It’s the story of legends and fairy tales: love at first sight.
Laurie Hahl, a freshman at Fort Lewis College in 1977, decided to stay in Durango over the summer instead of going back home to Littleton. With her high school experience in the restaurant business and her love of singing, Laurie applied at the Strater Hotel to join the singing wait staff. When she arrived at the hotel to meet assistant restaurant manager Rod Barker, she came down the short stairs that led to the hostess area and met his gaze. It’s a moment that both remember vividly nearly 40 years later.
Laurie got the job, and her first night was working at a Republican dinner. She collected pink elephant shaped tickets as the party¬goers came through the buffet line, while Rod carved the Baron of Beef at the opposite end. They spent the night sneaking glances at each other. “The one thing I think is kind of special is I didn’t know anything about the Strater, the Barker family or the legacy,” said Laurie.
Their first date was a few weeks later at the old Solid Muldoon, where Laurie had her first drink, a hot buttered rum. More dates would follow, and one night, they stopped on a back road to sit on the hood of the car and look at the stars. Laurie would only later learn that the road was just above the Barker family ranch.
“I genuinely cared about him and not about who he was and what he represented,” said Laurie, who continued to work at the Strater in various departments. “I wasn’t putting together the magnitude of what it all meant. At the time, the Strater had singing waiters and waitresses. I liked the singing part. I didn’t know about the legacy or all that. I don’t think I knew the whole picture yet.”
Becoming a part of the Barker family was a clash of cultures for the middle-class Laurie, who didn’t grow up around boats, horses or mountain cabins. Laurie’s family was healthy, but they didn’t eat vegetables fresh from the garden, or incorporate fish into their diet. “My horizons expanded,” said Laurie of her time with Rod’s mother, Jentra Jarvis, who would become her mother-in-law. “I learned how to can, make jelly and garden like the olden days. In my family, we just went to the grocery store.”
However, the differences in their families didn’t stop her from marrying Rod two years later, in May of 1979. Two months after that, Rod took a hotel management training position at the Westin Crown Center Hotel in Kansas City, and the newlyweds left Durango and the Strater. While Rod worked at the hotel, Laurie continued her degree in medical technology at UMKC. When she became pregnant with Jeremy, she scaled back her classes, eventually going into labor in her physics lab in 1981. In 1983, Rod’s father called with the news that he was selling the hotel. “I’d left town with the reality that I might never return,” said Rod. “When he put it that way, all of the things I’d been denying came to the forefront. I wanted a hotel, and here was one about to slide away. I said, ‘Dad, don’t do that. I’ll come back if you give me the space to run it the way I want to.’”
Coming back to Durango and the Strater meant that the Barkers started the third generation of Barker family ownership. Over 30 years later, their daughter Allison is working her way through the Strater’s departments and learning how to run the hotel, setting in motion the fourth generation of Barker family legacy. Allison went to CSU in Fort Collins after graduating high school in Durango. She lived there for 10 years, and for a time, she worked at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The Stanley Hotel is an Historic Hotels of America member, like the Strater, which sparked her love for history, culture and the legacy her family had worked so hard to develop. When she heard her father was going to sell the hotel, she couldn’t let it go. “It really hit home with me because it felt like part of my identity wouldn’t be there anymore,” explained Allison. “It was quite the wake up call to think that our family history at the Strater might disappear. The Barkers know the heart and soul of the Strater, and it would be a shame to see the hotel turn into something that it isn’t.”
The Barkers’ oldest child, Jeremy, now lives in Lafayette, CO, with his wife, Meghan. Jeremy worked at the Strater during high school as a bellman and in housekeeping where he had a brief stint that required him to wake up at 3am to vacuum the dining room before going to class. He now owns and manages a housing unit, while picking up work on the side in voiceovers.
While there have been difficulties running a family business, Laurie has enjoyed being a part of maintaining the Strater. “The hotel has always been a really fun thing for all of us,” said Laurie.
A favorite yearly event for the hotel, which Rod started in 1987, is the Open House in April, which offers a “thank you” to the town for years of support. Selected staff and family dress up in historical attire and provide tours to locals. Laurie wore her great-grandmother’s wedding gown at the first few Open Houses, while Rod wore her great-grandfather’s tuxedo. The vintage clothing was only part of what Laurie brought to the Strater. Her family had more roots in Durango than either Rod or Laurie knew.
Their families had already started to encounter each other years before the couple had even laid eyes on each other. The Moores, on Laurie’s maternal side of the family, owned a hardware store in Denver that went out of business in the 1950s. The remaining merchandise was purchased by Jackson Hardware in Durango. When the Barkers and the Hahls all met for the first time at the Barkers’ cabin on Electra Lake, they discovered the connection through an antique ice box the Barkers had purchased, labeled “JM Moore & Sons” Denver, CO. In addition, Laurie’s great-uncle, Lucius L. Moore, often traveled through Durango with his work for the southwest division of Mountain Bell Telephone. Lucius took numerous photographs of activities and sights around Durango and Grand Junction. Many of his photos were published in the Denver Post and Laurie and Rod have a collection on display at their Wagon Road Ranch Event Center. One of the pictures shows him skiing near a cabin owned by the Jarvis family. Other photographs feature rodeo riders, with the La Plata County Fairgrounds in the background. “It was meant to be that the families would come together,” said Laurie. “It’s like our paths were crossing and we didn’t even know it.”
The family traditions continued when Laurie’s parents, June and Leonard Hahl, followed by her brother, Tom, moved to Durango. Tom has worked for seven years restoring and maintaining walnut furniture at the Strater, and June and Leonard worked in the hotel’s food operation. Leonard set up the continental breakfast and June hosted Victorian tea. Currently, Tom’s daughter, Jessica, works at the front desk of the Strater.
The years of hard work, giving back to the community and continuing a family legacy have paid off. In October of 2014, Allison and Rod went to The Hotel Hershey, which was established in 1933, to receive the 2014 Legendary Family Historic Hoteliers of the Year award. “The Strater, Barker family and all the details that have transpired over many generations, only have added to the characters that helped shape our story. The Strater is the anchor that has held our family in a position to be proud of in the town we love,” said Laurie. “Knowing that we get to share that with the guests that come through our doors over the years only makes us more committed to making sure that good hospitality continues.”
Originally published in the February 2015 edition of Durango Neighbors magazine.