COPECO: Fruit farm, rowdy dance hall and house of mysteries on 22 Road
George Decker was a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, growing up on his uncle’s ranch near Burns, Colo., upriver from Sweetwater. And come Saturday night, it was not unusual for him to make a lengthy trip to Grand Junction to attend a party at the legendary COPECO dance hall on 22 Road.
“It was 170 miles and we’d leave on Saturday afternoon and come dance until it shut down,” recalled Decker, who has long lived in Grand Junction. “We’d get back at the ranch in time for Sunday chores.”
Decker’s uncle and aunt stayed home to tend the ranch. So, young George took to the road with the ranch hands. Several were originally from Oklahoma and knew some of the top country-western performers from that region.
“They liked to party and drink,” he said. “They took me along to drive.”
For those who liked to party and drink, COPECO was the place to be for nearly 40 years in the Grand Valley, even, reportedly, during Prohibition.
But the fabled nightclub had its origins in a more typical local endeavor.
It was a fruit farm, and its name was an acronym for Colorado Pear Co. But, even as a fruit farm, there was nothing typical about COPECO.
It was established by a man named Elmer H. Craven, an early Baptist minister in Grand Junction, and later a partner with William Moyer in the Fair Store, then Grand Junction’s largest retail establishment.
Land office records show Craven acquired provisional title to his first piece of land in Mesa County, in the area now known as Riverside, in 1895.
He obtained the land that would ultimately become 300 acres of COPECO in 1906. It would operate as a fruit farm until several years after Craven’s death in 1917.
Sometime in the early 1920s, the large concrete barn and packing shed was converted into a dance hall.
“COPECO had some great names when they were just starting out,” Decker said. “People like Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and T. Texas Tyler.”
It was a rowdy place, by all accounts. One longtime area resident said it had the reputation: “Fight your way in, fight your way out.”
One woman, who with her husband worked on the ranch during the early years that Craven owned it, visited a few years after the dance hall had been established.
“It seemed like the devil had been turned loose,” Mary Melissa Elsberry told an oral history recorder with the Museum of Western Colorado in 1983. “Drinking and dancing was the only thing left. Even nearby homes had been broken into because of the rough bunch that came to the place.”
Decker didn’t remember the fights at the dance hall, but he did recall some drinking — and it wasn’t limited to the patrons.
“One time I really remember, it was T. Texas Tyler performing and he was very tipsy all night,” Decker said. “He was swaying with the mic in his hands about 45 degrees in each direction.”
The music and dancing stopped for an hour at midnight for what was called a “lunch” break, but was really an opportunity for dancers and performers alike to head out to their vehicles to consume more alcohol, Decker said.
“When the band started up again, T. Texas was nowhere to be found,” Decker recalled. “They finally found him about an hour later, asleep in his car.”
Such was the reputation of COPECO for much of its four decades as a dance hall. But even before then, when Craven owned it and operated a fruit farm there, it was known as an entertainment center.
“Employees of the Fair Store formed a club and regularly threw lavish parties on the estate, to which everyone who were anyone was invited,” according to a feature article about the Craven mansion, published in The Daily Sentinel on Oct. 29, 1962.
“The estate became the most impressive one in the area,” the same article said. “Visitors came from near and far to marvel at the wonders evident on every hand.”
One visitor from Great Britain even claimed the sumptuous stables in the concrete building that would later become the dance hall “ranked just below those of the king of England,” the article said.
By the time that article appeared, COPECO was nearing its end as a dance hall. It reportedly held its last dance on New Year’s Eve 1962, and stories were already developing of a more mysterious nature.
Another Daily Sentinel story in July of 1962 reported on the discovery of what turned out to be a papier maché skull found along with some animal bones in the ruins of the Craven mansion, which was described as a “haunted house.”
Perhaps the reason for that description were the persistent rumors that Craven had spent his last days locked away from the world in his concrete mansion and may even have committed suicide because his fruit farm proved to be an abject failure.
But several sources dispute those stories.
According to a letter from a niece, on file at the Museum of Western Colorado, there was no suicide.
“Uncle Elmer, against advice, went out to dig a ditch in the heat of a July day. He lay stricken with a ruptured appendix” and died the next day.
Mary Melissa Elsberry, whose husband managed the fruit farm for Craven, reported, “The pear orchard came along fine, and in a few years produced quite a sizable crop.”
An article about Craven in an early 20th century book, “History of Colorado,” supports the story that the ranch initially produced bountiful fruit crops.
If there was a problem, Elsberry said, it was Craven’s spending.
His house alone was reported to cost $140,000 to $165,000, a substantial sum then.
“I loved the ranch and we were doing very well,” Elsberry said.
However, “Mr. Craven was very extravagant. Once he got started to build he was like (Colorado mining tycoon Horace) Tabor, he didn’t know where to stop. He went broke.”
That’s why Elsberry and her husband left after 10 years of working for Craven, she said.
A few years later, the upper floor of what had once been a lavish barn would be turned into the famous dance hall.
And for decades, it would attract people not just from the Grand Valley, but from all over western Colorado and eastern Utah, including a young rancher from Burns.
Zeb Miracle of the Museum of Western Colorado and Priscilla Mangnall of The Daily Sentinel provided invaluable assistance on this article.