Gordon Chavis — A happy hustler with stories To tell
Disquietingly diverse yarns and historical accounts agree Jack Slade was infamous for his untamed temper. One of the towns that best knew the colorful Old West character was Virginia Dale, Colo.
Born Joseph Alfred Slade in 1831 in Illinois, he served for the U.S. Army in the Mexican War. He later became a freighting teamster and wagonmaster, subsequently served as a stagecoach division superintendent, helped launch the Pony Express, and … shot and killed Andrew Ferrin, a subordinate who was hindering a freight train’s progress along its route. Temper, temper, Mr. Slade! It will be your downfall.
In March 1860, Slade was ambushed and left for dead by Jules Beni, a stationkeeper at Julesburg, Colo. (named for Beni) who Slade accused of improprieties, including alleged horse theft of Overland Stage animals Slade confiscated upon discovering them at Beni’s ranch.
Emptying a six-gun and both barrels of his shotgun into his adversary, Beni indignantly listened to what he thought was Slade’s dying declaration: “I’ll live long enough to wear your ears on my watch chain!” Beni cruelly laughed.
It’s said that he who laughs last laughs best, but it was Slade who likely had that final, best guffaw. After miraculously recovering, he eventually killed Beni. And, as grotesquely vowed, Slade reportedly then slashed off his enemy’s ears, those rotting, reeking human lobes long-adorning his watch chain and driving off all within olfactory range.
Some tales label Slade as a wild, heavy drinker who robbed stages, rustled cattle/stole horses, and viciously murdered folks. Slade is elsewhere conversely said to have enforced order and assured reliable Pony Express cross-continental mail service between Washington, D.C. and California just prior to the start of the Civil War. People who actually knew him dubbed him a generous gentleman and competent manager for the Overland Stage Line. Such conflicting accounts.
Following a drunken spree that merited a charge of disturbing the peace in Virginia City, Mont., Jack Slade, age 33, was hanged by vigilantes on March 10, 1864. Oddly, he was buried in Salt Lake Ciy, Utah.
LEGEND LIVES ON
Ah, but his legend lives on. Virginia Dale, for example, has celebrated Slade theatrically thanks to multi-talented local man Gordon Chavis, who portrays that alleged rascal Jack in an original one-man play.
In 2008, Chavis and his (now-ex) wife moved from Los Angeles to Virginia Dale to live on the family ranch, left vacant after the deaths of his father and brother.
The Virginia Dale Community Club, an organization that maintains the historic stage coach station on US 287, learned of Chavis’s theatrical background. Would he consider portraying Joseph A. Slade (who built the Virginia Dale Stage Station) for their open house event in June 2009?
Chavis eagerly did, and he’s presented his “Jack Slade” show in several venues across Larimer County, including as part of the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Virginia Dale Stage Station.
As did Slade, 55-year-old Chavis has resided in a variety of places including California; Utah, Arizona, Arkansas, North Dakota, Guadalajara, Mexico and Wyoming.
When Chavis was 27, his parents had bought their 165-acre ranch in Virginia Dale. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, his folks named the acreage “The Intermittent Stream Ranch” because, though shown as such on a property map, it has never stopped running.
At the time, he was working in Los Angeles where he’d begun a show business career at age 16, initially as a radio announcer. After three years going from one middle-market station to another, he tried his hand as an actor. Chavis carries a 1989 bachelor of fine arts degree in acting from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
While still in college, he started his own theater company, “Vox Humana,” staging three original plays. His “L80 BLU” won the Donald Davis Playwrights Award. After graduation, Chavis diligently worked at building a movies/television career.
His writing ability netted him a few screenwriting gigs, and he received critical acclaim portraying a troubled musician-cum-activist (opposite Felton Perry of “Robocop”) in the stage play “Killin’ Time.” Good, solid movie and television roles, however, proved elusive.
In 1992, Chavis became disenchanted with the politics and process of Hollywood and quit acting. Focusing on writing short stories and essays, he simultaneously resumed his childhood passion for drawing. That combination found a market for his illustrations in local “Zines,” (the hard-copy prototype of today’s Blogs.) He also began writing copy for a then-new medium of information and entertainment: The Internet.
Switching hats, Chavis heads from indoor theater out to the barn. He noted that, while living in Montezuma Creek, Utah, his family was “adopted” by a Navajo that raised sheep and herded on horseback. He began riding at age 5 thanks to their instruction and further encouraged by his parents, who raised Clydesdales on their Intermittent Stream Ranch.
In September 2011, Chavis bought Ellie, also a Clyde. Currently recovering from a ligament injury, the now 8-year-old mare has been joined at the ranch by 13-year-old Shire, Herman, who’d suffered the loss of his teammate. Herman is cross-trained under saddle, so Chavis hopes to soon enjoy some of the gelding’s purported trail riding skills. In addition, a 30-something Quarter Horse that served as Ellie’s companion ‘pre-Herman’ enjoys his retirement years on the mountainous property.
Chavis’s admitted reason for initially acquiring Ellie, and now Herman, is a heavily-lacquered wooden carriage he’s long had an eye on. After his divorce, that elegant transport went on the back burner because it’s not a one-person endeavor. But, if he can get his horses teamed up to drive — and street-legal — he hopes to one day be holding that carriage’s lines with Ellie and Herman leading the way up front.
Meanwhile, back in the goat pen …
Yes, Chavis raises milk goats, all registered Alpines. Fiona, the first milking doe at Intermittent Stream, arrived in 2010. She no longer works but instead serves as mascot for an “unofficial” cheesemaking business.
With currently 33 does, and dependent on milk production, Chavis can make 10 soft cheeses per week. He makes a mozzarella that he gives to people who “know that you must eat it melted and as close as possible to the day it’s made.”
Chavis, unlike parents, admits to a personal favorite.
“My magnum opus, as it were, is something I call ‘Black Goat Muenster.’ he said. “After I got divorced, and was the sole person in charge of the cheesemaking, I saw the recipe for Muenster and the ingredients were pretty basic: goat milk, salt and rennet. I gave it a whirl,” he said, “and it proved worth doing again.”
He added that an accidental milk overheating incident yielded a cheese similar in taste to a really good one he’d had in France. He then decided to go that route because he’d never been able to find it in the U.S.
Although unable to exactly duplicate the French type, he now produces one that is “wonderful if you like cheese that packs a punch.” His unique creation has a cult following to the point that he rarely gets to keep a round of the cheese for himself.
Chavis said, “When the goats are going gangbusters, I can produce a few dozen cheeses a month … after the kids are weaned.” The baby goats nurse from their mothers because he doesn’t use any milk replacer.
Pasteurization is legally required in the U.S. but not in Europe. Chavis considers it “counter-intuitive to boil bacteria out of the milk and then turn around and grow bacteria in it — but I wasn’t consulted.” He acknowledged that not cooling the milk for Black Goat Muenster is also a huge violation.
“However, I’m a clean guy, my goats are clean, and the herd is small so there’s no food-poisoning going on. I sample my cheese all the time … and even taste the curds.” Chavis said.
He’s met a couple people who make their own cheese to sell on the sly, but he contends it isn’t very good because they apparently don’t really know what they’re supposed to be trying for.
“I’ve travelled and had food that you can’t get in this country,” he said. “I think it (that experience) has paid off.”
Chavis proudly proclaimed that he’s never worked a “job-job” in his life. He gets some residuals and royalties from writing, illustrating and acting (anywhere from $300 to a humble 45 cents). A trust with a monthly budget to maintain the ranch helps with expenses, and he has side enterprises.
For example, as an ordained minister, he officiates at weddings. As a mobile notary, he serves court papers “from time to time.”
“I’ve been a hustler since I was a teenager, so I can get cash when I need it,” Chavis described his methods of raising capital.
His one-man Jack Slade show is a performance form his old teacher, mentor and friend, John Blankenship, used to decry as “confessional theater,” which lacks sword fights and love scenes.
Unlike confessional theater, Chavis lives a creative narrative of many tales, a life of his own choosing and making that seems to lack nothing. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.