Don and Barb Silva |

Don and Barb Silva

Sharing a taste for the Old West

— Don Silva wants to set the record straight — he was not the Marlboro Man.

It’s a rumor that has been floating around town for years, but it was Winston, not Marlboro, that used Don’s face to hawk cigarettes in the early 1980s.

As for the shooting range in the Silvas’ wine cellar (or is it a wine cellar in the shooting range?), Don readily confesses it’s true.

In the basement underneath the family room of Don and Barb Silva’s home, sit racks of fine wine with bullet shells scattered underneath. At the entrance is a “Charlton Heston for President” sign.

Don and Barb own the Old West Steak House, love horseback riding, are avid hunters, have traveled to Africa, South America and Australia and were close friends of Steamboat’s legendary Doak and Skeeter Walker.

“They are the epitome of a local,” Old West worker Carol Rickerby said of the Silvas. “I’ve been here for a very long time and they have contributed so much to the community. I bet every child in Steamboat worked for them sometime at the Old West.”

The Silvas’ presence is undeniable at the restaurant at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and 11th Street.

Don said his Portuguese heritage of dairy farming prepared him well for the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week nature of the restaurant business. His family has never had a Christmas dinner at home or spent New Year’s Eve away from the restaurant. He has been called in at all hours of the night for broken refrigerators or frozen pipes.

“If you can own a dairy farm, you can own a restaurant,” Don said.

Sure the work ethic is there, but it is the Silvas’ friendliness that friend Barry Chase said has kept them in business for 18 years.

“The reason it is so successful is that Don sits down and talks to every person in there,” Chase said. “He’ll damn near talk to anybody at any time. He always has a kind word and a good joke.”

On a recent Monday night, Don guided a group from Bethlehem, Pa. on a tour of the restaurant. He took them past the old wine barrels that have been turned into booths, the chandelier of cattle brands and the hundreds of western paintings and memorabilia hanging on the walls.

The group will be among thousands of people who will pass through Old West’s doors this year and Don said he would most likely remember them. He might not remember their names, but he’ll remember where they are from, what they do and that they have a love of the West.

Barb said she remembers where people sat and their son, Sam, who helps as a bartender, remembers what they drank.

“Everybody is somebody from somewhere,” Don said. “They worked hard to be able to come and be here with their family. It is a huge commitment. Our job is to make that a worthwhile adventure for them. To make them feel welcomed.”

The Old West might be a second home for the Silvas, but they are sure to stress they have a life outside of the restaurant. That includes their two children — Sam, 28, and Shelby, 26 — four horses, a pack mule and two dogs.

The Silvas were part of a social group that whirled around Doak and Skeeter Walker. Doak Walker was a Heisman Trophy winner and two-time world champion Detroit Lion who married Olympic ski racer and Steamboat native Skeeter Werner.

Barb was part of Skeeter’s legendary bowling league and the crew that on Tuesdays would ski in the winter and ride horses in the summer.

“It was an occasion when you went with Doak and Skeeter,” Barb said. “It was like every day was New Year’s Eve.”

Chase recalls the Labor Day horseback riding trips he took with the Walkers and Silvas.

For every rider a pack mule was needed to carry the food, wine and beer, Chase said.

The four to five day trips would have gourmet lunches and fine wine.

“It was like taking the Hilton into the Zirkel Wilderness,” Chase said.

Even after the Walkers passed away, the pack trips continued. Good friend Dean Vogelaar said a favorite ride of his is to take the horses from the Silvas’ home at Strawberry Park, ride up the north side to Dry Lake Campground and end up at his house on Buffalo Pass. The group starts the morning off with Bloody Marys and ends with lunch at the Vogelaars.

The Silvas are also well known for hunting and traveling all over the world.

Chase said Don has shot everything from a prairie dog 500 yards away to an African Cape buffalo.

On the walls of the Silvas’ home hang the hunting trophies of a kudu, gemsbuck, impala and the Cape buffalo. Over a banister is the skin of a zebra. As a young boy, Don had dreamed about going to Africa to hunt. He was captivated by the stories of the African hunter Harry Selby and named his daughter Shelby in honor of him.

In 1998, Don had the chance to meet his lifelong hero when the family took a trip to Botswana. That trip began the Silvas’ love affair with the continent.

Since then, Barb has been back seven times and taken women-tour groups there. She has been to West Africa, knows that Timbuktu really does exist and even has a school named after her in Zambia near Victoria Falls.

“I feel so alive when I am there,” Barb said.

The Silvas have been all over the world, scuba diving along the Great Barrier Reef and hunting doves in Argentina. But Don said it is the Old West that is the real window to the world.

“You sit there every night and every time you hear an account when you ask ‘where are you folks from,'” he said.

Don and Barb had quite a story of their own.

In March 1978, the Silvas arrived in Steamboat in a truck pulling a horse trailer. The family arrived here in six feet of snow with two small children so that Don could take a job with The Industrial Company.

Both Don and Barb have deep family ties to California. Don grew up in a small horse ranch in the San Marcus Pass. Barb grew up in San Luis Obispo.

As Don jokes, he came out to attend Colorado State University and never made enough money to leave.

After college, Don lived in Colorado’s Eastern Plains for a few years as a farmer and owner of a business that made Alaskan pickup campers. The family then decided to head into the high country that reminded Don of his childhood.

When Don appeared in the Winston Cigarette ads dressed in construction gear and hanging off the side of a cliff, he was actually working with TIC as its personnel director.

Don said it was in a bar that a friend’s fiance convinced him to send a Polaroid photo to a Denver modeling agency. When Don went down to Denver, the agency had cut 1,700 guys before coming across him.

“All the models looked like models. They didn’t look like real working guys,” Don said.

For the next few years, Don’s image appeared in Times Square, on the side of buses and in almost every 7-11 across the country.

The Silvas are not smokers, but they have always kept a smoking section at the Old West in honor of the boost the tobacco industry gave them in buying the restaurant.

When the Silvas bought the Old West Steak House, they didn’t have a day of restaurant experience between them. What they did have was a knack for entertaining and cooking.

Barb said their house had long been a staple stop for out-of-town guests of Doak and Skeeter Walker. A few years before buying the restaurant, Barb published a cookbook and Don had become known for his barbecue skills.

It was in the kitchen that Don and Barb met almost 30 years ago.

At the time, Don was working in Greeley. Don left for California on a Thursday and on the way out of the office, he told his secretary he was going to California to find a wife.

It took him until Saturday to run into Barb. Newly single, Barb had come to an all day beach barbecue at the urging of a friend.

Don had come to help barbecue antelope, deer and elk meat a friend had brought back from a hunt. He found Barb in the kitchen making guacamole.

“We cooked all day and have cooked together ever since,” Barb said.

Don asked Barb to marry him that night. They spent the next eight days together, six weeks later Barb came out to Colorado and for the last 29 years they have been married.

It took 10 years before the two took over the reins at the Old West Steak House.

One day while driving down a Wyoming highway on business for TIC, Don saw a sign for a restaurant and had a premonition that he better learn how to spell the word because he might own one some day.

That chance came in 1985.

Don stopped by the Old West, then owned by Bob Berkstresser, to buy food for the TIC picnic.

For the last year the restaurant had been on and off the market.

Berkstresser said the restaurant had not yet sold and asked Don if he wanted to buy it. Don called Barb, who gave the final approval, and the deal was in place.

Don said they were fortunate to have a knowledgeable staff in place to show them the ropes and soon the Silvas found themselves immersed in the restaurant business.

“It was a learning curve. Fortunately we had some great people working at the restaurant,” Don said.

Don and Barb have been known to give loans to the 50 or so employees that work for them. The back of the restaurant has dorm rooms for employees who need an inexpensive place to live.

Carol Rickby said they helped her out by buying her trailer so she could make the down payment on a house.

“They really display what Steamboat is about,” she said.

Rickby, who has worked there for 13 years, said the best way to describe the restaurant is a family affair.

So, chances are if you stopped by the Old West, you would find Don giving tours or talking to the guests. And if you asked, he would probably tell you the real story about his days as a Winston Cigarette model or how he moved dirt to create what is perhaps the first combination wine cellar-shooting range in the world.

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