If the fire had totaled Rocky Flats Lounge, you might not believe it ever existed. But there’d be too many people with ghost stories to say for sure.
It was a Thursday afternoon one year ago this week. The first people to show up at the Lounge were two blonde-haired girls. They wore shirts that said “Rodgers” on the back and talked about Wisconsin. They ordered a pitcher of Leinenkugel to their table and waited for the game to start. It was the beginning of the Green Bay Packers football season at the Lounge.
The stream of green and gold flowing through the shabby wooden door picked up over the next few hours. By kickoff, there wasn’t a chair, stool or bench unoccupied; it was standing room only and there was no more room to stand. All eyes were fixated on the collection of pre-HD televisions mounted haphazardly throughout the bar, pool room and patio.
It was a big game. Not only was it the season opener in a year when the Packers had a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl, but they were playing a new rival in Seattle. See, the Packers, or maybe just their fans, were still reeling from a bizarre Hail Mary pass two years prior that was aided by a blown call by part-time referees. This was payback. The atmosphere in Rocky Flats that night, 1,000 miles away from the game in Seattle, was buzzing.
But it felt more like a family reunion than a pitchfork mob. As the game settled in, the avatars of Packer greats like Paul Hornung, Reggie White and Donald Driver passed from group to group to greet friends and neighbors. Two Brett Favres met each other by the kitchen window, and one ordered cheese curds. Bart Starr drank PBR. A little wide receiver weaved her way back to her family’s table by the old, unlit fireplace with a plain hamburger in hand.
On the TV, the Packer quarterback was sacked time and time again as the night wore on. The game soon got out of hand. When the final blow was dealt, and the Packers were doomed to defeat on their redemption day, the room deflated. Well, it exhaled. Because soon the wind of laughter and hope for the other 15 games, the earnest belief that “We’ll get ’em next time,” filled the room. It was only a game, after all. Back slaps abounded, tabs were paid and plans were made to meet next Sunday back at the Lounge for another Packer game, or else on Friday for the fish fry.
But this year, for the first time in 30 years, the doors will likely be shuttered at Rocky Flats Lounge for the start of football season. A fire ripped through the interior of the restaurant in July, burning the beer taps, the televisions, the multicolored holiday lights, the Brett Favre bobble heads and the Super Bowl banners.
Owner Wyman Stacey says he’s trying to get at least the outdoor section open for the team’s first game on Sept. 13. There are obstacles and inspections that need to be dealt with. There is even the likelihood that the Lounge doesn’t return at all.
But if history is any indication, Rocky Flats Lounge will be back soon. It has already lived many lives, and the stories it tells are too good to go up in smoke.
The story of the little bar in the middle of nowhere starts in 1870. Bill Hogan, who now owns the land and building the Lounge calls home, was bequeathed the property by his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father — a man who bought the land while homesteading in the area in the 1870s. Hogan was born in 1941 in Boulder, and the family moved to a home in Eldorado Springs in 1953, keeping the family’s vast area of land just south.
In that same year, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (which would later be known as the Department of Energy) built the Rocky Flats nuclear power facility. The Dow Chemical Company first operated the plant, and its primary purpose was to build plutonium pits, which are essentially the core component of major explosive materials.
In oral histories collected by the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Carnegie Library in Boulder, workers at the plant largely expressed the belief that they were providing a service that benefitted national security while working at the plant. The ’50s saw the start of the Cold War and many in the plant saw nuclear development as a valuable tool in winning a global arms race.
“I saw Rocky Flats as a good place to work and as an instrument that essentially kept the United States out of war for 50 years,” said John Beachem, an engineer at the plant. “Even though maybe none of what they were making was used — just the fact that the items were there kept the United States in a strong position where they didn’t have to fight a war.”
Many workers described the plant in the ’50s as an exciting and rewarding place to work. Picnics, outings and parties all occurred from time to time, the pay was good and their work was fulfilling.
“We pretty well knew what the project was all about,” said Herman Conrad Anderson, a lab operator. “It was — you have to understand that in ’51, when news had come out about atomic energy, there were many conjectures as to, hey, this was the new thing, it’s going to make life a lot simpler. Like maybe even running automobiles and so on.”
All the work that was done with plutonium and other hazardous materials was done in glove boxes, Anderson and others said. Many of the nearly 100 former employees of the plant who were recorded in the oral history program say it was a safe working environment.
There was still, however, the recognition that the materials in use at the plant were not safe, even if the magnitude of its hazardousness wasn’t fully understood at the time.
“Well, I felt like we were this one big, happy, dysfunctional family,” said Jacque Brever, a chemical operator. “Yeah, we were really close. You didn’t piss each other off. You didn’t do that. You just did not do that. You got little surprises for doing that, like dipping your hands in the [critical] drain and flicking it in the radioactive water on someone as they’re walking by and coming up all of a sudden contaminated when you know you haven’t been anywhere. The first thing that you do is, you think, ‘OK, who did I piss off? What did I do?’”
By 1957, 27 buildings had been erected and made operational at the plant, but two temporary buildings were dragged across Highway 93 and sold to the public. The plant had brought an influx of workers to the area and had attracted talent from across the country.
Hogan’s father recognized a business opportunity. He bought the relocated buildings and turned one into a liquor store. The family lived in one half of the building, and sold spirits and beer out of the other half. Rocky Flats employees were the primary customer base.
The other relocated building was the former payroll office for the plant from 1952-57. When it was moved across the highway, it was used as storage for construction equipment for two years, before it was remodeled on the inside and turned into the Rocky Flats Lounge in 1959.
“I was pretty young, and a guy came along and wanted to open up a restaurant,” Hogan said via the oral history program. “So him and my dad worked on it and put it together and fixed it up and started it as a restaurant.”
They bought a long, wooden bar from a Holiday Inn in Boulder, because due to liquor laws in Boulder at the time, the hotel was unable to sell liquor by the drink, and thus had no use for their bar.
The Lounge underwent another remodel in 1963, and Larry Wilson, vice president of the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum and a former plant engineer, says by then “it was actually a pretty decent place for an after-work get together.” The Lounge soon became colloquially known among plant workers as Building 93, as in, “I’ve got an appointment in Building 93.”
At about the time of the remodel, the liquor store that Hogan’s father had owned (and sold by then) burned down. The building was scrapped, and so Rocky Flats Lounge remained just about the only watering hole between Boulder and Golden for the throngs of workers at the facility.
The plant kept plugging along throughout the ’60s despite two major incidents. The first saw members of the plant go on strike to protest working conditions and hours. Larry Ferris, a clerk at the plant, was at the Rocky Flats Lounge the night workers organized the strike.
“I walked across the field at two o’clock in the morning to get to the plant from the old bar that sits out there,” Ferris said. “The employees, the union at that time, the Steelworkers, decided they were going on strike. The strike was difficult, there was tacks thrown on the road, road blockage, and a lot of other things went on, and we walked across the field in the middle of the night. … There was mass picketing to close the plant entirely. A lot of confusion for a few days; the strike went on quite awhile. It was difficult.”
The strike eventually settled but in 1969, the plant endured the largest industrial accident in the U.S. at the time. A fire started in a plutonium glove box and spread to several areas. The cleanup took two years due to the hazardous nature of the materials involved.
Meanwhile, Highway 93 was proving a treacherous drive for anyone not associated with the plant. That is, it was becoming clear that as the plant went, so did the Rocky Flats Lounge, it seemed.
“Driving on 93; there was a bumper sticker out at one time, and it said, ‘Pray for me, I drive 93,’” said Don Getman, a former employee. “And that was kind of true, because in the wintertime the wind and the snow and fog, you couldn’t see. That was the most dangerous part.”
When the ’70s rolled around, the bar had deteriorated into a dive bar, said Wilson with the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum. In fact, he said, the bar closed for a brief time when someone was shot and killed there in the mid-’70s.
The plant continued its downward trajectory as well. When new owners were brought on, workers reported an immediate drop in morale. But most damning was the increased pollution coverage and safety hazards to the environment, plant workers and area residents that occurred in the decade. The federal government bought a buffer zone of land around the plant to reduce the risk of widespread environmental contamination, but it didn’t stop landowners in the area from filing suit against the plant in 1975 for such offenses. In 1978, 60 protesters from the Rocky Flats Truth Force were arrested for trespassing on the property. And in 1979, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Rait joined 15,000 people in the area to protest the plant. Studies on contamination caused by the Rocky Flats plants increased and so did protests.
But just as the plant seemed doomed to its ultimate fate, the Lounge started to write its own history. Joyce Hawley, a woman from Wisconsin, bought the bar in 1978 and sought to change the quality and atmosphere inside it. One of her earliest and most popular decisions was to hold Friday night fish fries. She shipped in walleye and perch from the Midwest to cook for plant employees and any transplants who happened to stop by. When Wyman Stacey, the current owner, joined a few years later after moving from South Carolina, he brought with him Mississippi catfish and frog legs.
“I didn’t know what a walleye was,” Stacey says.
Hawley was a Chicago sports fan — in fact she had a large satellite put in so she could catch Chicago Cubs baseball games. The unlikely transformation to a Packer bar didn’t happen until one Saturday in 1985 when a Wisconsin transplant noticed the over-sized dish and stopped in to inquire.
“My story’s always been I became [a Packer fan] in 1985,” Stacey says, laughing. “One Saturday someone came in and asked if he brought about 20 people in here, would I find the Packer game? I said, ‘You bring 20 people here, I’ll find a Packer game.’”
Stacey is a Vietnam vet with a bleach white George Jones haircut and a healthy love of motorcycles. He talks deliberately and has an easy-going, friendly demeanor.
When Rocky Flats workers would come in for lunch, dinner or drinks through the ’80s, ultimately the final decade for the plant, Stacey says they didn’t want to talk about work, and he didn’t ask. He never had any health concerns working in and owning the Lounge, even as he says he watched nuns walk by and protest, or when the man with the beating drum made his pilgrimage from Boulder to the plant.
Stacey says none of the protesters ever came in for a drink.
Eventually the plant cut lunch hours from one hour to 30 minutes, and Stacey says it became pretty hard for workers to duck out for that short amount of time for a meal. Workers on the first shift would still come in for drinks after 4 p.m.; workers on the second shift at about midnight.
And it didn’t stop the bizarre stories from rolling into the Lounge. Stacey recalls the time country singer Jerry Jeff Walker stopped by one night in the late ’80s, likely the first bar Walker saw on his route from the Jefferson County airport on up north.
“Three guys walked in one Monday night and sat down and ordered beer,” Stacey says, “and I looked at them, and it was back when the satellite was going strong and we had the country music station. I kept looking at him and I said, ‘Hope you don’t mind me asking… what’s your name?’ He said, ‘Jerry Jeff Walker. Mr. Bojangles.’
“He said, ‘If we go get our guitars and start playing music, you won’t call everyone you know?’ I said, ‘We won’t call anyone.’ So we had a free concert going on and people coming in and out and just thought he was a drunk playing the guitar. … He stayed ’til like one in the morning. I think he was drinking Coors. Then when he was leaving, he always wore that hat, cowboy hat, he said, ‘Anything I can give you? Souvenir or something?’ I said, ‘I don’t know of anything.’ He said, ‘How ’bout my hat?’ So he took off his hat and signed the inside of it and gave it to me, and he left.
“About a few years later, a guy comes in one Friday night and he said, ‘Friend of mine left his hat here, do you still have it?’ And I said, ‘Well we always keep a rack back here. Everyone leaves their coats. Let me check.’ He says, ‘My friend’s Jerry Jeff Walker. He just wanted to know if you still had his hat.’”
Though Stacey says there was never a scheduled music program at Rocky Flats Lounge, a bluegrass band made of members from the plant would play once or twice every fall in the ’80s. It also wasn’t rare for impromptu performances from esteemed singers and laymen alike from time to time either.
As the Lounge stayed afloat, 1989 saw the beginning of the end for the Rocky Flats plant. By then, reports of major health issues from former workers had begun to surface. Many workers were soon being diagnosed with lung cancer, berylliosis, reactive airway disease, radiation exposure and other exposure-related diseases.
The FBI and EPA raided the plant in ’89 and found major and multiple violations of federal antipollution laws. In 1992, the plant laid off 4,500 workers, and orders were put in place to deconstruct the facility and begin cleanup.
There was a dip in business, Stacey says — losing 4,500 potential customers in a day does that to a business. But 1992 also happened to be the year Brett Favre took over as quarterback for the Packers, ushering in two decades of success for a franchise that had bumbled its way at the bottom of the league since 1968. With that new success brought new customers to the Lounge, which had gotten the nickname, among others, “the Packer bar.”
But the Packers only played once a week, four months a year. Keeping the business afloat required Stacey, who bought out full possession of the bar when Hawley died in 2001, to be more than just a Packer bar. Stacey says the Lounge, during the week, may no longer support the workers at the Rocky Flats plant, but it does bring in a varied crowd, including those from the sawmill and cement factories nearby. Motorcyclists, like himself, appreciate the no-frills, middle-of-nowhere vibe of the Lounge. Poker games began to take place in the pool room that was added on to the original building. Catholics, he says, come by for the fish fries in droves during Lent. A patio was constructed and the outdoor area was fitted with horseshoe pits, allowing those customers who take a chance on that shabby-looking bar way out where to drink cold beer and watch the sun set over what is likely the best view any restaurant has on the Front Range. The construction of the patio also coincided with the enforcement of the smoking ban in Boulder. Lying just outside Boulder County, Rocky Flats Lounge became a place for those who hadn’t given up.
Also benefiting the Lounge during the ’90s and ’00s was the massive influx of residents to Boulder and Jefferson Counties, and Stacey says the slow development in Arvada has put more people in the bar’s proximity.
The bar was never going to make Stacey a fortune — he knew that — but the Lounge was suddenly the only building that remained from the plant, and it was making him a living.
And then, in the middle of the night, on July 15, a fire sparked in the kitchen roared through the interior of the restaurant. Nearly everything inside was incinerated or else ruined beyond repair: kitchen equipment, beer taps, televisions and the hundreds of pieces of Packers memorabilia save for one banner. The wood from the original payroll office building at the plant went up like kindling.
If you drive by now, you’ll see what looks like the same old run-down bar. But two months after the fire, you can still smell the smoke if you put your nose to the wood.
Inspectors have told Stacey it’s unsafe to go in the building and over the last several months, he’s worked with insurance companies to find out how to repair and rebuild the restaurant. Stacey says he could be months away from opening the interior, but he is trying to work with several Jefferson County agencies to set up the outside patio to provide the food, beer and services required to accommodate the hundreds of displaced Packer fans who want to watch the season open like they always have — at Rocky Flats, with friends.
These are the same Packer fans who Stacey says have reached out to him hundreds of times since the fire offering to replace burned memorabilia out of their own collections. These are people who are offering their professional services to help get the restaurant up and running again.
And it’s the Packer organization that, when they heard of the fire, sent Stacey a box filled with a Packer jersey, banners, a football signed be the entire team and a letter.
“Thank you for your contribution to our team over the past 30 years. We hope you are able to rebuild soon and continue your tradition of providing a Lambeau Field environment to Colorado Packer fans,” the letter read.
Rocky Flats Lounge is resilient. So is Stacey and his wife, Pat. But it’s the community that supports this bar-that-could. A community of bikers, of Packer fans, of poker players, of old and new factory workers, and of journalists who like to drink PBR on Thursdays. It’s the people that make Rocky Flats Lounge so endearing, but the fact that it still stands is magic.
“We’re the neighborhood bar without a neighborhood,” Stacey jokes. “Not many left like this.”
The day after the fire, before the locks had been thrown on the door, a regular patron walked through the mudroom, turned left and walked down the end of the bar, Pat says. He either didn’t see or didn’t care about the wreckage the fire had wrought. He wanted a beer.
He could’ve been a mirage. Then again, the Lounge could be, too. But there are too many people with stories about this place for it not to exist.