In 2012, Bryan Wickenhauser was struck with one of those rare lightbulb moments — one that would change the course of his career. While driving home from a summer concert in Lake City after seeing a band known as Asleep at the Wheel, Wickenhauser considered the possibility of opening a similar venue in the Gunnison Valley.
With the I Bar Ranch — located at the southeast corner of the City of Gunnison — conveniently designed for live music and available for lease, Wickenhauser identified the property as the perfect setting to turn his vision into reality.
“The hour drive back from Lake City that night really changed our perspective on the possibilities,” recalled Wickenhauser.
I Bar Ranch, a staple of Gunnison County, has deep roots within the community. The brand itself dates back to Powderhorn in the late 1800s when the family of Donna Bratton — wife of current owner, Dick Bratton — created it. Yet in more recent history, under the ownership of Dick Bratton, the ranch was used for weekly chuckwagon dinners featuring performances by the house band, the I Bar Wranglers.
However, as the popularity of this event began to dwindle, Bratton transitioned into a new business model in which he rented the property out for weddings and other private events. Between 2004 and 2013, the ranch went through several iterations of lessees, all of whom followed Bratton’s example.
“No one really ventured too far out of that business model,” said Wickenhauser.
Yet in spring 2013, Wickenhauser began leasing the ranch with plans to revamp the entire enterprise. This massive undertaking was accompanied by a variety of challenges, but funding the first year and a half of operations proved to be the greatest. Even with the history and roots of the I Bar Ranch behind them, Wickenhauser and his wife struggled to attract the crowds needed to turn a profit.
“Like most startups, you have to put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” said Wickenhauser. “There was an extraordinary amount of upkeep to realize our vision.”
Yet, through dedication, and the support of the community, Wickenhauser's operation began to grow. The entrepreneur initiated an annual summer concert series, recruiting big names in music such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Wailers.
Mike Rosso, a resident of Salida, has attended three concerts at the I Bar Ranch, including The Motet, Shawn Colvin and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
As both the publisher and editor of Colorado Central Magazine, Rosso heard about the I Bar’s music series while advertising it in his publication. Rosso, who is an avid concert goer, remembers his time at the I Bar fondly.
“It feels very hometown,” Rosso said. “I got the sense that it was made up of mostly Gunnison residents who knew each other.” Community is a major focus for Wickenhauser. Using the popularity of the summer concert series, Wickenhauser has collaborated with various nonprofit organizations throughout the valley to raise more than $65,000 in donations in just the past five years.
“Through events at the I Bar, we can bring awareness and funds to these nonprofits,” said Wickenhauser.
Additionally, Wickenhauser made a conscious effort to uphold the ranch’s wedding services. After being married at the I Bar himself in 2004, Wickenhauser desired to offer newlyweds the same memorable experience he and his wife shared. In fact, Wickenhauser has recently converted an old silo into a dressing room for brides and bridesmaids.
The ranch is currently undergoing a variety of updates, including that of the bridal silo. Wickenhauser recently introduced a two-story wedding gazebo which was built by students at Gunnison High School, and a second silo will soon be transformed into a bar. Furthermore, the I Bar’s sound system has been upgraded in preparation for this coming summer’s concert series.
Headliners for this summer include Striking Matches, The Bellamy Brothers, and Asleep at the Wheel — the same band which prompted Wickenhauser to reinvigorate the I Bar Ranch in the first place.