Days of WZ: Old license plates tell history of Routt County
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — During a recent visit to her parents’ house in the Old Town neighborhood of Steamboat Springs, Robin Shively uncovered a unique piece of family history.
She was sitting in the living room when her father, Ron, asked if he had ever shown her an old license plate that belonged to her great-grandparents. Shively, who now has a house of her own, knew nothing about it.
The plate her father brought out looked similar to the one on Shively’s car but with some key differences. Instead of white mountains set against a green background, this plate had a low range of green mountains along the bottom border. The rest of the plate was white except for the state lettering, the year it was registered —1965 — and the identification: WZ-1.
When Shively posted a photo of the license plate on the Facebook group Routt County Memories more than 100 people left comments. Many of them were longtime residents reminiscing about the olden days, when Steamboat was a humble ranching community and there was no global pandemic.
They referred to those two letters, WZ, expressing nostalgia for the old plates or boasting about their vehicles that still have a WZ identifier.
“Hated it when (they) changed to the longer one,” commented one woman, Vicky Dodson.
Why so much fuss over two letters? History offers some answers.
In 1959, Colorado changed its license plate identification system, according to archives from the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Instead of a purely numerical system, the state gave each county its own alphabetical designation, followed by one or more numbers, starting at 1 and going up sequentially.
Routt County’s designation was WZ. While many residents initially did not like the idea of a new system, according to archives, the community came to embrace it as a form of identity.
Local author Harriett Freiberger mentions the old license plates in the last chapter of her historical book, “Then and Now: The History of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.” In it, she refers to the plates as “an emblem of great pride for those who had lived here for a number of years and a way to recognize neighbors when traveling.”
Ron Shively, Robin’s father, remembers the day his grandparents got the license plate that he still keeps as a memento. It was 1965, the summer after he graduated high school. He was in the living room when his grandfather Ralph Bowman announced he was going down to buy plates for the family’s Pontiac.
Ron’s grandmother told her husband, “Go down and get a low number.”
Owing in part, perhaps, to his authority as a county judge at the time, Bowman returned with the WZ-1 plate, marking it as the first one issued that year.
For Ron, reminiscing on that moment spurs other memories of Steamboat, back when roads were still dirt and residents knew just about everyone in town by name.
He remembers living across the street from local ski hero Buddy Werner. Ron, then a first-grader, struck up an unlikely friendship with Buddy, a high schooler.
“He would wait and walk to school with me,” Ron said.
As the Steamboat Resort grew and changed, so did Steamboat.
The resort was so influential on the town that Katie Adams, curator at Tread of Pioneers Museum, refers to two periods in Steamboat’s history: pre-ski area and post-ski area. Before 1963, when the resort opened to the public, farming, ranching and mining were the primary industries, Adams said.
The ski area ushered in a new era of tourism, of branding Steamboat as a destination community. New shops and restaurants opened to serve the snow-seeking visitors. As more and more people moved here, building houses on old farmland, the once-humble town became a burgeoning city.
“That was a huge transitional period,” Adams said. “It was a big shift in culture and how people made a living.”
In the wake of those changes, the WZ plates became a way for residents to hold on to a part of their heritage as well as to distinguish locals from visitors.
“I think people enjoyed being able to identify themselves as one of those early folks, the ability to remember what this town was like pre-boom,” Adams said.
Among those people is Dick Palmer, a lifelong rancher known for his collection of vintage vehicles. He used to showcases them during the town of Yampa’s Fourth of July parade.
Palmer claims that one of them, a 1928 Ford Roadster, is the oldest continuously licensed vehicle in Routt County. It bears the license plate, WZ-5939.
He remembers buying the car from a Swede in 1956. It stands out, he said, because it was made in the period between Ford’s famous Model T and the standard Model A.
“Collectors go nuts over this thing,” Palmer said.
The WZ plates gave him a sense of camaraderie among his fellow Routt County residents. He remembers traveling to Mexico for military training and spotting WZ plates on a passing car.
“I knew exactly where they were from,” Palmer said.
That changed in 2000, when state legislators passed a bill that changed the design and format of license plates. Law enforcement initiated the change at the urging of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to help officers more easily read and memorize license plates, according to a Steamboat Pilot article from April 2000.
The new plates, which largely are the same that exist today, were green-on-white and featured a random combination of three letters and three numbers.
For many residents, the change felt like an attack on Routt County culture. As the same Steamboat Pilot article described, “it is as though an old, privately understood language amongst local drivers is being dismantled.”
In some ways, Ron Shively associates the gradual removal of the WZ plates with the fading of the western heritage on which Steamboat was founded. He accepts these changes as inevitable, though WZ still holds a special place in his memory.
“I kind of hated to see them go, but I think it was just part of the times,” Ron said.
Changed, but not forgotten
Despite the license plate adjustment, specialty plates continue to be a platform for people to express themselves or show affiliation to a particular group. Among the most popular are the pink plates for breast cancer and the ones with “Respect Life” along the bottom to honor the victims and survivors of the Columbine shooting.
Other drivers pay the extra cash to get a custom license plate to choose the letters and numbers. Freiberger, the local author, has done this every year in order to keep the WZ on her car.
Asked why, she said, “I want to have an identity.”
In these ways, WZ has not been entirely forgotten. Road signs around the county urge people not to litter by telling drivers, “DON’T TRASH WZ.” Since drivers who do not know the history will not understand exactly what the sign means, the two letters still form a type of secret code among those who remember.
Cookie Lockhart, an iconic auctioneer in Steamboat Springs, admits she was disappointed to see the WZ plates go. On road trips growing up, she and her brother used to see how many vehicles they could spot that came from Routt County.
Watching her hometown morph and grow comes with its own feelings of nostalgia, particularly when she sees multi-generational ranchers selling off land or ski shops outnumbering feed and tack stores.
But for someone who has traveled all over the country and exposed herself to a kaleidoscope of different cultures, Lockhart knows that adapting to change is an important part of life.
As she said, “It’s certainly not the same place I grew up in, but it’s still home.”
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