It's getting close to Halloween, so for me, it's a season all about ghost stories. One of my favorite reliable, and reliably haunted, neighborhood bars in town is the Stockyard Saloon, though I suppose the location — the bar is nestled among warehouses and other buildings in the National Western Complex in north Denver — isn't exactly what some would call a neighborhood.
A few years back, the company I worked for rented office space next door to the bar, in the Livestock Exchange Building, which is also home to ghosts (but that's a story for another day). My co-workers and I used to hit up the Saloon for lunch, happy hour, dinner, meetings and whatever other events could somehow be manipulated to involve cheap beer and food. And the beer is definitely one of the best deals around, with $2 domestic drafts all day, every day. Well, every day the bar is open, at least, which is Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. — except during the National Western Stock Show in January, when the joint is jumping at all hours and the calendar is packed with live music and all kinds of pre-parties and after-parties for the cowboys and cowgirls visiting our fair city.
To take a walk down memory lane, some old co-workers and I decided to reunite at our old favorite standby. We made jokes about the women's restroom being labeled "Heifers" and recalled the time a co-worker had to tell another female colleague less familiar with cows that she was indeed a heifer, to help her choose between the Heifers and Bulls bathrooms. We reminisced about other co-workers trying to get martinis at the Saloon, which really doesn't have a lot in the way of fancy mixed drinks. We sat at the mirrored bar, which we're told was shipped to Denver from Chicago, along with an old-timey hand-painted safe that sits behind the bar. We contemplated buying custom bar T-shirts emblazoned with a skeleton wearing a cowboy hat and holding a jug of moonshine and a rifle. After all, if that's not American, I don't know what is. But mostly, we talked about friendship and work — and ghosts.
To our delight, the sometimes flustered but always friendly bartender Jesus Velazquez was there. He's pretty much always the only one there, running food and drinks to one customer, or sometimes a small crowd, depending on the night. The bar was pretty busy, busier than usual for a weeknight. A huge table of people we assumed were from the FBI office next door were tossing back drinks after work. Various smaller crews of construction workers ate and drank at the other tables. For the first time ever in our experience at the Saloon, we also spotted a trio of twenty-something hipster types. I guess the gentrification in the area is bringing in a bit of a new crowd. A group of Spanish-speaking guys sat next to us at the bar for a short time, but soon departed. Velazquez later told us these folks were landscapers who come in daily this time of year before nighttime shifts decorating the 16th Street Mall with Christmas lights. I guess it takes a while and they need to get a head start.
We asked the bartender to tell some of our favorite ghost stories about the bar, hoping there might be some new ones. One new one actually pertained to the aforementioned holiday landscaping crew. One night, after a shift decorating downtown, the guys came back to get their cars at the bar and saw a man walking around inside. Thinking it was Velazquez, they started calling his cell phone, asking him to let them into the bar for a quick after-work drink. The bar closes early, at 8 p.m., and Velazquez was already at home, a fact he told the landscapers. The whole group swore up and down to him that there was a man walking around inside the bar, but the place had been locked up for hours.
The historic building has been a bar of some sort since 1919, and has been the Stockyard Saloon (though it's still listed as the Stock Yards Inn on Google maps) since 2003. That's when current owner Dean Maus bought the business, mostly keeping things in the same vein as at the previous bars, even leaving up the signs from when the bar was named the Stock Yards Inn and the Old West Tavern. Velazquez meets customers from three or more generations all the time, and sometimes patrons from beyond the grave. Another surprising story he told us is that years ago, he was sleeping at home, and a man woke him up from his dream to tell him that he needed to go check on the bar, then disappeared. Having already had some weird experiences at his place of employment, he thought it best to go ahead and investigate. It had been a normal day and everything had been locked up and turned off when he had left after closing. He drove over to the bar in the middle of the night and all the fryers were on, a situation which surely would have caused the place go up in smoke if they had stayed on all night. Years later, someone in the bar brought in a few old pictures of some regular customers. Velazquez was shocked to recognize a man from one of the photos as the prophetic ghost who had awoken him to protect his favorite bar, even after passing on.
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Other strange things happen in the bar, from trays flying off shelves in the kitchen to items large and small getting lost and reappearing, sometimes days later. Certain delivery guys now refuse to deliver to the bar during the early-morning darkness, and footsteps that sound like someone wearing spurs, weird electrical surges, electronics turning on and off by themselves, and heavy, creepy feelings have been experienced by staff and customers alike. My friends and I had never had anything super-spooky happen to us in the bar, but we had also never been alone in there after dark. Velasquez thinks even his daughter may have seen a ghost. When she was three, he and his wife and daughter had stopped by the bar to talk to Maus about something briefly. When all four were in the basement, they could hear noises upstairs, and Maus asked him to check and make sure that the bar doors were actually locked. They were, and no one was upstairs. So Velazquez and his family departed, and his daughter started pleading with her parents to let her go back inside to see "the boy that was downstairs," because she liked him. He didn't think a whole lot of it at the time, thinking perhaps it was her imagination, but knowing the place, now he's not so sure.
But it's not just the past that haunts the Saloon: The future of the bar is up in the air because of the planned National Western Stock Show construction project that will bring a major overhaul of the entire complex, of which the bar's building is a part. The structure is eligible for registration as a historic landmark, and representatives from the city have said that the building is not slated to be torn down. However, whether or not it will stay a bar remains to be seen, as the building is likely to be sold to the city, and there is mention of restaurants as a part of the new complex, but what that looks like is not specified. No guarantees are being made by the city or by building owner Fred Orr for the long-term future of Maus's lease. The one thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is scheduled to happen until after the next Stock Show.
As my friends and I continued our conversations over mixed drinks, beers and onion rings, the bar started to empty out. We discussed the fact that Rocky Mountain Oysters are an actual menu item, but I have always considered the idea of this regional delicacy a little off-putting, and no one else was into the idea, either. I've always stuck with the burgers and sandwiches, or the many types of fried appetizers. Country music continued to blare over the radio, and we listened to a few more stories about Velazquez, his family, and the customers and spirits that like to have fun in the Saloon. As we headed out, we promised to come back soon and to keep enjoying the spot for as long as we could. At least for the moment, the drinks will still flow and the cowboys, present and past, can still call the Stockyard Saloon their local haunt.