Saturday, July 21, 2018
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A Ranch of a Different Color

Bryan Wickenhauser is onstage with several of his employees, rigging up lights and gauzy white curtains and tweaking the sound system for a wedding at his I-Bar Ranch. An enormous U.S. Air Force C17 cargo plane roars low overhead. “They like to do take-offs and touchdowns at the Gunnison airport, where they can practice their high-altitude maneuvers because it’s all different at altitude,” he explains and nods toward the plane as it makes a tight turn. “They’ll be back around.”

Tables are organized into rows and a rubberized dance floor is being unfolded in the tall-roofed, open-sided structure that looks like it’s always belonged there in the middle of the verdant Tomichi Creek valley, sitting among long-time ranching meadows and fields.

The 14 acres of I-Bar Ranch were annexed into Gunnison as “Gunnison Rising” by its owner, Dick Bratton, who had the original vision of dinner and music in a gorgeous country setting. “

Dick built this complex in 1992, purposely to be a chuck wagon dinner venue for the I-Bar Wranglers, Bryan says, recalling the house band that twanged up post-dinner dancing music. “It was the standard fare—you got a chuck wagon dinner and you got a show from the Wranglers.” The venue ceased business in 2004 and sat dormant until 2013, when Bryan had his own vision for the place.

Bryan’s story with the I-Bar Ranch starts in 2004 when he got married to Jennifer Michel and the two had their reception at the ranch. He had met Jennifer through the Tune Up bike shop in Gunnison.

“My roommate in Crested Butte South was working there and invited Jennifer’s girlfriend up for a Friday night fish fry,” Bryan says. The fish fry is a popular tradition in his home state of Wisconsin. Jennifer came along with her girlfriend and the rest, as it’s said, is history. They married three years later in 2004 at the I-Bar Ranch.

When Bryan took over the I-Bar in 2013, he changed its concept. “I wanted to predominately book concerts and weddings. We cater the food because I didn’t want to get in to the food aspect, just beverages. The place doesn’t have the kitchen capabilities. I felt that through music and weddings, I could have a viable business out here. I saw a need for both in the lower end of the Gunnison Valley.”

Bryan originally moved to Crested Butte in 1997 as a ski coach for the Crested Butte Academy at the suggestion of his buddies, Kevin Krill and Kevin’s brother Brian. “I was living in Summit County. Vail had just purchased Breckenridge and Keystone. Brian was the athletic director at the Crested Butte Academy so he suggested I apply for the job. I had a place to live and a job and I also brought with me a location-neutral business, Midwest Leasing,” he says. A location-neutral job, he explains, is like a traditional corporate job you would have in the city, except you could work remotely from anywhere since internet and fax were just then being developed. Bryan brokered commercial leases and loans from Crested Butte.

Bryan says, “The light bulb moment for me was going to Lake City in July 2012 to see Asleep at the Wheel. Lake City is way small and they were bringing in performers like Michael Martin Murphy, Dean Dillon and Asleep at the Wheel at Hutch’s Backyard BBQ, a small 200-seat venue that didn’t even have a roof over the crowd. I was impressed because it was packed and they were bringing vitality to this itty bitty town in the summer, giving the people some cool culture.”

Bryan saw an opportunity to both expand the Gunnison culture and make a living. “I saw how the music was taking off at the north end of our valley, and I saw the wedding business flourishing up there and in other similar mountain towns. I realized that tourism was going to keep getting stronger as a staple to our economy. I saw all those factors as opportunities to enhance the cultural vitality of the lower end of the valley because there was a missing element that wasn’t being met. The tourists were all being serviced at the north end of the valley and southern end of the valley was being deprived. The identifiable music venues in Gunnison back then were the Gunnison Arts Center, the Last Chance, the Timbers and the Elks Lodge.”

Before Bryan found himself at the helm of a concert venue smack in the middle of sagebrush hills and lush pastoral hay fields, he originally hailed from outside of Milwaukee, raised with his younger sister, Amy, who at one time also lived in Crested Butte for a while. Bryan was somewhat of an über athlete throughout his childhood and life. “We were into ski racing every winter and in the summers it was lake life, frolicking in the water and skiing,” he recalls.

He was an avid skier and soccer player, which he says were his passions. “We were living three miles north of Alpine Valley, which was a major Midwestern summer concert venue and a ski resort in the winter.” He notes that it’s where the helicopter carrying Stevie Ray Vaughn fatally crashed into a 400-foot-high hill, “I was a 19-year-old lift-op that following winter in 1990 and a lot of the older employees and the community were heavily affected by the incident. I was going into my senior year in high school.” He graduated in 1991.

He enrolled at Carroll College (now Carroll University), studying business with a minor in Spanish because the trade borders were being open, NAFTA was just being formulated and there was plenty of commerce between Mexico and the U.S., “and in my mind, Spanish was the language I thought I needed.”

He graduated from college in 1995 and smiles, “I knew whatever I would do, I was going to do it in Colorado,” and he moved out to Summit County two weeks after grabbing his degree. He was a part-time ski coach and working his corporate, location-neutral business from 1995 through 1997, until he felt, “Vail went Wall Street and started acquiring ski resorts and it wasn’t the community I was desiring. [Summit] was already having those challenges with Denver coming up every weekend. You lost your community every weekend. I was looking more for a ski town with a sense of community.”

Bryan had quit ski coaching in 2002 to pursue being a semi-pro endurance athlete. “The first year I moved here was the first year of the Grand Traverse. I had limited ski touring skills at the time but ended up winning the Grand Traverse in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with my partner, Brian Smith.”

Bryan was co-director for the Grand Traverse from 2010 to 2015, and was also president of the Nordic Center board for four years beginning in 2010. From 2002 through 2009, Bryan was a member of Team Crested Butte, an elite adventure racing team that consists of multi-sports events that often span a 100- to 600-mile course, “You travel as a team of four. We were all based in the Gunnison Valley. The events usually took place in challenging conditions like deserts or mountains and included mountain biking, hiking, climbing, kayaking, and orienteering with map and compass. It was one of those niche sports but we’d do races around the world. I traveled quite a bit and had some success.”

Bryan rattles off the various countries he traveled to—Ecuador, China, Brazil, Australia, France, Italy, Spain, Andorra, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, and Abu Dhabi. “Then I got into ski mountaineering, climbing up Crested Butte Resort and racing down and up, like a major Al Johnson race,” he says, expanding that to explain it’s more like six Al Johnson races in one.

He went to three world championships in Switzerland, Italy, and Andorra. “I’m retired from competitive athletics because,” he smiles, “life… kids, family, and the I-Bar, my priorities have shifted. Besides, they turn out new 20-year-old athletes every year and I keep getting older.”

Bryan was also one of three partners who started High Alpine Brewing Company in Gunnison in 2015. “I like beer,” he grins, “and I like the aspect of what a craft brewery represents to community. One of the values is that it embraces the community, it’s a place to go socialize, bar stool conversations, and it can host and sponsor events. I was already engaging the community culturally through I-Bar, and I thought Gunnison needed a craft brewery again since the local breweries had gone out of business. The model of a craft brewery is about locally sourcing ingredients—the beer is produced locally, so it fosters community. We bought a historic building on Main Street, repurposed that building and exposed the interior brick to give it that warm feel. We created the first commercial outdoor downtown deck. It fostered the Old Miners decision to also build a deck. Now it’s given the Gunnison downtown a little more vibrancy.”

He sold his partnership in 2018 to focus more on the I-Bar, which had grown exponentially.

The I-Bar keeps Bryan pretty busy from before its opening for events on May 1 and past its closing for the season on November 1. And there’s the couple’s two children, Eliza, who celebrated her golden birthday, turning five on July 5 by dancing to The Wailers live at the Ranch, and Gianna, who turns eight August 6.

Back at the I-Bar Ranch, Bryan continues his day, juggling multiple tasks, directing guests and employees with his big smile as the humongous C17 screams overhead again in its seemingly endless passes.

He pauses for a moment to say that he’s particularly excited about one of his concerts. “This upcoming week is Cattlemen’s Days and Dale Watson and his Lone Stars are playing Thursday, but Saturday is going to be a fun one that I’m personally excited about—Paradise Kitty, an all-female Guns n Roses tribute band,” he grins.

But today, he’s completely focused on preparing the venue to ensure the perfect wedding event against the beautiful backdrop of a sunny day, with Tomichi Creek sparkling like a rhinestone ribbon weaving through the fields.

For more information and schedules to concerts at I-Bar Ranch visit Ibarranch.com. 

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