Crawford may be rural, but it has many desirable features and hidden gems. In addition to being near Crawford Airport, Black Canyon National Monument, Crawford State Park and some of the most beautiful scenery in the state, Crawford has a rich arts community that includes world-class glass studios K Dahl Glass and North Rim Glass. Just beyond town, people come from all over the world to stay at the Smith Fork Ranch, and have their four-legged friends trained by renowned dog trainer Ted Hoff at Cottonwood Ranch and Kennel.
This week, Crawford and the North Fork Valley will celebrate the 38th annual Pioneer Days.
This year's theme is "So True... Red, White & Blue." The parade, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, will honor local veterans and firefighters. Crawford's own American Idol finalist, Jeneve Rose Mitchell, was selected as parade grand marshal and will sing the national anthem ahead of the parade.
The celebration kicks off Thursday evening with the annual Dessert Theater Melodrama, "Perils of Priscilla" (see related story). The annual Fire Auxiliary auction and dinner happen Friday and benefit next year's fireworks display.
This year's festival sees the return of the Chili Cook-Off Saturday afternoon as well as the Outhouse Races and Hay Bale Races. Booths, games, live entertainment and kids' train rides happen from 1-4 p.m.
End the day with the North Fork area's only fireworks display, which starts at dusk at Crawford State Park.
This year's celebration promises to be one of the biggest and best. And there's much to celebrate, as Crawford is seeing an increase in visitors, the opening of new businesses, an up-tick in property sales, and some new and exciting ventures on the horizon.
At the corner of Highway 92 and H Street in the heart of downtown Crawford, the Hitching Post, with its tall false front and large red and white signs, is the most visible business in town. It offers everything from hardware, feed and tack, to laundry facilities and motel rooms. Gary and Bonnie Hess purchased the business, which was recently named Business of the Year by the Crawford Chamber of Commerce, about four and a half years ago. They also own The Desperado just south of town, where they sell gas and groceries and cater to fishermen and hunters.
It's gotten busier over the past year, said the Hess' niece, Tami Carver, who was minding the store. Carver said that tourism brings in a little business, and she's looking forward to the busy Pioneer Days weekend. But it's the locals who keep them going. "In the summer they buy hardware and in the winter they buy feed," she said.
Like most Crawford residents, she worries about what the recent mine closures will do to the town. Then again, she said, a lot of new people are moving in.
Across the highway, Joe and Janet Gregson opened Wild Country Keepsakes last year. Graduates of then Mesa State University, they bought the property in 2004 following a visit. They retired here, said Joe, "because the Western Slope is a nice place to live." Their eclectic business is an outlet for some 25 local consigners, including Janet's handmade children's clothing and other textiles. They carry a growing selection of books for all ages as well as many locally authored titles. They also carry an assortment of other items and gifts for sportsmen to take home to their families, and coordinate with the Hitching Post to ensure they don't duplicate their efforts. "We're trying to cater to both locals and visitors," said Janet.
The business also benefits daughter Nicole Reasoner, who operates Wild Country Photography. Reasoner is also president of the Crawford Area Chamber of Commerce and the Pioneer Days photographer. The chamber is rebuilding after nearly dissolving last fall due to lack of volunteers. Last fall it elected a board and began recruiting volunteers, among them, Janet Gregson.
While starting the business in a quiet, rural town was a risk, they have more confidence than they've had in a while. "There's definitely more traffic coming through," said Nicole.
Joe, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service, is working to bring the area into the 21st century by updating GPS data. Because it is outdated, it's problematic for anyone using Google Maps or other online maps, said Joe. The chamber is also updating brochures, because the area isn't mobile phone friendly, added Reasoner.
Down the street, the Stone House Inn Bed & Breakfast is a Crawford landmark. Owner Nathan Sponseller opened the inn in 2000. Built in 1907, it was a private residence its first 40 years and has served various other functions, including as a meeting hall for the American Legion and Farmers Union, said Sponseller,
He spent the last year remodeling and was working on final touches in order to re-open in time for Pioneer Days. Business at the B&B has gradually improved over the years, said Sponseller, president of the Hotchkiss Area Chamber of Commerce. He sees lots of people stopping through and supporting local businesses, including the Old Mad Dog Cafe.
Chef John Lazarski re-opened the cafe, which Joe Cocker opened as the Mad Dog Ranch Fountain Cafe in the 1990s. In addition to the large dining area decorated in locally-made wood and glass fixtures, Lazarski invested in a massive Western-style bar, where people can go to hear live music. Lazarski said he's also hoping to bring in some big-name bands and hold a street party over the Labor Day weekend. He says business was good last summer, winter was slow, as expected, and things were picking up by mid-May.
Lazarski and other business owners are encouraged by the increase in property sales, including the recent sale of the Vagabond building and the new owner's plans to re-model. The former Bee Yard Gardens also sold to a young couple planning to build and sell tiny homes.
Liz Heidrick, owner of Needle Rock Realty, said the real estate market is seeing steady, healthy growth. As with the Vagabond, "We're seeing things that lingered on the market a long time get gobbled up."
Heidrick has lived in Crawford 25 years and her children are fourth-generation natives. Like many local ladies, she's involved in numerous organizations. She loves the sense of community in Crawford, which is apparent even in the new-comers, many of whom left the Front Range for a slower pace of life. It's a great place to live, she said, "as long as you don't need to go to the mall every day."
Son Brady Todd, a former U.S. Marine, came home after traveling the world and recently earned his real estate license and joined the Crawford fire department. "I love it here and I want to share it with everyone else," he said. "This is the best place on the planet."
Heidrick said she'd like to see a few more businesses open. She added that it's more important than ever for people to support local businesses whenever possible.
"It's a pretty magical place," she said.