Tom Ross: 19th century Routt County pioneers relied on neighbors to survive the winter |

Tom Ross: 19th century Routt County pioneers relied on neighbors to survive the winter

Tom Ross

— I went to the grocery store Saturday to shop for a special dinner and was pleased to see big fat bunches of skinny asparagus shoots for sale at a very reasonable price.

I guess it must be springtime somewhere in the world.

We've arrived at a time of year in the Yampa Valley that pioneers must have dreaded. The few households here in the 1880s depended heavily on supplies they ordered in advance from Denver to make it through the long winter.

I was poking through the newspaper's file cabinets last week looking for an old photograph when I came upon a firsthand account of what happened when the early pioneers misjudged how much food to set aside for the cold, dark months.

The clipped newspaper article did not bear a date, but it contained an account of winter 1884 as told years earlier by the late Mrs. J.Q. Groesbeck, daughter of pioneers Mr. and Mrs. H.H. Suttle.

Among the Suttles' closest friends were Major and Mrs. Perry Burgess, known as Uncle Perry and Aunt Annie Burgess, who lived on a ranch west of town.

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The Burgess family had a reputation for coming to the aid of their neighbors, according to Groesbeck, and that turned out to be a blessing in winter 1884.

"At that time, it was the custom of the country for everyone to provide food for months ahead," Groesbeck told members of the Routt-Moffat Historical Society. "All of our provisions were brought from Denver and Georgetown by wagon in the summertime, because during the winter there were no roads open and travel was made by snowshoe or skis.

"Our family, not being accustomed to buying provisions for all winter at one time, missed our calculations and before spring came, we were out of many things."

The Suttles had come up short on eggs, meat, butter, vegetables and more. Lucky for them, Mr. Burgess had ordered more supplies than he needed and invited the Suttles' son, Johnnie, and another young man, Billie St. John, to come help themselves.

The young men made daily trips with trail sleds to the Burgess Ranch to fetch food, and then made extra trips for hay to feed their livestock.

"I recall (that) many others who came into this country about that time were cheerfully aided by Mr. and Mrs. Burgess," Groesbeck said. "They were loyal to their friends and an asset to business and social activities."

Winter 1884 was persistent and tried the pioneers mightily.

"On May 9, the beaux and belles of our tiny city had a picnic up on Woodchuck," Groesbeck told her audience. "We spent the day gaily. The view of the country was beautiful. The water was very high, and the Yampa River was bank full. We could see huge pieces of driftwood floating."

Winter of 2012-13 soon will be here and spring will return eventually, but if you haven't laid in a supply of fresh vegetables, you'd better hitch the team of horses to your wagon and make a run to the grocery store. The asparagus can't last forever.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email