Bill Koch's Wild West Adventure

The controversial businessman is building an Old West town near Paonia that’s a full-scale reproduction of a 19th-century settlement. But is the town simply the project of an eccentric billionaire, or is there more to the story? 

February 2013

As we reached the last leg of our ride through his ranch, Koch pushed ahead alone. We turned toward the barn, and the horses were skittish, sensing that we were heading home. The high mesas in the distance silhouetted Koch’s frame as the late-afternoon sun began to cast long shadows. He’d been quiet this afternoon; Koch had stayed up late into the night, drinking whiskey in the saloon with his brother-in-law and a few friends. After the festivities died down, Koch retreated to his quarters, where he sat in a rocking chair on the deck, flossing his teeth and looking at the stars, his town spread out beneath him.

In 1936, four years before Bill and David were born, Fred Koch wrote a letter to his boys, Frederick and Charles, and to his future children. Their father was keenly aware of money’s inherent paradox. Each brother now has a framed copy of the letter, which Koch has read often over the years.

When you are 21, you will receive what now seems like a large sum of money. It will be yours to do what you will. It may be a blessing or a curse. You can use it as a valuable tool for accomplishment or you can squander it foolishly. If you choose to let this money destroy your initiative and independence, then it will be a curse to you and my action in giving it to you will have been a mistake. I should regret very much to have you miss the glorious feeling of accomplishment and I know you are not going to let me down. Remember that often adversity is a blessing in disguise and certainly the greatest character builder. Be kind and generous to one another and to your mother.

In the twilight of his life, Koch says he wants to focus on the things he loves the most: his family, collecting, and building the Old West town. “I’ve had my fair share of the spotlight,” he says. “I don’t want much to be in it anymore. I want to live the rest of my life and enjoy that, and be a good father to my kids and hopefully leave my kids with very good values and very good ethics.” He’s also reflecting on his past, “warts and all,” as he says, contemplating the things that influenced his life’s course. “It took me a long time to realize I have some talents and capabilities and if I just put them to work, I could create my own life and my own accomplishments independent of where I’ve come from,” he says. “And the town represents that.”

In December, Governor John Hickenlooper visited Koch and the town. The governor has also met separately with Ed Marston. Ever the shrewd politician, Hickenlooper is working quietly to broker a peace deal between the two on the land exchange. Koch says the governor would like Koch to host an exhibition of his Western collection at a museum in Denver and open the town to high-paying visitors and schoolchildren. Koch’s not yet sure what he’ll do, though he’s not totally opposed to the governor’s terms.

Regardless of the land swap’s status, Koch’s immediate family will come to western Colorado to see the town this spring. But today, it’s still a work in progress: Just months ago, the Victorian houses on Main Street gleamed with freshly painted shades of pink, yellow, and blue. Koch recently bought a wardrobe from a movie set, and future guests will be able to dress up in Western garb. There are no TVs in the guest rooms and no cars in the town; instead, guests will ride horses and carriages, watch movies in the theater, and have historical discussions. There will be family dinners, parties, and corporate retreats. It’s Koch’s fantasy come to life, made possible by his staggering wealth.

Back at the barn, we pull up to the hitching post. Koch swings his leg over the top of his mount and hops off. He ties his horse up to the rail and thanks our wrangler for the ride. He loosens his cinch, gives the saddle a tug, and carries it into the barn, where he hangs it on the rack. In a dimly lit corner of the tack room, he places his leg on a trunk and, one by one, unzips his chaps. He leaves his spurs on. 


Kelley McMillan writes frequently for the New York Times and Outside magazine. This is her first piece for 5280.