When will Salida return the county seat it stole?

Article by Tom Noel

Local history – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

When will Salida return the county seat it stole from Buena Vista?

SNOBS IN SALIDA, the Chaffee County seat, will tell you that Buena Vista, from whom they stole that seat, is a miserable, backwards, underpopulated town undeserving of the highest honor a small town can capture.

In fact, Buena Vista is superior in many ways. That is probably why it was originally selected as the county seat, rather than upstart Salida. Fair-minded residents of Chaffee County should pick up the courthouse and return it to the rightful owner.

Judge for yourself. Why not start by looking at the town names? Salida, according to my Spanish-English Diccionario, means “start, departure, exit, outcome, result, subterfuge, pretext, outlay, expenditure, projection, outlying fields, output, start, sally, sortie, witticism.”

Not even a clever wordsmith like Ed Quillen can resolve that mess. Personally, I suspect Salida means subterfuge, for the way in which it stole the county seat from Buena Vista in 1928.

Buena Vista, however, clearly means beautiful view. With its splendid panorama of the Collegiate Range to the west, the town lives up to its name. Pioneer prospectors, the story goes, named the peaks for their girlfriends: Mt. Flossie, Mt. Fannie, Mt. Daisy Mae, Mt. Lulu, and so forth. After Buena Vista developed aspirations to respectability the peaks were renamed Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia in 1896 by J. D. Whitney, a professor of the Harvard University Mining School. Cottonwood Creek and the Arkansas River converge in Buena Vista, as did three railroads.

Buena Vista became a raucous center for railroaders, teamsters, cowboys, and miners. But it later lost ore processing, smelting, and the railroad business, as well as population and the county seat, to faster-growing Salida.

Buena Vista is superior to Salida in other ways. For instance, it is 918 feet higher. Furthermore, it retains two of Colorado’s wildest old-time saloons, not to mention a notable brothel. Salida surely loses that contest. Cockeyed Liz’s bordello, the Palace, is now an apartment house. It is two doors west of the grand old Chaffee County courthouse which has been converted to the Buena Vista Heritage Museum, whose nifty exhibits celebrate its rowdy origins as a railroad town, its mining days, the local cattle industry, and its elevated, white-water site on the Arkansas River.

WHEN BUENA VISTA recaptures the county seat, its beautiful Collegiate Peaks should also return to their original monikers. And at least one giant mountain should be named Zelda. A legendary Chaffee County bartenderess, she reigned over Buena Vista’s Green Parrot Bar at 304 E. Main St., but sometimes crossed the street to straighten out the Lariat Saloon.

The Parrot and the Lariat, competitors since the 1930s, have inspired locals to quip: “No matter which joint you go to, you’ll wish you were in the other.”

Zelda Upchurch, the Wagnerian blonde bartender at the Parrot, told customers sternly as they entered “Give me your hat and coat.” She stored them behind the bar. If you went across the street to the Lariat, you went coatless and hatless. Many abandoned hats line the Parrot’s walls to this day.

“Zelda was the biggest, strongest woman I ever saw,” reports June Shaputis, Buena Vista historian and former town clerk. “Zelda could literally lift an offensive customer off his bar stool and throw him out the door. If two guys got to fighting, she put one under each arm and butted their heads together. You should have seen her the night a man jumped up on the bar, whipped out his pecker, and pissed up into the ceiling heater just to hear it sizzle. She spun him around over her head to shake the trouble out of him, then threw him out the door.”

Thanks to Zelda’s love of law and order, the Green Parrot, long the toughest bar in town, became civilized. A river rock propped open the door of this 1880s red brick saloon last time I visited. Super strong, custom-made bar stools have stout round log legs and backs. Zelda’s ghost seemed to preside over what is now a genteel cafe.

BEFORE ITS 1930s conversion to this legendary saloon, pool hall and dance hall, the tough old Green Parrot was Harvey Mear’s Confectionery Shop, filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.

Troublemakers whom Zelda tossed out of the Green Parrot moved across the street to the Lariat. It is known to locals as “The Rope,” as in “at the end of your rope.” Tables and seats lost in action have been replaced by wooden benches and picnic tables. The replacement bar foot rail is a huge, sturdy hewn log. The battle scarred old back bar and high ceiling have been patched up with loads of memorabilia, including the observation: “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport.”

Once the post office, the handsome 1885 Lariat building now has a sign out front, “We Sell and Service Hangovers.” Inside, elegant chandeliers attempt to dignify often raucous behavior at the bar, pool table, shuffleboard court, and dance floor. Connie Cameron bought the place in 1985 and cracked down on some of the horseplay. She 86ed “Stinky Dave” and his dogs, and another customer and his horse.

In this far-famed cowboy bar, the knotty pine walls are seared with the brands and barb wire specimens of local cattlemen, who have long drunk here with their cowboys, their horses, and their dogs. Nowadays most of the wild stuff happens in bar stories and in the westerns you can check out of this saloon’s little lending library. Therein readers can also find the facts about how Salida robbed Buena Vista.

Sic semper tyrannis!

Tom Noel, who teaches Colorado History at CU-Denver, tries to right the wrongs of Chaffee County and other Central Colorado quirks in some of his books, including Buildings of Colorado (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997) and Colorado: A Liquid History & Tavern Guide for the Highest State (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999). This article was adapted by Noel from the Buena Vista chapter of the tavern book.