst the trees, was heard to say, “It looks like snew.”

The deal was made on the spot.

The legend of Slaughterhouse Creek had begun.

(Next month: Of Founders and Foundations: Cabin-Building on Slaughterhouse Creek)

Marty Rush, a former resident of Salida, lives in Lakewood, Colorado, and works at a national research laboratory. He is currently seeking a journalism degree at Metropolitan State College.