I Bought a Bar! Welcome to the Oak Creek Tavern

I Bought a Bar! Welcome to the Oak Creek Tavern
Courtesy of Skyler McKinley
It sounds like the tortured premise to a tired joke: A man walks into a bar, has a few too many, and walks away owning the joint.

But having lived the punchline for the past six months, I’m here to set the record straight. I only had two — fine, three — drinks before I decided to take over a century-old watering hole in Oak Creek, a 900-person diamond of a former Colorado coal town on the way to Steamboat Springs.

When I rolled through in late March, this was assuredly not the plan. On our way to get a steak at Antlers Cafe and Bar up in Yampa during a Steamboat vacation, a longtime drinking buddy and I stopped in Oak Creek because he suspected that the vintage shop on Main Street had some cheap sunglasses. He found a pair; I never did end up getting that steak.

As fate would have it, I saddled up to the closest bar, ordered a Jack on the rocks, and asked the bartender what she could tell me about the place. This was only her third shift on the job, she said, but as best she knew, the joint was for sale. I finished my drink, ordered another, and midway through that one had the liquid courage to ask her if she had the owner’s phone number. She gave it to me; I ordered another Jack. I called the guy. He picked up. Before I could stop myself, I told him I wanted to buy his bar.

By then, it was too late for me to back out. Am I really the type of fellow who gets a couple of Jacks under his belt and begins talking a big game he can’t back up? My buddy found me in the bar, and I told him we needed to get back to Steamboat so I could hop on my computer and create an LLC. That’s what businessmen do! They have LLCs, whatever those are. Sober, sunglasses in hand, and more than a little sick of my bright ideas — considering that he’d never even wanted a steak dinner — he drove us back. And so it began.

As absurd as all of this sounds, I should tell you that I was in the market for a bar — as much as anyone can be, I guess. For years, I’ve been on the board of directors of the Denver Press Club, a historic institution that’s as much a place to drink together as it is to celebrate journalism. I’ve also spent the better part of a decade as a nightly regular all over town, tipsily hatching a dream shared by too many millennial Coloradans: “I’m going to own a bar someday.”

I figured “someday” meant “someday in my forties or fifties,” but the more I discovered the wonders of Oak Creek, the more I realized that I had to make it work. It would be a big stretch. It would require sacrifice. But it was an opportunity, and I was always taught that those are rare — so jump on ’em.

Dreams aside, there’s a humdrum predictability to purchasing a bar and a building: negotiation and commercial real estate loans and liquor licenses and the endless hoops you jump through once you make the regrettable decision to be the type of person who has an LLC. That stuff turns out to be a useful distraction from the question at the heart of the foolhardiness of it all: Am I really doing this?

With that and thousands of other questions running through my head, I signed my life away to a local bank when I bought Oak Creek’s “Silver Buckle Saloon” on July 8. Some answers came easy. The bar was the beloved Elk’s Tavern before it sold to the guy who sold it to me. He’d renovated the place and, in clearing away 34 years of cigarette smoke, wallpapered over a lot of cherished memories. In trip after trip to Oak Creek, the bar’s regulars — and the town’s irregulars — told me how much they missed what the Elk’s meant to them. The logo became an elk. As for the name? Well, we became the Oak Creek Tavern. Inventive, right?

We opened on July 24.
click to enlarge Skyler McKinley in his element at the Oak Creek Tavern. - COURTESY OF SKYLER MCKINLEY
Skyler McKinley in his element at the Oak Creek Tavern.
Courtesy of Skyler McKinley
This misadventure has mostly been a learning experience. I’ve learned that it’s very likely that a handful of people died at my bar since it first opened its doors in 1908. (Of those, I’ve only been able to verify a murder on November 16, 1968. We plan to name a drink after the victim.) I’ve learned that the original path of Oak Creek runs under our floorboards. (I’m going to need a new sump pump, and soon.) I’ve learned when to cut someone off, and when one of our patrons needs me to walk them home. (A big part of my day job is preventing drunk driving, and now I get to do it in a decidedly hands-on way.) I’ve learned that no matter how much money you can save by ordering a case of Jim Beam, you should first figure out if anybody in town drinks Jim Beam. (To date, we’ve sold maybe two shots of Jim Beam. You’d think that would mean a lot of Jack Daniel’s drinkers, but we haven’t moved much of the stuff. More for me, I guess.)

Fundamentally, though, I’ve realized something that transcends all of this: Bars foster the sense of community that we all long for at some level, at a time when our society seems to need it more than ever. The Rocky Mountains demand hole-in-the-wall taverns in the exact same way that Paris wouldn’t be Paris without cafes. No matter where you end up, if there’s a bar there, the place isn’t just a place on the way to somewhere else. It’s exactly where it needs to be. For however long you’re sitting and drinking and talking with the locals, it’s the center of the universe.

Stop in sometime. You just might get a good story out of it.

Skyler McKinley is a fourth-generation Coloradan and owner of the Oak Creek Tavern, a neighborhood bar in the rural heart of the Yampa Valley. A former political staffer and the State of Colorado’s founding deputy pot czar, he now oversees AAA’s regional public affairs division. He lives in Denver, but drinks — and occasionally tends bar — in Oak Creek.
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