Evergreen's gateway

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By Stephen Knapp

The relentless winds of change sweeping up Mount Vernon Canyon have the power to both destroy and to build. During the last half century, much of historical significance and sentimental interest has been swept away by the tempest, but much of value has risen in its wake. At the eye of that storm, held fast by deep roots while a commercial forest explodes around it, stands El Rancho.

If few mountain-area institutions can equal the venerable restaurant’s longevity, none can match it for pure distinction. Generations of motorists heading west out of Denver have revered the attractive log way station as a symbolic gateway to the Rocky Mountains, and it’s long served up a hearty howdy and a last taste of high-country adventure to those headed east toward the plains. For folks lucky enough to live in the neighborhood, it’s been a cultural touchstone, of sorts; a local tradition with an international reputation; a wood and stone reminder of the area’s colorful past; an oasis of Western romance in an increasingly prosaic landscape.

Along the way, El Rancho gained a singular geographical significance. These days, the stately cabin competes for attention with flashier concrete and faux-stone chain stores and franchise restaurants on ground it once ruled, its once-pristine views increasingly populated by businesses eager to mine the riches whizzing by on the interstate, or passing through twice daily on Evergreen Parkway. It’s a compact island of industry that borrows — some might say appropriates — the restaurant’s good name. Ask a local of short duration to describe El Rancho, and the area’s namesake resident might not even come up.

On the occasion of El Rancho’s 60th birthday, it might be instructive to explore the landmark’s remarkable past, give a thought to its booming present, and perhaps discern its 21st-century prospects.

In 1948, a family named Jahnke purchased a 10-acre parcel in the southwest angle of the remote intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Highway 74 near Evergreen. The property was bounded on the east by the expansive Cold Springs ranch, offering long views of meadow and forest, and the high Rockies dominated the western skyline. The hills and valleys on every side were largely a domain of small ranchers, fur farmers and wild tranquility.

Back then, the area was loosely identified with a brilliant slice of Americana called The TeePees, a campy restaurant and souvenir shop on the eastern bank of Highway 74 featuring twin 50-foot, brightly painted stucco tepees. The Jahnkes built their own rustic public house across the street on the site of a small caf and began catering to the growing tourist trade, providing hot meals and Western curio to day-tripping motorists out of Denver and tapping a share of the growing transcontinental traffic along U.S. 40.

“That site has always been sort of a tourist area,” says county planner and local historian Dennis Dempsey. “The idea has always been to attract vacationers from the Denver area to come up for the day, have lunch and buy some souvenirs.”

The name “El Rancho” probably first eclipsed “The TeePees” in the 1950s, when a Wisconsin pie maker named Ray Zipprich bought the place. Besides opening guest rooms above the restaurant, installing west-facing picture windows in the 72-seat dining room and blasting out a downstairs banquet area, Zipprich prevailed on Denver postal authorities to open a contract branch office in his establishment. Suddenly, El Rancho was — quite literally — on the map, and its preeminent position was further cemented in the ’60s when visiting President Dwight Eisenhower officially designated the two closest Interstate 70 access points the “El Rancho” exits.

Zipprich eventually turned the business over to his daughter, Donna, and her husband, Paul McEncroe, who managed El Rancho as both a family enterprise and a unique Colorado legacy. During the McEncroe administration, El Rancho lost the post office but developed a thriving local clientele thanks to its emphasis on fine food and an enviable inventory of superior wines. And through it all, that little corner at the meeting of the ways remained — like El Rancho itself — largely unruffled by the winds of change howling down the front range.

But if the wheels of progress sometimes turn slowly, they never stop rolling. Cold Springs ranch was eventually sold and was carved into multi-acre home sites, and sparsely settled subdivisions like Rainbow Hills and Soda Creek started gaining popularity and addresses. In 1970, the TeePees got a new owner who tore down the unique attraction, and only concerted public opposition prevented him from building a chemical plant on the site. Perhaps most significantly for El Rancho, its quiet neighbor to the south, Evergreen, awoke in the early 1980s and grew like wildfire, nearly doubling in population in less than a decade. El Rancho’s once-sleepy crossroads became prime commercial real estate.

Progress hit El Rancho like a Pike’s Peak thunderstorm in 1988. Responding favorably to the Evergreen Area Community Plan, which names a large part of the restaurant’s immediate environs as the El Rancho Activity Center and thus suitable for commercial pursuits, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners discounted strong local opposition to permit the planned development of several hundred acres of residential and agricultural land around the old TeePees. Landowners quickly formed a special metropolitan district and, in 1993, successfully promoted a $17 million bond to buy needed infrastructure. Three years later, the road to Evergreen expanded and started going as Evergreen Parkway, and Evergreen had no trouble filling the extra lanes. Big-boxes, golden arches and drive-thru tellers quickly ensued.

At present, a wide swath of commercially-zoned land more than a half-mile long and a quarter-mile deep girds I-70’s southern flank, about two-thirds of it lying east of Evergreen Parkway and nearly all of it under development. A broad apron of agricultural and conservation zones surround that dense core as do a generous sprinkling of tracts set aside for planned development and low-density residential. And depending on one’s perspective, virtually all of it or almost none of it can rightly wear the El Rancho name.

Geographically, El Rancho occupies a strange kind of limbo. Technically, it’s in unincorporated Jefferson County, but it holds a Golden ZIP code and serves as a physical and economic extension of Evergreen. It appears on most road maps but enjoys no official status.

“It doesn’t have any legal or physical boundaries,” admits Jeffco planning director John Wolforth. “I think it’s more of a naming thing — people just call it El Rancho because that’s the most recognizable thing there.”

Or, if you prefer, it’s a bit like art — you know it when you see it and everybody’s got their own take on it.

“I’d say El Rancho is a generic name for everything on this side of the highway between Exit 251 and 252,” says Craig Nelson of Atrium Log Homes. “I think the Ruby Ranch area could probably be El Rancho, but nothing on the other side of I-70 would be.”

Two years ago, Nelson and his partners moved their Honka Log Homes distributorship out of central Evergreen and into a commercial building they tailor-made on Nob Hill Road. It’s a move they’ve never had cause to regret. From its commanding position above the El Rancho Town Center, the attractive Honka building draws admiring glances and customers by the bushel.

“El Rancho is the new gateway to Evergreen, and we wanted a building worthy of being part of that gateway,” Nelson explains. “It gives us a high degree of visibility, and all the merchants I’ve talked to say that El Rancho has far exceeded their expectations.”

Small wonder, considering the flood of potential commerce at hand. According to Colorado Department of Transportation statistics, a staggering 60,300 vehicles travel the interstate adjacent to El Rancho on an average day, with nearly 25,000 of them coming and going via Evergreen Parkway.

“There’s a lot of money going by on the highway, and this location gives us a public profile we didn’t have before,” says Sara MacBean. Last year, MacBean moved her business, Rustic Point Furniture & Gifts, from its Meadow Drive quarters to an expansive suite in the Honka Building. Business has been booming ever since. “Our idea was to capture some of that traffic and keep some of that money here in Evergreen. It’s working.”

So El Rancho is in Evergreen?

“I always considered it part of Evergreen, and most of our customers do, too,” ventures MacBean. “I wouldn’t say Chief Hosa is El Rancho, but we are, and the Quality Suites is, and maybe some of the land across I-70. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know.”

“El Rancho is this restaurant, this gift shop, the land they sit on, and nothing else,” says Che’ Rippinger, one of few willing to give a concrete opinion on the matter. “The restaurant put that name on the map, and everybody else is just enjoying the use of it.”

Rippinger and her mom, Evergreen resident Cam Goodman, own and operate the El Rancho Trading Post in the restaurant’s foyer. It’s a sweet-smelling treasure trove of Native American crafts and locally-produced art, garments and edibles, and it’s been a Goodman family concern for 22 years and counting.

“We get a pretty even mix of people,” Rippinger says. “We get tourists from all over the country and around the world, and local people who like to see what new things we’ve got today. We really emphasize local products, and it’s never the same store two days in a row.”

For her part, Goodman is the area’s preeminent expert on El Rancho history and lore, and definitely the landmark’s strongest advocate. When, at the urging of certain persuasive Evergreen business interests, CDOT replaced “El Rancho” on Exit 252’s signage with “Evergreen Parkway,” Goodman came out swinging.

“We’ve got a petition going to get ‘El Rancho’ back on the sign,” she says, forcefully. “We get people coming in here all the time looking dazed and confused because they were looking for the El Rancho exit and missed it. President Eisenhower named that exit ‘El Rancho,’ and it would be the easiest thing in the world for them to include it.”

Of the TeePees, nothing at all remains but a 200-foot cul-de-sac-to-nowhere called TeePee Way off of Swede Gulch Road. Of the El Rancho restaurant’s original 10 acres, half were ceded to Quality Suites, which now occupies the site of the restaurant’s old cookout pavilion, and 1st Bank is putting up a branch on a one-acre lot between El Rancho and the parkway. The upstairs rooms are now professional offices, and a plasma TV makes the elegantly rugged saloon an appealing Sunday afternoon destination. Beyond that, the old gal hasn’t changed much, and for that you can thank the current administration — the husband and wife team of Bill Troyanos and Donna Piro.

“The land is owned by a Denver businessman, but we bought the business in April 2004,” explains Troyanos, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and a veteran El Rancho chef and manager. “I’d been here long enough to know how everything worked, and we weren’t out to make any big changes. My first priority was the kitchen and turning out high-quality food, but we weren’t going to change the basic character. This will never be a sushi restaurant. It will always be a Colorado kind of place.”

And so it still is; rugged peaks to the west still offer “the most photographed view in Colorado”; its five massive moss rock fireplaces are darkened by 60 years of harsh Colorado winters; its stout wooden tables and curious cock-fighting chairs have been polished to perfection by generations of happy diners.

“They’re the original tables and chairs from the ’50s,” smiles Troyanos, lifting a seat to display the “Trader Jack’s” brand scorched beneath the seat. “They’re part of El Rancho’s history.”

While Colorado and the nation have cycled endlessly through boom and bust, the highway and the community have always kept El Rancho in rainbow trout and prime rib. Not to say the place is somehow immune to the country’s latest financial follies.

“We’re definitely feeling it,” he says. “We used to get a lot of Japanese tourists, but they kind of dropped off after 9/11. We still get a lot of Germans every fall, though, but we’re still hurting just like everybody else. It’s especially noticeable in the banquet room. Right now we don’t have a lot of Christmas parties booked, and that could really hurt.”

Even so, Troyanos predicts the Jahnkes’ rustic tourist stop — all grown up now — will last another 60 years at least. That said, one wonders what else might ride the wind into El Rancho. Not affordable housing, anyway, at least not anytime soon.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” says Jim Shelton, one of a small army of civic-minded Evergreen residents who spent years trying to clear a path for 72 low-cost housing units on five acres behind Wal-Mart. “The whole thing was done, completely arranged, ready to go, and it all fell apart at the end. The water taps were $40,000 apiece, and that killed it. That might be worth it for a small number of $500,000 homes, but no non-profit can swing that for 72 units and probably never will.”

“I’d like to see somebody do something with the old Observatory,” says Goodman, referring to the now-defunct restaurant and bar moldering on a weedy lot on the other side of Highway 40. It’s a great location, and now that they’ve filled in the property, there shouldn’t be any parking problems. I’d like to see an ice-skating/roller skating rink or some other kind of recreational facility. If I had young kids, I’d be pretty worried about always having to send them down the hill for something to do. That would be a perfect spot for it.”

“Well, there’s no hotel on Hotel Way, and the Quality Suites is always booked solid,” Nelson says. “I’ve heard people talking about a Marriott, but we’ll just have to wait and see. The commercial property at El Rancho is getting pretty filled in, but there are still a few lots available. El Rancho isn’t done growing.”

“There’s been a lot of change going on here, and a lot more change is coming,” says Troyanos. “Change can be scary at times, and I think it’s kind of comfortable for people to know that a place that’s been there for a long time is still there. El Rancho is always the same neat place it’s always been, and that’s a comfort.”