Rex Gill’s nostalgic photography shares history of Yampa Valley
If you go
What: “Rex Gill: The Man, the Mountains, the Desert”
When: The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday.
Where: Tread of Pioneers Museum, Eighth and Oak streets
Steamboat Springs — Reginald “Rex” Gill was the quintessential mountain man, a ski bum far ahead of his time.
While today we can secure our iPhones safely in our pockets for a day on Mount Werner, Gill lugged around a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera weighing more than 5 pounds.
He walked the same canyons and creeks that many mountaineers still walk today, blazing powder trails down Mount Zirkel and Mount Agnes and capturing iconic Yampa Valley and Western images on his unique path through the first half of the 20th century.
He was a poet, a writer, an engineer, a lift operator, a bachelor and a musician, and yet he hardly is a household name.
“He’s kind of an unknown local character,” Tread of Pioneers Museum curator Katie Adams said.
Adams put together an exhibit of Gill’s photography, drawings, paintings and poetry for display at the museum, ranging from about 1920 to about 1950, when he was at his height of exploration.
The exhibit will run for the foreseeable future, she said.
Adams said his work is a glimpse into a remote and soulful aspect of Yampa Valley history.
“He was very well-spoken, and he really wore his emotions on his sleeve,” she said about pairing his insightful prose with his artwork. “I think he really used to sit and be in his landscapes and write in the elements.”
Gill was born in New Zealand in 1899, and his family immigrated to Illinois when he was 3.
In 1918, his wanderlust took him to the Yampa Valley, where he worked hauling freight and making butter before he joined the Navy during World War II as a construction worker. When he returned, he helped design the Emerald Mountain chairlift that resided at Howelsen Hill Ski Area. According to the museum, at its time, it was the longest single-span lift in existence.
Gill built a small lift house at the base of the ski area and worked as a lift operator from 1948 to 1952 for less than a dollar an hour. He painted a memorable image of the lift on the back of an old Howelsen Hill sign, which is on display at the museum.
Late in his life, Gill, who had moved to Gateway on the Front Range, got together with his good friend Bob Beverly, a Steamboat resident who was 35 years his junior but shared in several of Gill’s wilderness adventures.
The pair went through Gill’s photos and picked out several works to donate to the museum, several of which are used in the exhibit, which is titled “Rex Gill: The Man, the Mountains, the Desert.”
Beverly wrote to the museum in the 1980s, “If future photographers and mountain lovers get even a small portion of the joy that Rex has received from his trips and picture taking, the project is worthwhile.”
Adams said the photographs and drawings were preserved and framed with support from the East West Frame Shop in Steamboat Springs.
Museum executive director Candice Bannister said the diversity of the exhibit is what pulls her in. Not only are there iconic images, such as Fish Creek Falls and Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, but there also are glimpses of lesser-known landmarks such as Morgan Creek Falls and areas in western Moffat County.
“He was so early here in the valley, and he was discovering these really remote places,” she said. “He inspires you to go see some of these places.”
But most inspirational is his spirit of adventure that he never lost and that he spread to his community and friends through words and photographs.
In a poem titled “Fall Storm in High Country,” Gill wrote:
“Then the crunch of new snow as you step out into it! the world a fairyplace of delight, transformed overnight by those armies of storm which came, after all, not on a mission of evil but to give us a better, more beautiful and charming world to live in.”
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com
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Witches and goblins and ghosts, oh my!