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Steamboat Magazine

We Glorify our old west past, but can we save our museum

12/01/2002 01:00AM ● By Kelly Silva

Winter 2002:

We Glorify our old west past, but can we save our museum

by Kelly Silva

    Longtime rancher Vernon Summer recollects almost every monumental event that has occurred in and around Steamboat Springs since his birth in the Yampa Valley nearly 85 years ago. Whether it’s recalling the pre- World War II era, when rural Routt County got its first electricity, or recounting his father’s tales of old West saloons and brothels, Vernon gladly tells the stories time and again.    He is one of the many local residents who still remember Steamboat’s most significant historical events. A few old-timers recall the construction of Steamboat’s first railroad in 1909; others remember the fast-spreading flames as the Cabin Hotel burned to the ground in 1939; some reminisce about their first ride on Steamboat’s old gondola in 1970.   But like any other form of history, the people who recount the past will inevitably become a part of it. Preserving their invaluable stories, countless artifacts and historical photographs is the role of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.  Unfortunately, the museum’s own future is threatened by financial instability.  After Sept. 11, 2001, the city was forced to reduce its community support budget. The museum’s portion was cut drastically, from $35,000 annually to $20,000. It was enough of a reduction that museum director Marty Woodbury is giving some thought to closing the doors to history.  Then what would happen to the museum and its collections?  “The artifacts are owned by members of the museum. We don’t knowhat would happen (to the collections) if the museum wasn’t here, but no rash decisions will be made,” Marty says.   Only a handful of small-town Colorado museums are privately funded. Marty and museum curator Candice Lombardo conducted a survey of small-town Colorado museums. They found most are funded by the city or county in which they are located, and most of those that are not governmentfunded have large, corporate entities that act financially as a “big brother.” The Tread of Pioneers Museum has no such “rich relative.”   Future community support from the city is uncertain. “We need $10,000 a month, minimum, just to keep the lights on. And that doesn’t include any programming or exhibits – the things that make us a museum,” Marty says.  “We can’t go on hoping anymore. We need to knowhat’s going to happen. We’ve been doing a huge membership campaign. We’ve also added multiple fund-raisers, like the garage sale, Pioneer Day and the pie social.”    Marty says she is confident that betweenthe community and local government, a solution can be found. “This museum is the collective memory of this whole community – what has gone by in the past. Everyone should have a vested interest in that,” Marty says.   It is Steamboat’s authentic old West past that separates it from other resort communities. “Our history goes back to the time when the Ute Indians came to their summer hunting ground and to use the mineral springs,” Vernon says. “People flocked in from all directions after the first settlers, just like the time during the ski area development.”  Legend has it that Steamboat Springs was named by French trappers who neared the Yampa River in springtime when the waters were deep enough to be questionably navigable. Mistaking the chug-chug sound of a mineral spring for a steamboat, they dubbed the area “Steamboat Springs.”   Today, residents in the Brooklyn area of Steamboat, across the bridge at Fifth Street, may not even be aware that their subdivision was once the “red light district” of the Yampa Valley. The area adjacent to what is noRomick Rodeo Arena was outside city limits in the early 1900s, when the highrolling times of brothels and saloons were brought resoundingly to a close, first by self-righteous citizens on the Steamboat side of the river, and finally by Prohibition.   Nearly a century after such dramatic times in the history of Steamboat, the city continues to boast of its heritage. Walk into many a Steamboat establishment and you will find antique wooden skis mounted on the wall, a plethora of black-and-white photographs of Steamboat’s early days, or assorted old-West memorabilia.   Inside the old Victorian-style museum on the corner of Eighth and Oak streets in downtown Steamboat, the past surrounds visitors who are curious about the town.   They find antique ceramics and other artifacts from some of the first founding families of Steamboat. Around every corner, history lovers find another exhibit on Steamboat history, from the Dorothy Wither Ski Gallery to the Western Room, which houses photos and stories of outlaws and lawmen.   People continually ask to see the archival photos – more so than any other museum collection. But without adequate preservation, Candice and Marty fear they will not survive the next hundred years.  “Someone once told me this is like an olive grove. When you plant an olive tree, you won’t see an olive for many, many years but the olive is worth it,” Marty says.  “What people need to knois there is an inherent value in preserving history and an increased need for conservation and preservation,” Candice says.   This fully accredited, professional museum has existed for 43 years, mainly through the support of private contributors. “If it wasn’t for the generosity of a fepeople, why, it wouldn’t exist. That’s why it’s made the progress it has,” says Vernon, who served on the board for 26 years.   Marty says she’s amazed that the museum has survived for so long with such tenuous funding. “We’re a stand-alone museum, and we believe that our museum is an asset to town. It’s ironic to be in this situation,” she says. “We hope that ultimately the museum will be able to secure adequate, reliable funding.”   The passing of the people who can recount stories of Steamboat history is inevitable, but the museum that houses the community’s collective past should not be so vulnerable.   For information on becoming a museum member, call 879-2214. Contributions may be mailed to PO Box 772372, Steamboat Springs, CO 80477.    For every donation of $100 or more made as a result of this magazine article, contributors will receive a copy of the coffeetable book Steamboat Springs Legends, autographed by the author.