The Rescue of the Mishawaka

The Mishawaka is tucked between a mountain face and a river in a canyon west of Fort Collins, where it has stood as a music hall for 96 years and an outdoor amphitheater for close to thirty. Despite its storied history, the venue often referred to as the Mish has experienced more than its share of trouble: Logistical nightmares, attempted buyouts, criminal mismanagement and natural disasters have all threatened to close the place. But owner Dani Grant, who took over in 2010, has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, bringing stability, a diverse lineup and possibly even profit to one of Colorado's most beautiful and unlikely music venues.

See also: The Mishawaka Will Unveil Monument to High Park Firefighting Efforts

1n 1916, musician Walter S. Thompson was making his living performing, teaching music lessons and running Fort Collins's only music store. He rode his motorcycle up the Poudre Canyon one day and found the place where the Mish now sits. "I came into a most beautiful spot, which seemed to hypnotize me," he wrote in his memoir, "and I found myself longing to stay there."

So he did, obtaining the land tucked between the Poudre River and a steep mountain face through the Homesteading Act of 1862. He left the town behind and spent the next three years building several cabins, a general store and a dance hall. He lived there with his wife and two children -- "like four kids," he wrote -- renting the cabins to "mountain folk" and opening the hall to travelers, neighbors, family and friends in the evenings for square dances and live music.

He and his wife moved to California when their health failed, but the Mish remained, expanding over the years to include an outdoor amphitheater, a restaurant and cabins. It has hosted performances by George Clinton, Béla Fleck, Leon Russell and hundreds more.

But the setting that so enchanted Thompson is 23 miles of winding mountain road from Fort Collins and has space to accommodate only a few cars, making it a logistical nightmare for a large music venue. Between 1990 and 2006, three people died in drunk-driving-related accidents connected to the Mish. But the problems went well beyond transportation. Robin Jones operated the venue and lived in a house there from the early '90s until late in the summer of 2010, when local police and U.S. marshals found him there with 280 pounds of marijuana along with ecstasy, cocaine and meth. He ultimately accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to three years of community corrections.

Jones was forced to give up his management of the Mish as part of the deal. The U.S. Forest Service announced its intention to move ahead with longstanding plans to buy the property and turn it into a boat launch for rafts and kayaks.

Then Dani Grant showed up.

Grant has piercing green eyes and boundless exuberance. Her professional background is in commercial real estate -- she and her husband, Matt Hoeven, specialize in revitalizing bowling alleys -- but she has always had a passion for music. She founded the nonprofit SpokesBUZZ, which works to champion Northern Colorado bands, in 2008, and she'd talked to Jones over the years about the possibility of buying the Mish.

After his arrest, Jones e-mailed Grant to see if she and Hoeven were still interested. Family members, friends and colleagues urged them to walk away, telling them that being associated with the Mish would ruin their reputation and community standing. But they saw the Mish the way they see run-down bowling alleys -- full of potential -- and they bought it in December 2010. "It's a historic spot," says Grant. "It's been stained and clouded by a lot of stuff that's gone on around it, but it's definitely not the place's fault."

She and Hoeven worked on the property through the winter. They cleared away 120 cubic yards of trash, including fourteen abandoned toilets and several old mattresses; they renovated the kitchen, replaced old carpeting with hardwood floors and installed new electrical wiring. The house Jones was living in was converted to offices and a green room. They'd spent over $150,000 by the time they held a soft opening during the Super Bowl in February 2011.

They also offered all of the employees their old jobs back, even seeking out some who had quit because of Jones's erratic management. Louie Leber was one of the latter; he ran the kitchen for several years in the '90s, and he now serves as general restaurant manager. "They see the value of it, which is really obvious," says Leber of Grant and Hoeven. Grant took on the day-to-day management of the venue and quickly worked to solve the logistical hurdles facing the Mish. She rented four buses to run an inexpensive shuttle service from Fort Collins up to the venue, and further discouraged driving to shows by charging exorbitant rates for parking in the limited space there.

The service proved successful enough that Grant was able to buy several buses expressly for this purpose in 2013, and today it costs $10 for a round-trip shuttle ride (or $40 to park on site). The shuttles have developed enough of a culture and atmosphere that Grant says most people prefer them to the drive anyway. "I have friends in their late seventies who have come to shows," she says. "I offered them a parking pass, and they said, 'No, we'd rather take the shuttle.'"

Grant started bringing concerts back to the Mish in the summer of 2011, working carefully to regain the trust of the community and local authorities. She reduced the capacity of the amphitheater and booked a more cautious lineup than the venue had traditionally hosted. "We did what we said we were going to do," she says. "We cared and we showed up." That season, bands like Head for the Hills, Trampled by Turtles and Keller Williams brought crowds to the amphitheater without incident. At the end of the season, Grant opened an indoor stage in the dance hall and brought in local bands throughout the winter. By the time the Wood Brothers kicked off the 2012 summer concert series, the only reason the Mish was appearing in newspapers was because of the music. In early June 2012, lightning sparked a fire in the mountains west of Fort Collins. The flames spread with alarming speed, and Mish employees had to evacuate quickly, leaving a kitchen full of perishable food behind. In the days that followed, Grant and her co-workers watched from afar as the fire spread over 87,284 acres, destroying hundreds of homes. The venue lay directly in the burn zone, and they suspected there would be nothing to return to. But a team of volunteer firefighters had camped out in the Mish buildings with hoses while helicopters dumped flame retardant on their roofs. The fire came within a dozen feet of the old dance hall and stopped.

Grant cried with relief when the evacuation order was lifted and she saw all of the structures standing. A firefighter had left a note on the bar that ended with "Long Live the Mish."

The High Park fire was the third-largest in Colorado history. Mish employees spent days cleaning layers of ash and emptying rotten food from the kitchen. By the time the venue reopened, on July 4, managers estimated a loss of $180,000 in hourly wages, food and beverage orders, concert production contracts and shuttle-service providers' losses.

The shows continued for the rest of the summer, with an added benefit concert called "Grateful Fest," headlined by the Motet and Head for the Hills. All proceeds went to the firefighters who saved the venue. Grant also commissioned one of the venue's bartenders to create a four-foot-tall metal sculpture that depicts a firefighter in action beside the river; it now hangs outside the dance hall.

The Mish endured once more, and the focus returned to the music. For the 2013 outdoor concert season, Grant brought in new talent buyers to expand the musical offerings. "While we love the jam bands and the rustic bluegrass, which is an incredible fit for the Mish, we also wanted to honor different genres," she says. "We wanted to expand." The lineup that summer featured everything from hip-hop group Atmosphere to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, bringing new crowds to the venue.

But Grant was not destined to enjoy her first full year operating the Mish without major incident. In September, massive flooding destroyed the only road leading to the venue. The rain rushing over ash-covered mountains and through the burned-out forests caused rockslides and turned the normally clear Poudre River black. The water rose from its banks toward the stage, but stopped a foot away. Once again, Grant and her team cleaned up and got right back to the concerts, bringing in an exceptional roster of local talent -- including Ark Life and Rob Drabkin -- for the winter shows in the dance hall. Because of the fire and the flood, it's hard to tell exactly how much impact Grant's changes in management and operation have had on the Mish. But restaurant revenue has been up roughly 20 percent each year since 2011, and Grant estimates the whole operation will finally turn a profit this year.

This summer, the Mish has hosted its most successful series in years, with shows by Conor Oberst, Hard Working Americans, moe. and more. The outdoor series will finish on September 26 with a concert featuring You Me & Apollo and Paper Bird. Bands love playing at the Mish -- and, more important, northern Colorado music fans have embraced the venue. "The community had really turned its back on the place -- not because they wanted to, but because they didn't know what else to do," says Grant. "To see them embracing the Mishawaka and bringing their families back in and reclaiming it as their local spot has been the most encouraging and positive thing, for me."

After years of distractions, fans can experience the Mish in much the way Walter S. Thompson intended nearly a hundred years ago, as a place to hear music and be hypnotized by the surroundings. They can sit in front of the stage and look around to find what Thompson described in his memoir: "Beautiful pines, spruce, cedar, quaking aspen, birch, and many other trees, those without leaves being such a contrast to the evergreens. A wonderful stream gushed from the mountain side and rippled like sweet music as it worked its way over the rocks onto the river."

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Mary Willson started contributing to Westword as an intern in the summer of 2014, focusing on the electronic music scene in Colorado.
Contact: Mary Willson