Discovering Steamboat: Tread of Pioneers Museum a magnificent local resource

Lisa Schlichtman
Lisa Schlichtman

“I’m interested in the way in which the past affects the present, and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.” — Toni Morrison, author

In my quest to learn as much as I can about the place I now call home, I took a step back in time and toured the Tread of Pioneers Museum in downtown Steamboat Springs. My guide was Candice Bannister, the museum’s executive director, and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to provide me with an introduction to Steamboat’s rich history and to give me an overview of the expansive resources available at the local museum.

Since arriving in Steamboat, several people suggested I visit the museum, so an email from Candice alerting me to an upcoming event at the museum prompted a face-to-face meeting and a visit to the museum Thursday. The hour spent with Candice just whetted my appetite, and I returned to the museum on my own the next day for more exploration.

What I discovered during my walk through the exhibits was intriguing. The museum’s offerings were expansive, informative, visually pleasing and interactive. I learned about the Utes, the area’s earliest inhabitants, and then ventured on to discover information about Steamboat’s mining and ranching roots and how the town was established by the Crawford family in the mid-1870s. There also were comprehensive displays on the 100th anniversary of the Winter Carnival and the 50th anniversary of Steamboat Ski Area.

The history of how the Tread of Pioneers Museum came into existence is interesting in its own right.

The building that now houses the museum at Eighth and Oak streets is the melding of two historic homes into one facility. The original museum opened in 1959 in the Zimmerman house on the corner of Fifth and Oak streets behind the Routt County Courthouse. In 1988, the county needed the land where the Zimmerman home was situated for expansion, so the museum moved the Zimmerman house down the street to its current location at Eighth and Oak. At that time, the museum’s gallery addition was added to provide more space for a growing collection.

The expansion continued in 1997 with the donation of the Utterback House to the museum. Funds were raised to move that historic home from Fourth and Oak streets to the Eighth Street location, creating space for a community room, offices, a modern kitchen and space for the Lufkin Library research center.

Last year, the facility underwent another transformation to add 500 square feet of new exhibit space and a three-story, 3,600-square-foot facility with temperature and humidity control, fire suppression and moveable shelving to provide archival-quality housing for the preservation of the Tread of Pioneers’ sizable collection. This addition and renovation project were made possible through a successful capital campaign combined with ongoing tax support from a 0.3 mill levy.

The end result is a magnificent museum that rivals those found in much larger cities. A rotating schedule of displays in addition to the permanent exhibits keeps the collection fresh and should entice residents to schedule return visits to the museum throughout the year.

“We have a great story to tell,” Candice said. “And we tell the story very well here.”

The museum’s importance to the community goes beyond its historical collection. The museum is a rich community resource offering locals and out-of-town visitors a place where they can explore, interact with and learn about Steamboat Springs’ diverse and colorful past. Throughout the year, the museum hosts educational programs, including brown bag lunch presentations, on-site and off-site workshops and walking tours of historic Steamboat, which are free and open the public.

The museum’s Lufkin Library is a place where genealogists, historians and journalists can delve more deeply into the history of Steamboat Springs and Routt County. The research center houses an extensive array of resources that range from three decades’ worth of recorded oral histories to more than 6,000 photographs that have been digitized. This “treasure trove of information,” as Candice describes it, also is available online through the museum’s website.

“Our museum encapsulates the unique draw of Steamboat,” Candice adds. “Once you know the history, all of a sudden you’re really connected.”

Candice’s words rang true with me. I knew Steamboat was a special place from my very first visit, but learning more about the town’s history deepened those feelings and gave me insight into the historic influences and traditions that make this community unique.

I hope this week’s column will inspire you to visit the Tread of Pioneers Museum whether it’s your first time or 15th visit. Currently, the museum is featuring “Creativity in Motion,” an exhibit celebrating 100 years of Perry-Mansfield, and “Ski Town USA,” an exhibit highlighting the history of skiing in Steamboat Springs. And opening Oct. 10 is “Foundations of Steamboat,” a new exhibit honoring the Summer family, who ranched in the Yampa Valley for a century.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum, 800 Oak St., is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information, visit

I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at or 970-871-4221.

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