Playing by their own rules |

Playing by their own rules

Antlers' owners made mark on town's history

— You either loved them or you hated them. Regardless, they were the most popular couple in Yampa for decades.

Mike and Emily Benedick, who died recently within a week of each other, Emily on Feb. 25 and Mike on March 5, were the talk of the town. Their kindness brought in the regulars, and their stubborn old ways either drew the attention of open minds or turned away those who didn’t like to be told what to do.

Longtime owners of the century-old Antlers Cafe and Bar in Yampa, the couple ran the establishment in a way that was all their own.

“Neither one of them would put up with anyone’s nonsense,” said friend and part-time Yampa archivist Jeanie Peterson. “They had their own rules and their own way of keeping them. They did things to tease people and give people a hard time, whether they liked it or not.”

One of the most famous of Mike’s rules was the “no walking with a drink” rule. If you had a drink, you had to be seated.

“There was this one guy who got a drink at the bar and got up to take it back to his table, where his friends were, and Mike told him to sit back down,” Peterson said. “The guy said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and Mike said, ‘You can call me crazy all you want, but you better sit down.'”

Mike began his career as a coal miner in Oak Creek. He also enjoyed gambling and played poker all over the valley. His brother-in-law, Joe Morris, ran The Antlers, which was a saloon at the time, so Mike often found himself there running the poker tables.

Mike married Emily on June 30, 1928, and the couple began working at the Antlers in 1933. Four years later, they bought the bar.

The Antlers turned into a pool hall during prohibition, then later back into a bar.

The Benedicks added food to the menu, and even later, added a liquor store in the northeast corner of the building.

Mike and Emily were both stern and set in their ways, but at the same time, they were welcoming, warm-hearted people.

At many times in the 1940s and early ’50s, The Antlers was more of a place to visit than a money-making cafe. As there were more men than women because of the mines and ranches, there was often no place to go, so the lonely cowboys would go into the cafe simply to visit.

“They would come in to Mike’s and they could sit there, and if nothing else, they could be important for a little while,” Yampa historian Paul Bonnifield said. “They could talk to Mike or Emily or somebody else about something that was generally fairly drab. But they could at least talk about something and have a sense that there was somebody who gave a damn. That’s how they built a reputation, and people liked them.”

With so many “visitors,” the couple didn’t make a lot of money selling drinks. But they stayed open anyway. They lived in the back of the building where the gambling room once was, so when they woke up in the morning, they were already essentially at work.

In times when money was short, after World War II in the ’50s and ’60s, Mike and Emily still kept going. Even when the timber and ranching industries were in a depression and few people came in, the Antlers endured.

“In today’s world, generally speaking, if a person was in business and had to go through that period of leanness that they had, when there were very few customers, they’d shut down and go somewhere else,” Bonnifield said.

As the Benedicks stayed in business, they were “in-tune with the times,” Bonnifield said. They knew the ranching community, and the ranching community knew them. But soon the times changed, and so did the Benedicks.

The 1960s brought a change from an overall conservative ranching community to a liberal tourist-driven society. Different political and social ideas came with hippies and changed the face of Yampa, which made Mike bitter, Bonnifield said.

“People were leaving town, but Mike said, ‘This is where I made my money. This is where I’m going to stay.’ And he did that,” Bonnifield said.

Mike had offers from some who wanted to buy the bar, but he wouldn’t budge.

“His life was that place,” Bonnifield said. “He put 24 hours a day into that place for 40 years. It was his life.”

With their health failing, the couple decided to close the bar in 1996; it eventually sold.

In recent years, Emily moved in with her daughter in Craig, while Mike went to the Doak Walker Care Center in Steamboat Springs.

“When they left, it was never the same,” Peterson said. “They added a lot of color to Yampa.”

The color Mike and Emily brought came from running their business the way they wanted. The Antlers wasn’t Burger King. Visitors didn’t get it “your way” — they got it Mike’s way.

“Some people would come by just to see, ‘Is this guy for real?'” Peterson said. “Mike and Emily could both be grumpy, but once you go to know them, they were hysterical. They would sometimes try to out-joke each other. They were a really sweet couple.”

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