On August 1, Settlers Creek’s century-old barn went up in flames. The fire was and has been devastating to the Coeur d’Alene venue, but in three days’ time, they had the site cleared and ready for their next event. Nine days later, they hosted their next wedding event. But it takes more than a fire to set back Settlers Creek because of the strength of a dream that began 40 years ago.
The wilderness next door
In 1976, Chris Varela’s father took a chance and bought a 15-acre parcel lot on the west side of Coeur d’Alene known as Blackwell Hill and moved from Southern California. For 18 months, he and his family, which consisted of six children, with three living at home at the time, worked on building a three-story, 4,500 square-foot A-frame cedar chalet home. Six months later, Varela, then 15 years old, took a walk in the woods that would change his family’s life.
“It was July, and I took a rifle into the woods because I thought that’s what hunting was, even though it wasn’t hunting season. I took a rest at a tree and saw a clearing. … It was a grand, meandering landscape with a huge pasture, deciduous and coniferous trees and a pond. It was an amazing piece of property. In the middle of the pasture was a farmer with a broken-down bailer,” recalled Varela.
Varela introduced himself to the farmer and quickly learned that he was ready to retire. Varela ran back home with news of the beautiful property he never knew was just “down the road a mile.”
“I ran back home to tell my parents. We had just finished our new home. My dad had just put every single dime into it [but] I never shut up about [the property],” Varela said. By year’s end, the A-frame cedar chalet was up for sale.
Gains and losses
The Varela family went back to work, this time renovating the buildings of what is Settlers Creek today.
“The house had all the smells an active farm comes with,” Varela said. By then, only his older brother and Varela were living at home and working on the property. Even then, Varela envisioned converting the barn into a restaurant.
The payments proved to be too much, and to keep the bulk of the property, his father split off and sold the 10 acres that included Settlers Creek’s buildings.
“[For him] it was like cutting off his arm to save the other,” Varela said. After, his parents placed a manufactured home near the pond in the back of the remaining 150 of the original 160-acre original homestead and lived there for the next three decades, until 2006.
As much as he loved Coeur d’Alene, work was scarce, so Varela returned to Southern California. There, he worked for a global contractor in Downtown Los Angeles.
“It was a temporary move, but it turned into 18 years,” he said.
He was as far away from his dream as he could be. Those years were stressful ones, but he and his former wife started a family and had three children.
“I was in over my head. There was no time for anything, but I prevailed. I was a general superintendent by the time I was 25, running a $52 million high rise,” he said.
Eventually, he left the company and started his own firm. Then, in 2001, the 10 acres his dad had broken off some 20 years earlier were up for sale.
“We sold ... anything we could to make the down payment. … My dad was ecstatic that we had put the farm back together.”
Working to come home: from SNA to GEG
It would be another two years before he, his new partner and his children, including his ex-wife, moved back to the area, but after his ex-wife received an offer to be gifted her grandmother’s 110-acre horse ranch in Carrywood, the move was on. The catch? For two-and-a-half years, he and his girlfriend flew from Orange County to Spokane tending to the businesses they had built while in Southern California. On the weekends, Varela’s father helped him fix the property.
Varela shortened his long-distance commute by working in Seattle, driving home to Coeur d’Alene on weekends. “Finally, in 2006, I’d had enough. I needed to reset, get grounded, so I quit everything and came home. I bought 300 chickens and started a chicken farm.”
Building the dream
Varela’s first business back in Idaho was Settlers Creek Eggs, which he sold open-range eggs to local markets and restaurants. It was hugely successful and he felt strangely at home doing it, despite “all my experience was in heavy construction,” he said. From the chicken farm, his wife then opened an antique store in the barn for vendors that led to an epiphany.
“I realized that people brought their families to take in the sights,” he said. “That was when I decided to make it a venue to include agritourism. I refinanced, borrowed money and began improvements that I had been dreaming up for the prior five years or better,” Varela said.
Improvements included a dining amphitheater to fit his vision of people coming to dine on terraced lawns, contrasting fine dining with traditional farm architecture and diverse styles of cooking. He, his young family (Gabriel, Jacob and Rachel Varela) and only one hired hand restored all the buildings, staying true to the historical architecture.
They converted the two silos into a men’s and women’s bathroom, built a 2,500-square-foot deck for the barn, a 14,000-square-foot amphitheater and a 1,000-square-foot gazebo on top of the hillside.
“Settlers Creek wouldn’t be here without my three kids,” he said. “They gave their everything to make this place happen.”
In 2008, they were fully operational and open to the public. They are a full-service venue where the Varelas and staff take care of event planning and hosting, including transportation. In addition to weddings, they host large corporate events, most notably, the Idaho Governor’s Cup; the Tri-National Agricultural Accords, hosting representatives from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico; and has hosted several annual charity events, such as for CASA and TESH. Settlers Creek is also on the National Register for Historic Places.
Then came the fire.
A fire and overwhelming support
It’s still not clear what ignited the fire on the night of Tuesday, August 1. A low-temperature smoker may be at fault. He and staff were between two large events. The fire was devastating, to say the least. The barn was being used to temporarily stage kitchen equipment and furniture.
“It was like a Hollywood set. The structure was standing, but it was all in flames,” Varela said, who was not on site when the fire broke out. “My oldest son and our entire staff did everything possible, putting themselves at risk to mitigate the loss.”
Behind the barn stands their commercial kitchen. It was within 20 feet of the fire. The building was spared from the fire by his son, Jacob.
“My son hosed himself down and then hosed the kitchen to save it. He saved the business. We’d be done without it,” he said.
Their chef, Bill Hilbish, did the same with two nearby barns used for curing meats.
“He put a food service container over his head and hosed those buildings,” he said.
Three days after the fire, the Varelas, neighbors and several local businesses began clearing debris. Circle M Landscape Supply, NW Rock & Dirt, Coeur d’Alene Paving, H&E Equipment, and Framework Meetings and Destinations “gave their all to make the clean-up happen.” In all, they hauled 45 truckloads and four large dumpsters of debris in three days. Even the wedding party scheduled for the following weekend came to help. Nine days later, Settlers Creek hosted their wedding.
Varela also thanks Post Falls Brewing and The Culinary Stone for donating, and his daughter Rachel’s friend Patricio Keegan for setting up a GoFundMe account, which many good friends, prior clients and locals donated.
“I’m humbled by the community’s support,” Varela said.
They will rebuild the barn but for now, they’re focused on hosting events. What Varela wants you to know is that his family has worked too hard to let this dream go or provide anything less than exceptional for their clients.