Here's why you want to exit at Silver Plume
Newcomers breathe life into a once-forgotten mining town
Exit 226 off Interstate 70 is one of the least-used off ramps of the mountain corridor. In 2012, Shae Whitney and Brady Becker took it and stumbled upon a 600-square-foot 1890s mining supply store and former bakery in the old mining town of Silver Plume after a day of play on the peaks. Already, Whitney had begun applying her education and bartending experience toward a natural bitters production line in Denver.
“I think we were just ready to be out of the city,” says Whitney, founder of DRAM Apothecary, a natural bitters company and drinking destination for Silver Plume locals and weekend warriors traveling the hilly highway.
“We were perplexed that the town still existed,” Whitney recalls of their first visit.
The once-bustling mining town in Clear Creek County, at more than 9,000 feet, has dwindled with time and shifting economies. Today, about two-thirds of Silver Plume’s original structures remain intact along dilapidated, unpaved roads, and little action or comprehensive community strategy is apparent despite the prime location nestled next to the heavily trafficked highway corridor and mountain towns.
But for Coloradans who came or stayed for easy access to a high quality of life in the outdoors, Silver Plume remains an idyllic community to put down roots.
“We found this place. It was for sale. DRAM was already started. I was just doing it out of my kitchen,” Whitney says of their watering hole. Shelling out about $200,000 for a corner storefront, the couple moved from Denver to Silver Plume in 2013.
Before DRAM, Whitney worked at City ‘o City, a bohemian restaurant in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “I realized that most of the bitters stocked at bars I had worked at were synthetic,” she says. With a background in food science, ecological agriculture and botany, she launched her product line in 2011, touting her cocktail bitters that were “without synthetic dyes, flavorings, preservatives or flavor oils.”
SMALL BUSINESS — SMALL TOWN
As the operation rapidly expanded, Whitney and her business-life partner, Becker, searched for a commercial kitchen throughout Denver, but prices were high. When the pair found their Silver Plume property, less than 50 miles away from Denver, they were sold, though the space required a transformation.
“Brady and I did all the work ourselves,” Whitney says of the overhaul of DRAM Apothecary Tasting Room & Bread Bar. “Brady has a master’s in architecture. We cleaned up and repainted the building, installed the furnace. All the plumbing was redone. We refurbished the whole thing,” with the exception of the exterior, which remains rustic, stressing the magic and mystery of the mining town.
The bar officially opened in 2013, only sporadically for special events to start. These days DRAM is usually open weekends, Friday through Sunday, with occasional special events, including live music and workshops. The dimly lit space feels like the inside of an alpine chic shadow box, drenched in collectibles, animals mounted on the wall, relics, and of course DRAM products. A small hand-written sign on the wall reads: “Do you think this place is quaint and wonderful? Well, help keep it that way. No Yelp!”
For her bitters, syrups and teas, Whitney uses materials scavenged in Colorado’s high country. “We go out foraging about three to four times a week in the early mornings, bring back a bunch of bulk materials, dry them and mix them into different preparations,” she explains. DRAM’s employees, ranging from part-time foragers to product packers to weekend bartenders, mostly live outside of Silver Plume, though some will stay with Whitney and Becker after late-night shifts. Some were contacts from bars in Denver, others were friends-of-friends, and others still were DRAM frequenters before asking to come onboard. Whitney and her team members are quick to divulge ghost encounters, believed to be true.
MARKETING PRODUCT AND PLACE
DRAM bitters cater to two different markets. Whitney has roughly 200 wholesale accounts, sticking mostly to specialty kitchen and home-good stores, and also selling products to bartenders and store merchants, including Denver hangouts Forest Room 5, The Nickel and others.
“We’ve taken their bitters to media events around the country and given them to mixologists to make a drink that shows the best of Colorado,” says Anne Klein, heritage and agritourism PR contractor for the Colorado Tourism Office. According to Clay Brown, who also works for the state of Colorado as a regional manager in the Department of Local Affairs, the Office of Economic Development does not have a formal economic development program in Silver Plume, but tries to help make communities more sustainable. OEDIT makes investments in disaster recovery and provides grant programs designed to promote sustainability.
Gaining traction with Front Range day-trippers, the après ski crowd, and craft connoisseurs from near and far, DRAM — the products and the place — have thrived.
Whitney says she doesn’t spend a dime on traditional marketing or advertising, relying instead on social media, in particular delicate imagery of her products, the processes behind them, and the town of Silver Plume on Instagram. As of the end of 2015, DRAM Apothecary had 15,800 followers on the photo sharing social app.
However, “The broadband is horrible here,” says Josh Ramirez, the assistant manager for The Green Solution in Silver Plume. He attributes the poor connectivity to the town’s location in the valley. “It’s not always reliable,” Whitney adds. “It’s hard to make phone calls on Saturdays and Sundays.”
One of the few other businesses in town is the Windsor Hotel at 515 Woodward St., which opened less than two years ago. The quaint, five-bedroom lodging operation is co-owned by husband-wife team Monica and Jere Truer.
“I was in Silver Plume for 30 years before the economy took a nosedive,” Monica says. “I had three kids to take care of and there were no jobs in the ’80s.” Decades thereafter, she returned to Colorado to visit her mother and caught a glimpse of the “old miner’s hotel,” built in the late 19th century. She and Jere decided to buy the place, originally anticipating it would be a good home for their children and grandchild to visit. As the couple fixed it up, they began to envision it as a bed and breakfast.
Similar to DRAM, since opening their doors to the public, Monica attributes some of the interest the Windsor has experienced to the Internet, with travel sites such as Expedia and bedandbreakfast.com, pointing travelers toward their place. She says many of her guests come to get off the grid, some hikers and skiers, some leaving their cell phones behind.
“It’s very isolated, but in a good way,” Monica says. “It’s not the hustle and bustle of the city, but it’s a quiet, tight-knit community. Silver Plume doesn’t want to turn into a big commercial center, like Georgetown or Idaho Springs, but there’s a need for some unique businesses, such as DRAM and the Silver Plume Tea Room, that turn us into a destination.”
The Tea Room, which opened in 1996, is primarily open for business late spring through autumn.
Monica adds that, to her memory, Silver Plume has changed only slightly since the 1980s and that many community members prefer it that way. She says that when maintenance or contract work is needed on her property, she attempts to hire locals, or “Plumies,” as she says residents are fondly called.
Whitney, however, says that’s easier said than done.
Monica adds the greatest challenge for her and other businesses is visibility. “By the time you see the exit and realize there’s a town here, you’ve already passed,” she says.
Right off the highway, a marijuana dispensary also planted itself in Silver Plume, the farthest west of The Green Solution’s 12 locations. Immediately next-door is the Grumpy Dutchman, a small auto repair shop.
“You don’t get people that stop here randomly,” Josh Ramirez says. The Green Solution’s Silver Plume location employs seven people, whom Ramirez says all live in town or nearby. “It’s difficult to find a place to live,” he says, which he considers the greatest challenge of business and life in Silver Plume.
According to Clay Brown, his team has recently taken inventory of the buildings in Victor County, a larger but still rural community in the state, to understand where funds would be best allocated to promote residential and commercial interests. He says he could see a similar snapshot proving beneficial in Silver Plume, but that “historic preservation is a big deal for the community.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people try to move here, and there’s no commercial space and only a couple houses on the market,” Whitney says. “We don’t really have the infrastructure.”
“The space I found is in a National Historic Landmark District, so none of the structures can be torn down,” says Casey Day, DRAM’s next-door neighbor and the founder of Powder Factory Skis, a small manufacturer. He renovated two miner’s cabins from the 1890s with no flooring and no windows, sitting on a vacant lot and combined them into a one-man residence and workshop roughly four years ago. Out of his Silver Plume production studio, he makes between 50 and 100 pairs of skis annually.
Day adds to the labor gripes, noting he’s had to become savvy enough to serve as his own plumber and electrician.
He says the harsh climate is also challenging for both individuals and businesses. “The town could be so beautiful and really thrive, but most small businesses aren’t drawn here.” However, the benefits obviously outweigh the burdens for Day.
Some seasonal employees reside in Silver Plume, with Loveland Ski Area and the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining & Railroad Park nearby. Whitney says there are a few other young couples in town, some contractors and individual proprietors, but many locals are retired.
Ramirez, who was born and raised in Clear Creek County, says a lot of the town is comprised of individuals who work or formerly worked for the Henderson Mine in Empire. “The pending closure of the mine is very controversial and a giant loss,” Brown adds, noting the number of layoffs and overall impact has yet to be determined. He also says that a number of Silver Plume residents were formerly federal employees with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Geological Survey – highly educated individuals who share an appreciation for the natural world.
With the accumulation of devotees, the DRAM duo took to Kickstarter in September 2015 in an effort to crowdfund a small overnight lodge for destination drinkers in the historic town. Asking for $25,000 to back the necessary remodel of the Knights of Pythias Hall, thought to be built in 1885, the project received overwhelming enthusiasm, surpassing its goal in a month with 466 backers pledging $41,678. Aside from the accommodations and dual purpose as Whitney and Becker’s workshop, the space has room for hands-on classes, a potential coffee roaster and private events. DRAM is also starting to make bottled drinks alongside Denver-based Rocky Mountain Soda Co.
With its popularity, DRAM may seem poised to change Silver Plume’s sleepy disposition. Whitney says she and Becker support the repopulation of rural and mountain areas. But upon exploring the quiet community, the apothecary remains one of the only shows in town, as there appear to be few commercial interests or much movement in general. The town has no gas station, no market, little sunshine in the winter months, and poor cell phone and Internet service when traffic backs up on I-70.
“I think growth is going to come in the future,” Monica Truer says. “I think DRAM has brought a lot of younger people.” And Day agrees. As he looks to grow his business in the future, he hopes to have the opportunity to bring local “Plumies” on board and someday even open a public showroom for his skis in Silver Plume, noting DRAM’s storefront is “a huge draw to the town.”
“When you start using your blinker,” Klein says, “Colorado becomes a whole other adventure.”
According to the 2010 census, the population of Silver Plume came in at a whopping 170 full-time residents. Just 47 miles west of Denver, the “living ghost town” is filled with nooks and crannies worth exploring. When gold was discovered at the confluence of Clear Creek and the Platte River near what is today Denver back in the mid-19th century, miners came flocking, following Horace Greeley’s immortal, if not misguided exhortation to “Go West, young man, go West.” For a time, Silver Plume was deemed urban, attracting fortune-hunters from Europe and throughout the U.S. By the 1860s, the rock that carried such high hopes was instead discovered to be silver ore, but still miners eagerly came. When silver mining curtailed at the tail-end of the 1800s, it was briefly replaced by lead mining in support of World War I efforts.