RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Faces with character on a barrom floor

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

OURAY, Colo. – I’m sitting on a barstool at the Old Western Hotel in Ouray, just above the well-preserved Juanita. She looks good for her age (about 78), because each year she gets a little work – another two or three coats of polyurethane.

Live and learn. I thought the poem “The Face on the Barroom Floor” was written by Robert Service, bard of the Yukon. A common mistake, according to a website about all things Service. This is one bar tale he didn’t imagine.

The popular poem was written by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy in 1887, who himself adapted – read that, borrowed heavily – from an earlier version by poet John Henry Titus. It might go back farther than that; sounds almost biblical.

Tex Ritter and Hank Snow both had country hits with songs based on the same idea, and once, Mad magazine had its way with the iconic story of an artist who has turned to drink after being spurned by his true love.

The suffering artist offers to paint her face on the barroom floor by way of illustration and for another drink. While painting planks, he falls over dead.

That’s truly fodder for the ultimate drinking-away-your-sorrows song.

I’m not sure how many faces there are on how many barroom floors, but I suspect a few. There are at least two here in Colorado, painted by Herndon Davis in about 1936. He was a newspaper illustrator who later worked as a Smithsonian artist. The face he painted on floors was that of his wife, Juanita.

I’m also not sure when America became a place for touring instead of living, but I think the automobile air conditioner must have something to do with it. It’s painless now to find yourself somewhere other than where you belong. We all go to bars where nobody knows our name.

There probably isn’t a miner in the joint, though some mining still goes on around Ouray and it’s possible. Miners no longer leave their mules parked outside as a telltale sign.

Those of us here look more like tourists, some waiting for Jeep rides up a mountain – “we drive; you look” – or simply trying to imagine ourselves in another era, an era with more character and fewer computers, when hotel bars had stuffed mountain lions and nude women above and brass foot railings below.

Except for the patrons on their smartphones, this is how a saloon is supposed to look. Built in 1891 to accommodate the silver boom in the San Juan Mountains, it’s said to have been the third try, the charm, of a hotelier who kept losing his properties to fire.

Today the Old Western is owned by Rosemarie Pieper-Nederend, herself a good story. She was raised in South Holland, where her father made Gouda cheese. From the age of 12, she prepared the family’s meals. In the Netherlands, she once worked for one of her queen’s designated bakeries.

Rosemarie is blond and regal. Some itinerant with no money for beer should paint her face on the floor next to Juanita’s. Let a few decades pass, throw in a few bar fights, that fresh face would inspire poetry and song and fanciful stories with fictional angst.

The curious would drive from faraway places like Mississippi to see her. A face on a barroom floor is a definite draw, something to build a business around, a spot of color in a world of plain planks and rotting timber.

Syndicated columnist RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.