Old Town Steward
While strolling along Park City’s bustling lower Main Street intersection, it’s hard to miss the curious mash-up of faded colors, shapes, and letters making up the painted sign on the National Garage. The latest incarnation of this distinctive landmark and accompanying two-story house is, of course, the High West Distillery & Saloon. But long before Park City’s evolution from blue-collar mining town to world-class vacation destination, this iconic building was associated with some of our community’s most prominent past citizens, who, much like the building’s current owners, were faithful practitioners of Western hospitality.
Ellsworth J. Beggs, a master carpenter from Pennsylvania, arrived in Park City in the late 1880s. Soon after, he met and married Eva Jane Lockhart, a social butterfly from a prominent local family. In 1903, he and a stonemason partner bid $19,887 to build the Summit County Courthouse in the newly established county seat of Coalville. Beggs used his proceeds from the courthouse project to buy a small house and livery stable at 703 Park Avenue. He soon expanded the livery, which serviced workhorses used in the nearby mines, and added a tall false front to the building, perfect for a large painted sign that read “Beggs & Buckley Livery.” Beggs advertised his horses, wagons, and saddles for rent and hire in the Park Record. Byron Hartwell, a blacksmith and wagonmaker, set up shop in the back of the livery.
By 1911, Beggs sold his livery stock and vehicles to the neighboring Kimball brothers and leased the livery building to the Studebaker Brothers Company from Indiana. The sign was repainted: “Studebaker Bros. Co., Wagons, Buggies And Harness.” The name of the livery’s accompanying blacksmith, “B.E. Harwell - Agent,” was later added underneath.
Soon the automobile began arriving in Park City, and Studebaker distributed its new “motor wagons” through its wagon dealers. The use of the auto in Park City was hampered by the mountains’ harsh weather conditions and the slow development of local roads. But by 1913, the Record declared, “Park City automobile owners are increasing in number nearly every day.”
Beggs turned his attention to replacing his small house with a grand home that reflected his status. In 1914, he built one of the few two-story pyramid houses in Park City, and it soon became the social hub of town. The Beggs were mentioned often in the Record for the parties, women’s teas, club meetings, and out-of-town guests they hosted in their then-palatial home.
When Studebaker moved into larger quarters, Beggs leased his Park Avenue commercial property to C.W. Fitch, who opened the National Garage in 1917 to repair and service the town’s growing number of automobiles. The sign was re-painted “National Garage, Workmanship Guaranteed.” The Record noted that the National Garage was “the first garage as you enter Park City, and Mr. Fitch expects to be kept busy during the season,” referring to the summer driving season. (Park City’s dirt streets were not plowed then and therefore car-unfriendly in the winter.)
The National Garage thrived. It ran ads in the Record every week for new and used cars, motorcycles, repair work, inspections, gas, batteries, and oil. It often invited readers to come by for free test rides. During the 1920s, George Stonebreaker became the proprietor and reported he was “bringing in new Chevrolets by the carload.” He started selling tires, and the image of a tire and “Goodyear” were added to the sign.
In 1928, the National Garage became Baker Service Garage and the sign changed again. Manager John Baker told the Record he intended to remodel and install “the latest in gas pumps.” The sign changed for the last time in 1935 when the garage was leased to Sinclair Park Motor. Roy Fletcher, a house painter, paperhanger, and sign painter who lived across the street from the garage, painted the Sinclair sign and many of the signs before it. His name still appears in the sign’s bottom right corner.
In 1939, Beggs, now a widower, left for a vacation in Pennsylvania. He never returned. When he died in 1946, the vacant house and garage were sold to Byron Wilde, a local banker and civic leader. Wilde’s purchase included the property and everything in it, untouched from the day Beggs had left. A waffle iron still sat on the kitchen counter, and the cabinets were filled with beautiful china and linens from the Beggs’ days of lavish entertaining. There was a rumor that a large amount of money was also left behind in the house or garage, but Wilde never found it. “There was wonderful old stuff in the garage,” recalls Wilde’s daughter Pauline Wilde Richards, who now lives in Salt Lake City. “There were two offices in the front, a potbelly stove, a rolltop desk, and a blacksmith shop in the back.” She says the gas pump still stood out front, but in the 1950s the city removed it to install a sidewalk. The sign was weathering, exposing fragments of the many layers of signs underneath.
After her husband died, Gladys Wilde rented the garage to Utah Coal & Lumber, which used the space to store trucks in the winter, and to Eley Motor as a place to hold new cars awaiting unveiling at the showroom. She moved to Salt Lake City in 1965 and rented the house and garage to Burnis Watts, the new superintendent of schools, who bought the property from her a few years later. He painted the house and built a connection from the house to the garage but never disturbed the fading sign. Watts, who was chairman of the Park City Planning Commission, talked to the city about a zoning change when he finally decided to sell in 1997. The city, fearful of what would happen to the historic buildings, decided to purchase the property to control its future. In 2005, they accepted a proposal for the first legal distillery to be built in Utah since Prohibition. Developer David Perkins, a biochemist from Palo Alto, says of the site, “it fit whiskey like a glove.” In 2008 he began restoring the buildings but left the sign untouched. During the restoration, a contractor found a horseshoe, likely one from the blacksmith Hartwell. Inspired by the historic nature of the find, Perkins incorporated a horseshoe into the High West logo.
The High West Distillery & Saloon opened in 2009. The Beggs’ home and the garage, with its fascinating sign, are now visited by people from all over the world, who, if just for a moment, get to experience a slice of the authentic friendliness and conviviality that began there more than 100 years ago.