The play’s title alone, Down At The Hog Ranch – A Historically-Based Play About Pigs in the Cathouse, was meant to catch our attention. But the production and its local historic underpinnings has caused a local “who said and did what” dust-up that won’t soon be resolved.
Here on Wright’s Mesa, the play, with three performances the weekend of June 8, was a major event in itself. The scene: the first-ever theater performance in the newly created Livery Playhouse in Norwood. Three years ago, Norwood architect Curtis Odom, seized by civic enthusiasm, purchased the handsome1926 home on the corner of Summit and Lucerne (just north of Norwood’s Main Street) along with the historic old livery stable. The vintage livery looked a lot like the few original Wright’s Mesa barns still standing proud, with sturdy wooden beams and its main parts still in tact, but little noticed and sadly neglected.
With his young family, Odom, who is in his early 50s, fled San Diego’s congestion (“Insanity,” he said.) some half-dozen years ago for the pastoral San Juans. The family had frequently skied in Telluride, but chose to build their first house in the Oak Hill area just south of Norwood. Odom still commutes to work in Las Vegas and San Diego intermittently, but the Odom family delights in their small town circumstances.
After buying the vintage, in-town property, Odom – perhaps inspired by the Muses – suddenly realized that the fine old livery structure could be both a much needed performing arts center as well as a beautifully restored example of Norwood’s past. With the assistance of historic preservationist (and charming French-Canadian import) Nathalie Bouchard, grant funds, and augmented by the architect/renovator’s own money, Odom has produced a real gem – theater lighting, sound and all.
And it was the perfect setting for the fledgling West End Stage Theater Group of Norwood’s third, original, locally produced play. The playwright, Kristina Stellhorn, is a multi-talented bilingual writer and journalist brimming with energy and enthusiasm. Her first play, with the same local emphasis, was Law and Order in 1905: Murder of the Gurley Ditch. It packed the house (the back room and dance floor of The Hitchin’ Post), marking the debut of local community theater in Norwood.
Play number two was Wildflowers of the San Juan, a Women’s Prison Story – a fun, cleverly staged musical with original music by John Herndon and longtime Tellurider Bob Beer, who now edits The Norwood Post. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am indeed related to local musician John Herndon.)
Stellhorn both writes and directs her plays, and cast members, along with the author, seem to be having a terrific time performing them. Her plays have clearly been well researched, so what went wrong this time with Down at the Hog Ranch? As one observer suggested, “Everybody remembers things differently.”
Two letters to the editor in the June 20 Norwood Post charge that members of the Buss family (including the two letter writers) have been slandered by the “totally fabricated” suggestion that the Buss and Heldman families had anything to do with the actual Hog Ranch, a possible boarding house, saloon and dance hall located on Hwy. 145 north of Norwood, near where the San Miguel County Road Department shop now stands.
Family members charged that Stellhorn’s “historical facts” about the Buss and Heldman families were dead wrong. Both letters explained that members of the families (Busses married Heldmans) did own and still own property on or near the Hog Ranch, but were never involved with the reputedly illicit activities there.
In her program notes, Stellhorn explained that: “It has been difficult to track down any information about the Hog Ranch, as most of the patrons have passed on…” However, old-timers around here still generally agree that “the Hog Ranch was a scandalous place,” she noted.
So to get another view of the controversy, I called Howard Greager, a true old-timer and author of six books all based on local and regional history. You should know that Greager is absolutely authentic – a fine horseman, a cowboy at heart, who’s often put in print the tales told by the old-timers he listened to as a child.
When you talk to Greager you hear the slow lilt and cadence of the Old West, and its sense of Old West chivalry. When he was 10 or 12, he told me, and recovering from appendicitis, he hung around his dad’s pool hall in Placerville, listening to these tales. His dad’s pool hall, located first in Norwood, had fallen victim to a 1911 ordinance instigated by “some wonderful, nice ladies” outlawing saloons in Norwood. Also booted out of Norwood was a saloon operated by one Dick McKeever, which Greager believes became the now infamous Hog Ranch. (None of the surviving members of the McKeever family can verify this tale about their “Uncle Dick.”)
Greager said he never knew much about a boarding house, but from listening to the cowboys, truckers and others who frequented his dad’s pool hall, “I think some gals from Telluride used to come down to entertain the ( Norwood, Lone Cone area) cowboys, who could find a little more intimate female company” at the Hog Ranch. Greager is convinced there really was such a place. As a youngster, he spent lots of time with his young friend Vernon Bankston at the vast Bankston Ranch in the rugged eastern portion of Disappointment Valley. Greager said, after shipping cattle at the railhead in Placerville, “The Disappointment cowboys stopped in at the Hog Ranch for a few drinks.”
He thought the Hog Ranch went out of business during the depression – around the 1930s. He remembers hearing stories about a young cowboy, perhaps in the 1920s, who was said to have contracted gonorrhea at the Hog Ranch and ultimately became so ill and “depressed” he took his own life. Such were the tales told within hearing distance of young boys, but, Greager added with a chuckle, “You know, this is all hearsay.”
In a response to the irate Buss-Heldman family members, playwright Stellhorn explained that her play “was based on supposition” backed by local stories. In a letter to the offended parties, Stellhorn offered her apologies, explaining that the play Down at the Hog Ranch was intended as “pure fiction.”
It seems fitting that the first performance ever in the historic and beautifully renovated Livery Playhouse in Norwood does indeed hold whispers of the old days. Fiction or hearsay – let’s all agree, as The Bard declared so long ago: “The play’s the thing.”