A promise kept

Immediately following last September’s devastating flood, Craig Ferguson vowed to have his Planet Bluegrass festival grounds rebuilt better than ever in time for RockyGrass. Truth be told, a lot of folks thought that was impossible.

Courtesy of Planet Bluegrass.

When talking about Planet Bluegrass, it’s hard to separate the company from its founder and festival director Craig Ferguson. It’s as if each is the heart of the other, their fates twisted together in pretty much everything … including floods.

It’s what happens when your life, your family, your job and your home are all located smack in the middle of a festival venue that’s half surrounded by a river. Such is Ferguson’s circumstance at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons.

On September 12, 2013, the historic 500-year flood that hit the town of Lyons along with most of the rest of Boulder County also devastated the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, which plays host each year to RockyGrass, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and any number of other events.

On the day of the flood, Ferguson and his family watched helplessly from the red- and yellow-streaked sandstone cliffs that rise above the ranch and the St. Vrain. They looked on as the swollen river swept through the festival grounds, leaving every structure on the property at least partially submerged. At the height of the flood, the river extended from the cliffs on the north side of the property to the wall at the base of Highway 36 on the south. Water covered everything known as Planet Bluegrass, including Ferguson’s home, which had four feet of water flowing through the ground floor.

“I was just in shock,” says Ferguson. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do we fix this?’ Not do we fix it, but how.”

Within days of being hit by the flood, despite all the carnage he had witnessed, Ferguson announced to the world that his Planet Bluegrass Ranch would be ready for festival-goers by the time RockyGrass arrived a short 10 months later on July 25, 2014.

Was it a promise born of confidence or merely a gesture of hope and faith? At the time, it seemed more likely a product of shock, something akin to denial. But the inspiration for Ferguson’s bold proclamation doesn’t really matter now. Whatever sparked that promise, it was clear from the very beginning that Ferguson and the rest of the Planet Bluegrass staff believed it was possible and they committed themselves to making it a reality at all costs … of which there would be plenty.

When the water finally receded, it became clear that restoring the festival grounds in such a short time frame would be a tall order. There was no time to waste.

With so much of the property buried under tens of thousands of tons of sand, gravel, mud and debris, the first order of business was to buy a backhoe and a dump truck and to start rearranging the flood’s handiwork one shovelfull at a time. It was the first bite of the elephant.

The purchase of the truck and backhoe turned out to be only the first in a long line of expenditures that would eventually top out somewhere north of $1.2 million to date. And that price tag to restore Planet Bluegrass Ranch seems even bigger when you consider that only about $100,000 came in by way of insurance reimbursements.

Despite the herculean nature of the task, the resurrecting of the festival grounds in time for the summer music events proved the easier part of the ordeal for Ferguson, at least emotionally.

“Inside my house I had two feet of mud,” he says.

“I just took an X-Acto knife and cut away all the drywall and insulation below four feet. That’s not the most expensive part. Everything that touches the ground, every piece of furniture, some guitars, kitchen cabinets, the whole inside of my house four feet and down had to be redone.

“But my biggest loss has been three or four crates of kids’ artwork that I had under the stairs, that was the hardest thing. That was the hardest moment by far going through those pictures. They were all stuck together. I spent two days trying to unpeel them. That was the worst emotional part.” Ten months later, the pain can still be heard in his voice.

But Ferguson is an optimist, albeit a tired one these days, and he quickly shifts to a more upbeat recollection.

“I remember thinking that as long as we didn’t lose the stage, we’d be able to keep it all going. And it’s still there.”

It was touch and go for a while after the flood. Ferguson’s beloved main stage was being threatened by a new branch of the St. Vrain, one that ran in front of the stage instead of behind it where the water had always been, and it was beginning to erode the ground at the stage’s edge. A reroute of the water saved the day and when a structural engineer declared the stage solid as a rock, all eyes returned to the July 25 deadline.

While the stage was soggy but salvageable, not every structure on the property was so lucky. The Wildflower Pavilion next to Ferguson’s home was virtually a complete loss. A wooden add-on that had been attached to one of the rock buildings was washed far downstream. And as if to illustrate just how powerful the flood had been, a fullsized refrigerator from the property wound up near The Stone Cup coffee shop in downtown Lyons, photos and notes still sticking to its door. Every structure was a reclamation project in waiting.

“Everything was wet. Everything was flooded, but it could have been much worse,” says Ferguson.

Since the day the backhoe arrived, the Planet Bluegrass rebuilding project has been going nonstop. Some days only a handful of workers are on site while at other times as many as 50 or more heavy equipment operators, electricians, sod installers, IT experts, landscapers, concrete workers, tree trimmers, truck drivers and, of course, actual Planet Bluegrass staffers could be found hammering away on one problem after another.

Staff members were able to get back to work in the main office on the grounds last November, albeit without a bathroom or any heat. While difficult working conditions to be sure, the timing allowed them to string a line and carry out December 6th’s scheduled ticket sales for that other little event that Planet Bluegrass puts on off site: the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. December’s cash flow was a godsend.

It is an understatement to say that the response by festivalgoers was heartening to a crew, including Ferguson, which had been through so much. Telluride’s 10,000 tickets sold out in just 16 minutes. It was a great reminder of just how important the relationship is between Planet Bluegrass and its loyal base of festavarians.

Work crews were also able to help Ferguson meet another of his shorterterm goals just three months after the flood. This one concerned Christmas.

“It was my daughter’s last year at home, so my big priority was to try to be home for Christmas in at least some sense,” says Ferguson. “It went pretty well; family stayed the night, Santa still came, the governor showed up and wished me well.

“The [Wildflower] pavilion has housed a Christmas Eve service for years now. So we went and rented a tent and put it out there and most of those people who had been coming for years came and John Hickenlooper came out and joined us.”

But that was then. With the promised deadline for reopening looming only a week away as this article goes to press, there is still a blur of construction activity at the Ranch. The new stage lights need hanging and more importantly the stage still needs power. The IT folks are still trying to get the grounds into the Internet age. Dirt is still being pushed around backstage. A fence or two are missing. Tons of specially ordered (it’s really soft) mulch is still sitting in small mountains waiting to be spread backstage and over a bit of the main campground where the grass seed has been slow to take.

But basically… it’s done. They made it. For all intents and purposes, Ferguson’s optimistic vow has been fulfilled.

“We’re a week away and there’s still a lot to be done,” he says, “but the 4,000 people who will come through that gate won’t know the difference. We could do the festival tomorrow if we had to. We could just hook up generators and do it right now.” He’s right. No one will notice the areas that still show the scars of the flood. For the most part, they are hidden out of sight, blocked from the public’s view by a fence, a building or the stage. Call it a construction sleight of hand.

It’s also another example of how Ferguson and Planet Bluegrass share similar fates. The man, like the venue, keeps his flood scars out of sight to the public for the most part, but they’re there.

He acknowledges he’s had a few out-of-character moments since the flood. He recounts a couple.

“Earlier this winter, there was a bunch of plywood over by the pavilion and the wind kicked up and it was dark. The plywood started hitting the house and it was really loud and I did just respond in a primal way. I grabbed the kids and I was about to… I didn’t know what was going on. At first I thought it was transformers blowing up, but there are only one or two nearby. I definitely had an emergency reaction. And I had another one just this week in Longmont. I was driving on Monday, yet another trip to the electrical supply house, and the alarms went off in Longmont. And it triggered a total emotional response in me. I was shaking. I couldn’t figure it out. And then I thought it’s the first Monday of the month and I was able to say, ‘OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.’ I don’t know when those things will start going away.”

It’s hard to set 10-month deadlines to repair emotional scars but with the Ranch nearing completion, who knows.

So what can attendees to RockyGrass expect to see upon their arrival? There have been several changes and improvements to the Planet Bluegrass grounds.

The first thing that those making the legendary tarp run will notice is that there is now a hill that crosses the property just even with the silo which now has a rock retaining wall on its side facing the stage. While 1,000 truckloads of sand and dirt were hauled off of the property during the cleanup, some of that material was used to reshape the seating area. It now has a gentle downward slope from the silo to the stage. It’s an improvement that should benefit both line of sight and sound for the audience.

Another change is that the beach has been moved from its location on the north side of the property near the stage, back to the rear of the Wildflower Pavillion. The old beach is now a twotiered retaining wall set up that still offers easy access to the water. The new beach is sand and has been positioned closer to the family area.

Speaking of the Wildflower Pavillion, its 2.0 version has the original roof but its sides are new and have been bolted onto a bombproof concrete foundation that now composes the bottom three feet of the walls. Ferguson says if there is another 500-year flood, the safest place in the county will be on top of the pavilion. “It’s not going anywhere,” he assures.

Those familiar with the venue will also notice the grounds have a more open feel. This is due to a couple of missing trees and also the lack of vegetation along the riverbank.

Aside from that, it’s pretty much just as it has always been. The grass is even lusher than in past years thanks to seven acres of sod purchased after Yonder Mountain String Band donated $60,000 from a Planet Bluegrass benefit concert to pay for it. Which brings up another point.

The festivals that Planet Bluegrass puts on every year in Lyons and Telluride are important to everyone involved, including the musicians who have rallied around Ferguson and his company in their time of need.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to make the festivals special this year to help get past this disaster,” says Ferguson. “Hornsby, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny and a lot of others wanted to make sure they were going to be here. It’s a homecoming for a lot of bluegrass artists.”

Ferguson says that he looks forward to some point in the future when he can slow down and reflect on all the amazing acts of kindness, encouragement and support that he and Planet Bluegrass have received since the flood. But for now he says, “I’m just worn out.”

For today anyway, there is nothing he can do but make another trip to the electrical supplier, grab a hammer and finish making his promise to rebuild Planet Bluegrass Ranch better than ever a reality.

Well, that’s not all he can do, he does occasionally trade his hammer for his festival director’s hat so he, too, can make this summer’s events at the Ranch special. Best example? He added superstar Alison Krauss to the RockyGrass lineup after the festival was already sold out. Who does that kind of thing?

Craig Ferguson. Editor’s note: While RockyGrass is sold out, for those wanting to support Planet Bluegrass in its recovery and see the new improved version of the Ranch for themselves, there are still tickets available for the 24th Annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, August 15-17. So grab some friends and have a great time.

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