Tom Ross: Courtship, cowboy style

Museum volunteer tells story of early Steamboat ranchers

Tom Ross

— The first time Mary Officer set eyes on her future husband, Val Brunner, on Lincoln Avenue in late 1920 or early 1921, he cut quite a figure. A working cowboy from the South Valley, he wore chaps, spurs and leather cuffs. A black cowboy hat topped it all off.

Mary and her sister, Ruth, were teachers in Steamboat Springs schools and happened to be raising funds for one of their classes that afternoon by selling homemade candy. When friendly rancher Mr. Hartley came buy, they tried to sell him some of their confections, but he declined and politely said, “I’ll get someone who will.”

Hartley made a beeline for the office of local real estate tycoon, cattle magnate and state Sen. Jerry McWilliams. He returned with a tall cowboy of few words.

“Hello,” Mary said.

“Hi,” the cowboy said.

“Would you like to buy some candy?” Mary asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“How much?”

“I’ll take it all.”

Nice move, cowboy.

That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted through the hardship of the Great Depression in rural Steamboat. It’s a story that rural Steamboat resident Cheri Dean Brunner Daschle told about her grandparents to an appreciative audience Friday during the brown bag lecture series at the Tread of Pioneers Museum. Daschle has worked hard to compile a rich written legacy left behind by her pioneer ancestors.

Within a week of their first meeting, Val, the cowboy, called Mary for a date. He arrived driving a sleigh tricked out with jingle bells and pulled by a fine pair of horses, Simon and Rastus. They were owned by McWilliams — Val Brunner was his cow boss.

The couple was married at the Congregational Church on June 21, 1921, and Mary’s sister, Ruth, married Bob Noyce in the church that same evening.

The two couples took off for a Dutch date honeymoon in a canvas lean-to tent.

“The honeymoon was just in the ‘wilds,’ but we all were firm believers in not spending money that we didn’t have,” Mary wrote. “We had $40 to start on, and Val had a nice Dodge car, which not many of the young men possessed at that time. He was very proud of his new car. We all (four) spent our honeymoon on the Hills of Rock Creek and the new Dodge took us wherever we wished to go.”

Val and Mary settled in at the Bill Neish ranch, near what is now Lake Catamount in Pleasant Valley, Daschle told her audience. At that time, Val’s employer, state Sen. McWilliams, owned the land.

“The people in our neighborhood didn’t visit much, so it was quite lonely for a while,” Mary wrote. “The first winter, we were snowed in for two months. I tried to keep myself busy in that big house. When the wind blew, it could screech and howl, and I got pretty nervous. … Remember, no electricity until 1940, and this was 1921.”

The Brunners raised three children and their own 200-acre ranch but nearly lost it in the Depression when the local bank holding their $600 cattle check closed up. But they refinanced their spread through the Federal Land Bank and made do by raising chickens, turkeys and rabbits and selling the meat and eggs to miners from the now vanished town of Haybro. Val milked 10 to 12 cows twice a day, and they sold all of the cream they could skim off the milk.

Eventually, they prospered and built their ranch to 800 acres.

Mary and Val Brunner were raised by rugged pioneers who first pushed into this country with their families in horse-drawn wagons.

Val’s father, John C. Brunner worked for the Holt Cattle Co. for 14 years and was responsible for the remuda (string of horses) on a cattle drive over the Old Chisolm Trail.

Daschle has a wealth of stories to tell about her ancestors and the amazing lives they led. And lucky for you, she’s easy to track down. Daschle works as a volunteer at the Tread of Pioneers Museum at the corner of Eighth and Oak streets in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Don’t miss the final Brown Bag Lecture Series events:

■ Friday: The Windy Ridge archaeology hike has been curtailed to a speaking engagement at noon at the Tread of Pioneers Museum. A U.S. Forest Service archaeologist will talk about the primitive tool-making site on Rabbit Ears Pass.

■ Sept. 2: Historian Arianthe Stettner talks about the prolific Steamboat author of another era, John Rolfe Burroughs.

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

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