Community Ag Alliance: Honoring the agricultural roots of Ski Town USA
When I click into my skis, draw a deep breath, and take in the expansive view of the Yampa Valley, I can’t help but consider how the history of this place is so strongly defined by agriculture. While tourism is Steamboat Springs’ primary economic driver today, we must also recognize our community’s agricultural roots and the critical synergy between ranching and skiing.
Agriculture in the region began when early pioneers changed from subsistence farming to producing food for nearby settlements and the mining camps in north Routt County. Often, those who ventured here in pursuit of gold or beaver pelts fell back on agriculture when their original plans were not profitable. Steamboat Springs remained an isolated, humble town until 1909, when the railroad arrived. Then, the economy boomed. By 1913, more cattle were driven down Lincoln Avenue and shipped from Steamboat Springs than from any other place in the United States.
That same year, stonemason and ski jumper Carl Howelsen moved to Steamboat Springs. Howelsen organized the first Winter Carnival and started a ski hill on Emerald Mountain. According to Sureva Towler’s book, “The History of Skiing in Steamboat Springs,” homesteaders used skis for practical, efficient transportation, but it was Howelsen who stimulated “the contagious and enduring enthusiasm for recreational and competitive skiing” in Steamboat Springs.
Ranchers played a major role in the creation of the Storm Mountain Ski Area (Steamboat’s original name) in the 1950s and ‘60s. James Temple, who grew up on Focus Ranch near the Wyoming border, was the original visionary of the Storm Mountain Ski Area. He sold portions of his family ranch to help fund the purchase of 827 acres of privately owned land near the base of Storm Mountain. This marked a major change of land use in Steamboat Springs from agriculture to recreation and development.
John Fetcher, who moved to Routt County in the late-1940s to ranch in the Elk River Valley, was the ski area’s first vice president and a well-respected community leader. He reached legendary status in 1962 when he drove to California in his farm truck to pick up bullwheels for Storm Mountain’s first chairlift.
Many ranchers and farmers were the original seasonal employees of the ski area. They had experience operating and maintaining heavy machinery on the ranches, skills that were transferable to adeptly grooming trails on the mountain.
For a long time we have invoked our authentic agricultural heritage as a way to set our town and mountain apart from the others. After all, Steamboat Springs is Colorado’s only mountain resort destination with a long, vibrant tradition of agriculture (as opposed to precious metals mining in Aspen or Breckenridge). This authentic Western character is the Steamboat brand.
Plans are underway to preserve the Arnold Barn, one of the last remaining barns and tangible representations of our agricultural heritage in Steamboat Springs. The barn was built in 1928 and was the centerpiece of the Arnold family’s dairy operation. After Walter Arnold sold his land to Storm Mountain Ski Corp in 1961, Steamboat grew around the barn, which now rests in a manmade wetland near the Meadows parking lot.
By relocating the Arnold Barn to the intersection of Mt. Werner Road and Circle, we have the opportunity to preserve and make accessible an authentic Western landmark that helps tell our community’s story. To learn more visit savearnoldbarn.org.
Emily Katzman is executive director of Historic Routt County.
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