Colorado History

Waugh! The Fort Celebrates Sixty Years of Old West Wonder

The Fort opened to the public in 1963.
The Fort opened to the public in 1963. Anne Stephenson Photo
Perched in the foothills just below downtown Morrison, The Fort has overlooked the ever-changing skyline of Denver for sixty years. The sprawling adobe structure was built in the early 1960s by Elizabeth and Samuel Arnold as a replica of Bent's Fort, a trading post located along the Santa Fe Trail in southeastern Colorado more than a century earlier. Initially the Arnold home, it soon became a destination dining spot.

Filled with artwork and memorabilia, today the Fort is a legendary restaurant that's a museum-like monument to the Old West, but also a throwback to not-so-old Denver. Its menu is filled with steak, wild game and Rocky Mountain oysters — the kind of food that defined this city's cuisine six decades ago.

These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone living in Colorado who actually eats Rocky Mountain oysters regularly, but they're still a favorite at the Fort, which is steeped in tradition, some of which feels downright wacky through a modern lens. There's the gunpowder-spiked whiskey, the shouts of "Waugh!" (a mountain man expression that apparently meant "right on") from the staff, and the well-worn animal-skin headdresses that are delivered to tables celebrating special occasions. (Even Julia Child wore one when she visited, and there's a photo to prove it; the Summit of the 8 also dined here when Bill Clinton was president.)

While some of it may be wacky, there's an undeniable charm to it all. And as the Fort gears up to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary with a series of events beginning with the Shinin' Times party on February 17, it's not planning to change (much) anytime soon. "The Fort will continue on," says Holly Arnold Kinney, who became the property's sole owner after her father passed away in 2006 and has kept its traditions intact.
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Holly Arnold with Sissy the bear.
Courtesy of the Fort
Arnold Kinney famously grew up in the building with her pet Canadian black bear, Sissy, who lived there for nineteen years and was known for kissing patrons and bellying up to the bar for sips of Coca-Cola from the bottle. She even wrote a children's book, Sissy Bear at the Fort, as an homage to her furry childhood pal.

While she's deeply invested in keeping the heart of the Fort intact, Arnold Kinney has also made some strategic changes over the years, especially since the pandemic. "COVID forced us to think out of the box," she recalls.

When restaurants were initially ordered to shut down indoor dining in March 2020, "it was a real gut punch," Arnold Kinney admits. "You didn't have time to emotionally prepare. You're given less than eight to ten hours to call seventy of your employees to tell them they're laid off, and many of them who've never been on unemployment before and have worked for you for thirty years, or twenty years."

She credits the Colorado Restaurant Association and EatDenver with helping to guide her through the challenges of the pandemic as she put her energy toward making sure all of her employees had access to food. "We created Sunday comfort meals for all sixty of our employees who were laid off," she recalls. "So every Sunday, we were cooking 150 to 200 meals a day. I'd come out in my chef's coat with my mask on and give six meals to each employee in their car when they'd drive up. Then they'd go in the upper parking lot and wave to the other employees as their Fort family, just to check in. It kept our community together."
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The Fort is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Anne Stephenson Photo
When the Fort was able to reopen with limited capacity, Arnold Kinney added picnic tables outside, opened earlier in the day and created a fast-casual menu with burgers, barbecue and brats. "Our servers probably put in 25,000 steps a day because they had to run from the kitchen all the way outside," she says, laughing. "But what we found is that our guests were loving it."

She also purchased a food truck and named it Tatonka. "I thought, if they're going to shut me down again, I'm going to go flip burgers at Cabella's. Because I want my employees to know that I'm a fighter. I'm not just going to give up," Arnold Kinney says. Restaurants were, indeed, forced to close indoor dining for a second time in late 2020, and so Tatonka got its time to shine. "It was kind of fun," she says of the experience. "It's like, pivot into something you've never done before. And we learned a lot about food trucks. Like you make sure you have those clipped-on lids for everything, because when you hit a bump, the salsa goes flying."

As events began to come back, Arnold Kinney converted the property's helicopter pad, which is used for the annual Indian market and powwow that it hosts each September, into an outdoor wedding venue. She also added coverage and heaters to the patio to increase capacity. And last summer, the Fort began opening the space known as the St. Vrain Bar and Cantina as a more casual option for those looking to enjoy cocktails, mocktails and lighter bites. "So we're reinventing," she says.

The Fort is also attracting a new demographic these days. "All the weddings we do and rehearsal dinners, those are all young couples coming to all those," Arnold Kinney notes. It draws crowds before Red Rocks shows, too. "Our patio is packed at 4:30 p.m. before every show," she adds. "We're seeing a real renaissance."
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The Fort's herb butter bison steak is a standout.
Molly Martin
And the new crowd also seems to be loving many of the Fort's old ways, like the live cannon it shoots off every Fourth of July and December 31. "To see these young families come here on New Year's Eve, and they could stand around with an interpreter in period dress, shooting a real cannon. It's just exciting, it's fun. You don't get that anywhere else," Arnold Kinney says.

You're also not going to get many of the Fort's food staples at any other restaurant. The menu is a combination of dishes based on historical research and additions that are made during the staff's semi-annual culinary contest, in which Arnold Kinney and other senior staff members judge new ideas from the eatery's kitchen staff.

One of Arnold Kinney's favorite recent additions is dubbed Nick's Buffalo Tongue. "He took our buffalo tongue recipe and put it on a crostini with horseradish aioli and then added arugula and Cabernet-soaked grapes," she says. "It's to die for."

Other standouts include the bison bone marrow, which is scooped onto thin crostini for a rustic and rich bite. (Pro tip: Once your bone is clean but still filled with liquidy puddles of fat, use it as a luge for the Trade Whiskey, which is served neat and spiked with red pepper, tobacco and black gunpowder — not a traditional move, but a delicious one nonetheless.)
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The rich, chocolate Negrita is the Fort's signature dessert.
Molly Martin
While there are a number of entrees to choose from, anyone visiting the Fort for the first time should opt for the herb butter bison steak. Paired with a seasonal vegetable and potatoes — Arnold Kinney prefers to go mashed with New Mexican Dixon red chile gravy on top — it's an exemplary take on the protein. And it should be, because the Fort serves more bison than any other independent restaurant in the country.

And Arnold Kinney wants to make sure the Fort keeps serving bison with a side of Western fun for decades to come. "The building, land and property of the Fort is on the National Register of Historic Places," she explains, "and in my estate plans, I am donating it to the Tesoro Cultural Center," the nonprofit she started in 1999 with a mission to preserve and share the art and culture of the Southwest.

She has plans for the restaurant itself to be employee-owned. "They'll essentially lease the space from Tesoro Cultural Center, and that will endow Tesoro to give them revenue every month as the landlord," she adds. "And the Fort will continue on with very talented management that I'm training now to be able to keep giving our guests shinin' times for years to come, with or without me."

The Fort is located at 19192 CO-8 in Morrison and is currently open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets to sixtieth-anniversary events, including the Shinin' Times party on February 17, visit
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin

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