Community oven’s social value rising
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE, Colorado – A wood-burning oven at the south end of town has become a periodic gathering place for a growing number of bread makers and their fans.
Starting last fall, up to a couple of dozen devotees have gathered at the Third Street Center property every few weeks to bake bread, chat with friends and engage in modern uses of ancient baking technology.
“It’s very cool,” said one of the group, Karen Glenn. “It’s also so nice and social.”
“It’s essentially the same thing the Greeks and Romans were doing with their bread ovens 2,000 years ago,” said Glenn’s husband, freelance writer Tom Passavant. The couple lives in nearby River Valley Ranch and regularly walks over to the baking event.
Learning to use the oven has been an experiment in back-to-basics baking, according to Fire Master Larry Tallmadge, a Carbondale cabinet maker and oven volunteer.
“It just means that you’ve built a fire in the oven more than once, successfully and unsuccessfully,” Tallmadge said of the “fire master” title, which he shares with several other volunteers.
Tallmadge said the early efforts at baking were “mostly a learning process. So now I’m just a guy who has done it several times.”
To add to the intrigue of ancient bread-making techniques, the loosely-knit group of slow-food proponents, history buffs and others are working with local rancher John Nieslanik Jr., who will soon plant a crop of wheat to be grown specially for the oven.
“I’ve always been a man to try new things,” said Nieslanik, who grew up on a ranch in the Spring Valley area between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
For decades, Nieslanik has owned a ranch on a mesa just east of Carbondale. He’s largely turned the ranch management over to his son, Mark. But he’s still involved and still interested in new endeavors.
“And it’s something, I think, that I’ll learn from,” Nieslanik said of the wheat crop. “It’s an experiment for me.”
He noted that his father, John Nieslanik, Sr., grew dryland wheat on the family spread in Spring Valley, and that he learned at his father’s side.
“So when this community oven thing came up, I kind of started thinking about what I did when I was a kid, and decided to try it,” he said.
He recently received a load of wheat seed from Dove Creek and expects to have the crop planted within a week or two.
“That’s the only certified seed that’s good for spring planting,” Nieslanik explained.
But, he added in a vexed tone, “It’s so darned dry, I’m gonna have to irrigate it right off,” and he expects he’ll need to periodically water the crop over the summer until harvest time next fall.
He said he has all the equipment needed for planting and harvesting, and a place to store the wheat once the harvest is over.
“We’re working on the milling situation right now,” he added.
Nieslanik is a gruff, old-style rancher who is fond of the oven organizers, but can’t help but get in a little dig at their town-bred ways.
“These ladies that make the bread down there, they don’t exactly understand,” he remarked. “They go into the store and buy the flour there, and think that’s it.”
Conceding that it may seem to some like magic when the flour appears on the shelf, he added, “It’s magic, all right, but it takes a lot of work to make the magic.”
The bread oven was constructed last summer by volunteer labor, at a site on the old playground to the north of what used to be Carbondale Elementary School and is now the city-owned Third Street Center.
But even before construction began last year, the idea took root in the minds of Linda Criswell of the Mount Sopris Historical Society and Passavant, who leads the Roaring Fork chapter of the Slow Food Movement.
“Her [Criswell’s] dream was to have an outdoor, wood-fired bread oven,” Passavant recalled. “And we said, that sounds like a Slow Food thing to do.”
A partnership was formed and the work began as volunteers laid down a concrete pad and erected a base of cinder blocks.
On top of that base, the crew erected a domed oven lined with fire bricks and faced by a door. A vent in the oven floor, immediately inside the doors, lets air into the oven from below.
“We had plans, and we had seen the exact same model built over in Paonia, for Monica Whitman at Small Potatoes Farm,” Passavant explained.
The plans, Passavant explained, were drawn up by the late author and oven designer Alan Scott, of the Ovencrafters company in California.
The list of builder-volunteers, as recalled by the organizers, included local blacksmith Sean McWilliams, architect Michael Thompson, plumber Patrick Johnson, and all-around workers Josh Springer, Larry Leonaitas and Russ Criswell, to name just the basic crew.
Passavant, who helped with the construction, demurred from being listed as a builder.
“My dad built houses when I was a kid, but that doesn’t count. Fortunately, guys like Michael and Sean and Patrick, they knew what they were doing,” he recalled.
Once the basic structure was complete, Gallegos Masonry finished it off with red river rock around the base and other touches. The company donated the labor and some materials, Passavant said.
All told, Linda Criswell reported, about $3,800 in donations went into materials for the pad and the structure.
The very first donation, she said, was $400 from group of artists who call themselves the Whimsical Women of the West, a donation that arrived “when the oven was still a dream.”
The final touch, so far, was a set of metal doors built by McWilliams, complete with a latch for a small lock.
The lock, said Tallmadge, is “to keep little hands, and adult hands for that matter, out of the hot oven” when the baking is finished and the bakers go away.
McWilliams said he plans to make another set of doors for the front opening of the oven’s base, to keep kids and small animals from crawling in.
“If a skunk ever got in there …” McWilliams remarked, “We’d be skunked for sure,” Tallmadge said, finishing the line.
Once the oven was finished, early in the fall of 2011, the baking could begin.
Every few weeks, starting on a Friday afternoon or evening, a “fire master” gets a blaze going inside the oven using recycled pallet wood and other small pieces of wood.
The wood is kept dry and stored in the hollow pedestal of rock and iron that supports the oven itself, so that even on the coldest days of last winter the fire could be coaxed into existence.
Overnight, and again early on Saturday, volunteers visit the oven and feed more wood to the flames, stoking the fire until the interior of the oven dome is somewhere between 700 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit by noon on Saturday.
That is when the bakers begin to convene, carrying their already prepared dough, and baking in shifts if there are too many loaves to be done all at once.
The oven also has baked pizzas, and once was used to cook oatmeal overnight in large cast-iron pots, yielding what Tallmadge recalled was “a wonderful breakfast” the following Sunday morning.
And after every bake day, whatever doesn’t go home with the bakers is gathered up and sent to Feed My Sheep in Glenwood Springs, where it ends up feeding the homeless, indigent and dispossessed of the valley.
The loose organization behind the oven is planning further improvements, Criswell said. Ideas include finishing the chimney and some of the brick work, and erecting some sort of permanent shelter over the oven.
So, she said, funds are still needed, and can be donated to the local Slow Food chapter, at 302 Escalante, Carbondale, 81623.
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