Russ Wolfe groaned and shook his head Monday as he surveyed the still-smoldering ruins of his Flying W Ranch, where he’d spent 60 years serving chuckwagon dinners in amid an Old West village and singing cowboys.
“The only thing that’s left is the parking lot,” Wolfe, 87, said in a quiet voice as a light rain fell. “Everything else went down the tube.”
The Flying W was the first casualty when the Waldo Canyon fire exploded on June 26 and roared down the foothills and into Colorado Springs, eventually destroying 346 homes in Mountain Shadows.
Flaming embers blew over Christmas Rock, which overlooks the ranch, quickly followed by a wall of flames that devoured the historic Flying W, a working cattle ranch and beloved tourist attraction since 1953, known for its barbecue brisket, baked beans and cowboy biscuits served on tin plates.
Flames destroyed the 1,400-seat dining hall. The pavilion and outdoor stage were reduced to rubble, the winter steakhouse an ugly heap of blackened debris.
Charred concrete foundations or blackened ground are all that remain of a dozen or so buildings that made up his western town.
The biscuit hut looks like it was hit by mortars.
The little church — site of Sunday services and weddings for decades with stained glass from the old Nolan Funeral Home in Colorado Springs — is gone.
The steel beams that held it up were left deformed by the intense heat of the fire.
The old jail was ruined, although its century-old steel cage, which housed Manitou Springs criminals until 1970, remained intact.
The three-story pueblo is gone. Same for the village assembly hall, log cabin, schoolhouse and assorted shops.
The Flying W, the backdrop for countless vacation photos and wedding videos and host of corporate meetings, is utterly unrecognizable.
The destruction was so complete and disorienting that Wolfe had to think hard at times to recall exactly where he was on the property.
Was it as bad as he had feared, I asked him?
“Worse,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, waving his hands in resignation. “There’s nothing to save.”
Yet he remained unemotional and even managed a smile and a chuckle in the face of the staggering devastation.
I asked Wolfe how he controlled his emotions.
After all, this was a place he’d started building in 1948 with his wife, Marian, after he’d returned from service in the Navy at the end of World War II and they joined her parents on their ranch.
A year earlier, Marian’s parents, Don and Minnie Wilson, had sold their place in El Dorado, Kan., near Wichita, and bought the old Douglas homestead, a sprawling 6,000-acre ranch that stretched north from Glen Eyrie almost to what is now Peregrine and east to what we know as Centennial Boulevard.
In those days, it was all cattle and horses and rattlesnakes with few trees and fewer people.
“I came here in 1948 to learn the cattle business and I started cooking beans in 1953,” Wolfe said in his customary self-depricating humor.
Actually, the Flying W evolved in those fiveyears.
To supplement ranch income, they started boarding horses and offering trail rides, which were popular with area residents and tourists.
Soon, an evening trail ride was offered and Marian cooked a dinner for riders, which they served around a campfire.
“We started having so many people eating that we got rid of the horses and started cooking,” Wolfe wrote in a 1985 family history.
He hired students from Colorado College to sing campfire songs and the Flying W Ranch Chuckwagon Suppers and Western Shows was born.
A shelter was built for the guests and then a kitchen. In 1957, he introduced the Flying W Wranglers, who became the trademark entertainers at the ranch with a family-friendly blend of humor and western music.
He built an Old West trading post.
Soon, he had built an entire western village filled with antiques gathered from across the region.
The winter steakhouse, for example, opened in 1969 with parts salvaged from the Ute Theater before it was demolished on Pikes Peak Avenue in downtown Colorado Springs.
Wolfe reassembled its ticket booth, chairs, wishing well in the lobby and chandeliers.
The Picketwire Bar inside was an 1880s relic he salvaged from southeastern Colorado.
The church boasted pews from an old Episcopal Church in Manitou, a pot-bellied stove from Del Norte and the piano from a beer hall in Kansas.
The schoolhouse was an authentic 1880s building Wolfe saved from demolition, numbering each board and photographing every aspect so it could be moved, piece-by-piece, and reassembled on the ranch.
The drug store featured parts of the old Sloan’s Drug at Tejon Street and Platte Avenue downtown while the soda fountain came out of the Sweet Shop at Nevada Avenue and Bijou Street.
Wolfe said few of the antiques could be saved. The fire swept in too quickly, with too much fury.
Also intact is the old Miner’s Train, a kiddee ride which chugged through a tunnel blasted by a couple Cripple Creek miners Wolfe hired.
But the disaster is so overwhelming Wolfe can’t imagine the Flying W will ever be the same.
“The fire really did . . . everything bad,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. “I mean everything.”
He has a hard time imaging how it will look or even where to start.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” he said. “It’s going to take a long while.”
His immediate thought is to erect a single building where he can serve his chuckwagon dinners and have a stage for the Flying W Wranglers and a place for meetings and weddings.
“We’ll try to get something back,” Wolfe said. “But I don’t think we’ll rebuild the western village. I doubt it very much if the train will run again.”
But Wolfe will try.
It’s his nature. He said he refuses to give into grief or anger or frustration at his loss.
And he is buoyed by the 15,000 emails and phone calls the Flying W has received from people nationwide who have fond memories of the place.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s tough to see all that stuff gone.
“But I can’t walk away from that situation. I can’t leave it like that. All burned up.”
Wolfe said he will attack the fire the way he’s always faced problems in life.
“Sure, it would be easier to walk away,” he said. “But I won’t do that.
“I’ve always said when you are confronted with two paths in life, you should always go the way it takes the most effort on your part. It will work out the best.”
“It’s not something you can solve in a hurry,” he said. “It may take a couple years.
“But I just keep thinking how I can make it better. Our goal was to preserve western heritage. We’re going to rebuild. So I just keep smiling and go on.”
Follow this link to take a tour of the charred remains of the Flying W Ranch with Russ Wolfe.