March 18, 2022
 | 3:25 pm

Staying power

Adversity fails to dampen Avondale's town spirit

SPECIAL TO THE PUEBLO STAR JOURNAL
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Avondale is Pueblo County’s eastern-most unincorporated town, with a population of just under 600. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Pueblo Star Journal)

AVONDALE, Colorado


For generations, life in Avondale – a village of about 600 – has been challenging. Aside from the current crop of teenagers, however, no one has plans to move anywhere else.

Avondale is situated just east of Pueblo on the banks of the Arkansas River. The area’s biggest employers – the steel mill to the west and the Army's Pueblo Chemical Depot to the north – can be seen in the distance.

Since the days of famed settler Charles Autobee in the early 1800s, this fertile mesa has attracted hardy men and women to clear ground, dig canals and coax the earth into producing an abundance of foods. For more than a century, life in Avondale has ebbed from feast to famine and back as the prosperity of the steel mill, depot and Pueblo in general also fluctuated.

Here to stay

The recent years of COVID have been particularly difficult, but nobody leaves. They just hunker down and get through.

“Nobody wants to move,” observed resident Lynn Soto. “They’re older; some are retired from the depot.”

Avondale is an unincorporated town that, for a lack of local government, relies on the Avondale Resident Team for direction. Soto is the team’s project director. The ART is in the fourth year of a five-year Colorado Trust grant that focuses on the health equity of the community.

Despite an apparent lack of amenities, Soto declared, “Avondale is Colorado’s best-kept secret. It’s a small, close-knit community – that’s the best part of living in Avondale.”

Avondale is Pueblo County’s eastern-most town, with a population of just under 600.
Avondale is Pueblo County’s eastern-most unincorporated town, with a population of just under 600. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Pueblo Star Journal)

Her list of highlights includes community traditions such as the Sacred Heart Church Festival, the annual Veterans Parade and softball tournaments.

The ART works on solutions to problems that affect physical and mental health, Soto said. For example, when COVID closed schools, many Avondale students did not have access to the internet to do their work.

“I had to take my children to my uncle’s home in Pueblo to get online to do their school work,” said Kassi Robinson, a program specialist for the resident team.

The team coordinated a solution that involved the Pueblo County Commissioners, Avondale Community Center, Boys and Girls Club and the club’s youth council. After the youth council members made a presentation to the commissioners, the community center got improved internet service. The ART now is working on improving internet service for the entire community.

The community’s young people are a high priority. That’s why the resident team has provided $250,000 to help keep the Boys and Girls Club open since 2016, Soto said.

One more hurdle

With the pandemic lightening its grip, life began to return to normal in this town where normal was already tough enough. Then a couple of thieves in the night set the town back a bit.

On Sept. 2, 2021, thieves drove a vehicle through the wall of Avondale’s only convenience store and stole the ATM. In one instant, the main source of basic groceries, gas and banking was out of commission. Three months later, the Loaf ’N Jug reopened, but the ATM and a Subway shop did not return.

Cattle graze in a field along Martin Lane in Avondale, Colorado.
Cattle graze in a field along Martin Lane March 2, 2022, in Avondale. The small unincorporated town is surrounded by ranches and farmland. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Pueblo Star Journal)

Though surrounded by some of the most productive farm lands in Colorado, Avondale is a food desert, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “...(T)hese regions of the country often feature large proportions of households with low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices.”

Roughly one-third of the Avondale population lives below poverty. Almost three of four residents (72 percent) are Hispanic; many among the other 25 percent are Italian.

When the Loaf ’N Jug was closed, the closest convenience store was almost 6 miles away – and not everyone in the town has transportation, Soto noted.

Senior Resource Development Agency Director Steve Nawrocki said his agency is providing transportation services to the community through a rural area transportation grant.

“We can bring people from Avondale to Pueblo to buy groceries, see a doctor or for other reasons,” he said. “When the Boys and Girls Club closes at night, we give the kids rides home in our van.”

Anyone interested in scheduling SRDA’s transportation must first complete an application to be entered into the computer system. To receive an application in the mail, call 719-553-3436.

“There is no eligibility requirement,” explained George Chintala, director of transportation. “We can transport any age. We just need three working days' advance notice.”

“We live a simple country life and raise our own food. … We grow a big garden and we raise pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits.”

Erica Birner

Caring for the community

For those unable to go elsewhere to get their food, the community makes sure that groceries are available to them in a number of ways. The easiest is the self-service blessing box in the heart of town in front of the former Arapahoe grocery store. The 20-cubic-foot pantry is stocked with free nonperishable food ranging from pasta, rice and macaroni and cheese to canned tomato paste and veggies.

The blessing box is one of more than 20 in Pueblo County built by GT Davis of Pueblo. Davis builds the boxes; volunteers put them up and keep them stocked. Soto said resident team volunteers check on the box several times a week.

For more substantial quantities and varieties of foods, Care and Share Food Bank brings a mobile market to town twice a month. When Care and Share’s mobile pantry rolled into town in early March, Soto and a group of volunteers sprang into action. Townspeople gathered in the Sacred Heart Church parking lot while volunteers unpacked a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, cereals and pastries for distribution.

“Last week we had 75 households,” Soto said. “When COVID first hit, we were doing 120 households.”

While a driver and volunteers got things ready, the line of recipients grew to more than 40, most with boxes or tote bags in hand. It was a friendly crowd; they waved or called out to new arrivals, shaking hands or giving abrazos – hugs – to the folks around them. In addition to a food distribution, it was an overdue social event.

On the same afternoon, across the parking lot of the church, Los Pobres center was distributing more food and clothing and doctors and nurses were seeing patients. Los Pobres has been offering a variety of services, primarily to migrant families, for 30 years. Sister Nancy Crafton, a member of the Sisters of Charity, has operated the center for the past 22 years. Los Pobres is open Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, seeing an average of 200 clients every week.

For decades, the Arapahoe Trading Post was the main grocery store in Avondale. Long vacant, plans are underway to reopen. This historic photo, taken in the 1950s, hangs in the parish office at Sacred Heart Church. The color photo was taken March 2022 by Mike Sweeney.

Another popular source for a hot meal and a little socializing just reopened: The SRDA provides hot meals at the community center from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, according to Cindy Reyna, SRDA’s nutrition office manager.

“We’re up to four diners,” she said. “Before COVID, we had 12 most days.”

For those looking to buy prepared food, there are several choices. The Loaf 'N Jug offers some hot food along with packaged food. 

Johnny's Drive-In is open for lunch and features a variety of homemade entrees, from pulled pork to tamales. One-pound hamburgers are $16 – but if you’re really hungry or need to feed a crowd, go for a double or triple one-pounder for $19 and $22, respectively.

A weathered “help wanted” sign is in the window. The woman serving hamburgers said she would stay open more hours if she could find help.

For more food options, the ART is working on another long-term solution – the reopening of the Arapahoe grocery store. Members have been meeting with Jason Wells, a butcher from Idaho Springs who bought the closed store and the adjacent tractor shop in 2020.

Wells’ claim to fame is that he says he is the “last certified master butcher in Colorado.” The state stopped certifying butchers in 1983, he said, and “I was the last one.”

The resident team, Wells and others in the community are working to finance the reopening of the store, which long ago was the site of the town trading post.


‘Simple country life’

Across the street and up the road from Johnny’s Diner is Avondale’s oldest business, Chuck's Place. It opened in 1928, according to bartender Erica Birner. She and her husband, James, have run the bar for the past 14 years.

Chuck's is like a time machine that takes you back to an era when everybody knew everybody. The regulars don’t always speak first, but they listen to every word a newcomer says. When spoken to, most patrons become downright chatty.

The town’s only bar and the adjacent liquor store survived the pandemic closures, reopening with limited hours and distancing. Erica lamented that she and James are the only employees and close on Mondays so they can have a day off. She, too, would like to find hired help.

In response to a question about where she and James get their food, she said, “We live a simple country life and raise our own food.”

Noting an air of skepticism, she said, “We grow a big garden and we raise pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits.”

Do they have a farm outside of town? No. The “farm” is just outside Chuck’s back door.

Around the corner from the smokers and barbecue grills, past the horseshoe pits, is an array of pens, sheds and shaded open areas. James offered a tour. The pens house a menagerie of animals including newborn rabbits, chicks, hens and roosters, a shaggy miniature pony, nine goats, two peacocks, one French hen and an assortment of other birds.

James, an Avondale native, was living in Colorado Springs when he was drawn back to his childhood home. He traces his pioneer blood back to his great-grandfather, Charles “Chuck” Tuttoilmondo, who started Chuck's Place with his wife, Rose. Rose was an Autobee – a descendant of Charles Autobee.

“Now I’m living my dream,” he said with his arms outstretched. “I just want to make it on my own, eat our own food.”

It’s a bare-bones operation. James proudly proclaimed that every bit of the neat, zoo-like farm was built with materials others had thrown away. 

Long before the pandemic, food scarcity and economic hard times, the Birners cleared the weeds, built pens and fences and began enriching the earth with organic mulch, just like the Avondale pioneers who preceded them.

“We’re worried about the future,” James said. “We need to go back to the old ways. That’s why these people lived forever.”

James Birner, shown here in a March 2, 2022, photo, is an Avondale native.
James Birner, shown here in a March 2, 2022, photo, is an Avondale native, who left the small town, only to return to operate Chuck’s Place, the tavern owned for three generations by his family. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Pueblo Star Journal)
James Birner tries to keep a week-old kid goat from escaping its pen while other farm animals mill about.
James Birner tries to keep a week-old kid goat from escaping its pen while other farm animals mill about March 2, 2022, in Avondale. Birner raises goats, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, peacocks, and a pony at his one-acre Avondale home. He also owns the local tavern, Chuck’s Place. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Pueblo Star Journal)

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Juan Espinosa
Juan Espinosa is a journalist with 50 years of experience, primarily in Pueblo. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder and then moved to Pueblo where he and his wife, Deborah, raised four daughters.
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