By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"This is my home bar," Joe Canavan says as he looks down into his bourbon and water. "I've been bitching about how uncomfortable these stools are since 1946. That's when I heard about this place. I was working across the street from here, and we heard they'd opened a bar, and we all ran right over."
Just returned from the major conflagration he refers to as "double-you double-you two," Canavan had found a home.
"I was in the Signal Corps in China and Burma," he says tersely. Like most of the veterans who frequent this bar, Canavan is not a big one for war stories. He is here for a strong, cheap drink, and perhaps a side of companionship. He is still slim and dashing, with lots of white hair and a rakish moustache. The female bartender calls him Angel Face.
"Yeah? Well, I call him Old Buzzard," says Jim Wallace, who has taken up his usual post five stools away from Canavan. The two have been trading insults for nearly four decades, ever since Wallace joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He'd fought in Germany, where he was wounded in the hip, and then came to Denver, where he spent his entire working life at Gates Rubber Company. Now retired, he spends his afternoons drinking beer at VFW Post #1, located at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Speer Boulevard.
"I've held every office in this place," he says. "I attend the meetings and I enjoy helping people."
Canavan does not. "I had enough of that organized stuff in the unions," he says. "They ask me to come to their meetings, but I don't. I'm here for the lounge."
But the lounge is faithless: It will not always be here for Canavan. In fact, the building acquired and remodeled by Post #1 almost fifty years ago will soon be history.
In an unusual real estate arrangement, the trustees of Post #1 have traded their building to developer Bruce Berger for a smaller property one half-block to the north. Part of the deal requires that Berger remodel the new post headquarters, and the drywalling is already in progress. Like its predecessor, the new post will contain meeting rooms, offices, a small museum and a lounge. But it won't be this lounge.
"I remember when this place was hopping," Canavan says. But it isn't now. In fact, this afternoon's crowd of four is not enough to cover the post's bartenders and janitors, who haven't been paid--except in tips--since December.
"The area is bad," Canavan explains. "No businesses, no working people--and the way I understand it, the price of booze keeps going up. But I still belong here. I'm a veteran, and besides--my wife knows where to find me when she's mad. It's our 48th anniversary next week," he adds.
"Where you gonna take her, Joe?" asks volunteer bartender Dorothy Wright.
"Ah, no place. Nothing special about 48. Now 50--that might count for something."
Canavan polishes off his drink and orders its replacement, just as he will do when his home bar moves to a new home. He doesn't plan to get sentimental.
"Can't," he says, looking at the empty space around him. "We're dead now."
November 23, 1899. Denver.
A group of Spanish-American War veterans, led by General Irving Hale, who at the time still holds West Point's highest grade-point average, meet at the Colorado State Capitol to form the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Future Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton joins up, paying the annual dues of one dollar. The avowed purpose of the VFW, to be firmed up in the coming years, seems to be equal parts lobbying Washington, social life, pomp and pageantry and helping less fortunate veterans, particularly those confined to hospitals. The decision is made to name this premier VFW post after Captain John S. Stewart, who was born in Waterproof, Louisiana, and had the bad luck to be the first Coloradan killed in the Spanish-American War.
By May of 1900, VFW posts have sprung up in twenty states, with each post numbered consecutively after Denver's original Post #1. Veterans are hard at work writing up the VFW constitution in a meeting room at the Brown Palace Hotel, after which they will join in the town's first Memorial Day parade. Three months later they host the country's first VFW convention. The high point is the First Colorado Band's spirited rendition of Post #1's official song: "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
"If we have an official song these days, I have no idea what it is," says Doc Honeywell, VFW Post #1's quartermaster in 1995. "There's still a First Colorado Band," he adds, "but most of the members are in their seventies and eighties."
And the crowd they entertain at the annual Founder's Day dinner is considerably diminished. To remind himself of former hot times in the old town, Honeywell keeps a copy of historic VFW membership figures taped to a wall in his office. In 1949 the ranks reached an all-time high of 2,461--this year's roster totals 1,194--and Post #1 was one of the largest in the nation, with a busy bar and the first Chinese restaurant in Denver.