Skip Bell looks back on 30 years of the Pour House
CARBONDALE — At his 75th birthday celebration earlier this month, Skip Bell announced he’d be stepping down as manager of the Pour House, but he plans to remain a fixture at the business he started 30 years ago.
“I’m not going to go away,” Bell said. “I just wanted my wife, Kay, to hear me say it in public. She thinks it’s time for me to quit managing the Pour House and just enjoy it as a host and a friend of the community.”
You just might catch him on a weekday morning instead of a wild Saturday night, and he’s hoping for some holidays. Longtime servers Mary Donnelly and Midge Wampler will be shouldering some of the managerial duties, and Bell is entirely confident they can cope.
“They’re my right and left arms,” he said. “Their loyalty and expertise have made this job of mine much, much easier.
“I’ve been blessed with the staff I’ve had over the years,” he added. “It takes a special type of person to be in this business and be good at it. If they don’t take pride in what they do, it’s gonna show up at the dinner table.”
Bell has decades of experience in food service and bartending. He first came to the valley on a ski trip after a stint in the Air Force and kept coming back. In 1965, he and a friend opened up a bar called Easy Does It in his native Chicago. After five years there, he gave in to the inevitable and moved to Aspen, where he got by tending bar, pulling relief shifts and managing some of the town’s most illustrious restaurants.
In 1980, he and several partners bought the former location of Kenny’s Pharmacy on 351 Main St. in Carbondale. Soon, Ray Cross and Tommy Weltner opened The Dusty Rose in the space.
“I always kinda had a vision of opening a bar or restaurant in Carbondale, but I wasn’t ready to leave Aspen yet,” Bell said.
By 1984, he was ready.
“Aspen was on the fast track to becoming what it has become, and that’s not why I moved here at all,” he recalled.
HIPPIES, RANCHERS AND MINERS
The Pour House opened in September with a small menu of sandwiches and burgers. There wasn’t much competition on Main Street at the time — just The Smithy, The Nugget, the Crystal River Steakhouse where Town is now, and Chicago Tony’s Hot Dog Stand at the current location of Peppino’s.
In 2005, Bell sold the Pour House to local ranchers John Martin and Sue Rogers and agreed to stay on as manager.
“John and Sue were really motivated to preserve the history in our area,” he said. “It made me proud that they would consider it to be that important.”
Since its foundation, the Pour House has managed to maintain a sense of history while still changing with the times. The pool table and bar atmosphere that worked well for the hippies, ranchers and coal miners has given way to a more family-friendly vibe, at least during the day. It’s a lot less smoky, too.
“I quit smoking in 1987 or ‘88, but I was still getting my dose of it just by going to work,” Bell recalled.
An attempt to make the dining room nonsmoking was only partially successful, and Bell says it was a relief when regulations finally banned smoking in restaurants altogether.
“It took the pressure off of the business owners,” he said. “Some customers absolutely lost it.”
It took nearly a year for the smell to completely go away.
The Pour House operates 363 days a year — it’s closed on Christmas and the Monday after Mountain Fair — and all manner of local history, from cowboys to miners to skiers, is represented in local memorabilia on the walls.
A .40-caliber Colt Frontier six-shooter and a .50 Springfield Trapdoor rifle with a bayonet hang over the bar, and Bell’s pretty sure they’re still functional.
“I’ve looked at the aperture and the bore on both of them, and I wouldn’t hesitate to fire either one,” he said.
There’s also a painting of Bell by local artist Majid Kahhak — a surprise arranged for his 65th birthday. Kahhak had announced ahead of time that he’d be painting a local figure, and Bell’s grandson convinced Bell to take a break from a busy Friday night to walk down the block and see the painting’s debut.
Perhaps the Pour House’s most unique feature is its floor, which bears 30 years of accumulated industrial floor wax.
“At first, it was just a beautiful shiny wooden floor,” Bell recalled. “Then, slowly, I started noticing that the seams in the wood were going away.”
Now, the wax is as much as 3 inches thick in some low traffic areas.
“I like to call it an unintended, ongoing work of art,” Bell said.
Other things have changed. The menu’s grown to include American and Mexican entrees, local delicacies like Rocky Mountain Oysters, and a dessert menu headlined by Midge’s famous Texas chocolate sheet cake.
A younger crowd shows up on Friday nights and some of the old regulars stay home.
Main Street hosts a broader and more upscale selection of restaurants, and Bell doesn’t hesitate to send folks elsewhere if they’re looking for something he doesn’t have.
“We’ve got a lot of great restaurants in this town. Ain’t nobody gonna eat up the whole business,” he said. “Carbondale’s growing up.”
In fact, the town’s beginning to show some of the same trends that Bell saw in Aspen in the early ‘80s.
“It’s slow, but it’s coming,” Bell said. “I don’t want that to be a dire prophecy. I think it’s going to settle into what it is now for awhile, but eventually people are gonna find it. Carbondale is too beautiful of a place. It’s the hub of the Roaring Fork Valley. It surrounded by the best of everything.”
In the meantime, Bell plans to be right where he belongs — behind the bar, waiting tables, or at the door greeting customers.
“I’ve got people coming into the restaurant now who were in their mothers’ arms when I first knew them, and now they have their own children,” he said. “Kids I served Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples are now drinking shots and beer.”
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