Family celebrates 50 years owning landmark Steamboat motel |

Family celebrates 50 years owning landmark Steamboat motel

Greg Koelher, owner of Rabbit Ears Motel, stands in front of the iconic sign and motel that his family purchased in April 1971. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Rabbit Ears Motel is a place where people stay when visiting Steamboat Springs, but for owner Greg Koehler, the downtown fixture has been home and part of his family for more than 50 years.

“I was in high school when we moved here, and I was living here when I graduated,” said Koehler, who lived in a bedroom in the basement for several years. “I used to shovel the snow in the morning before class, then I would walk to school. I mean, we did what we needed to do to get by.”

Koehler still recalls the early days when his dad, Ron, would work the front desk and his mom, Lyle, would clean rooms. Ron and Lyle had a bedroom just off the main office, the motel had a switchboard for outgoing and incoming calls and there was only one stoplight on Main Street.

Koehler moved away before his parents built and moved into their new home in 1978, but said most of his early memories in Steamboat are connected with the motel.

The motel was a huge adjustment for his family, which had owned a much larger home in Butte, Montana, where they also owned Ron’s Gamble Marine store that sold boats, outdoor motors and motorcycles.

In the late 1960s, their Montana business seemed to be thriving and was successful enough for Ron to move the business into a building that he had built for it.

However, things were teetering as Butte’s strong economy was eventually threatened by strikes at a nearby copper mine. Ron feared this would greatly impact his business model, which depended on the high-paying jobs the mine provided.

When he got an offer on the building, Ron and his family decided to close the business.

When the family came through Steamboat during a trip to visit Greg’s older brother and his wife in Craig, the idea of owning a motel in Steamboat started to form.

“My brother and his wife had just had their first child, which was my mom’s first grandchild,” Greg said. “So we decided to leave Montana, and we came to Steamboat. … There were three motels for sale at the time: the Western Lodge, the Nite’s Rest Motel and this one— as we made our way through town my dad said, ‘This is the one I want.’”

The family made an offer on the motel, which is well known for its iconic sign, and soon after called Steamboat their home.

The 10-room Rabbit Ears Motel was originally built in 1952, and expanded to 20 rooms in 1955. In the early days the rooms rented for between $6 and $8 a night.

The motel had gone through several owners before the Koehlers purchased the motel and the property in 1971 from Jack Barns. Greg’s father was set on erecting a new building at the back of the property, which sat on the banks of the Yampa River.

“We hocked everything including cars, a boat and motorcycles that we had brought down from Butte,” Greg said. “We had some pretty nice stuff that we had brought down, and he hocked the whole thing to build the building, and to consolidate the loans he had.”

Greg recalled it was a huge gamble at the time, and the location and additional 19 rooms struck a nerve with some people in Steamboat, who thought the town needed a bypass that would need to run through the property. But city officials eventually approved the addition, which may have saved the motel.

“He really went out on a limb, and he would never get that loan now,” Greg said. “But he was able to finance it, and the river building turned out to be a huge success.”

In 1977, the Colorado Department of Transportation decided to widen U.S. Highway 40 through Steamboat and wanted to get rid of the trademark sign that welcomed drivers into downtown Steamboat with bright colors and neon lights.

CDOT required the Koehlers to move the sign to the side of the building and get rid of the motorized eyes and ears that moved side-to-side. The department also asked the Koehlers to take down some of the flashing bulbs on the sign. But the Koelhers were able to appease the department and the sign was allowed to stay.

More recently the sign has earned historic designation from both the county and state, something that Greg is thankful for. But he said it’s also been a challenge to find electricians to maintain the sign, and has had to travel to Denver to find technicians that can work on the aging technology.

In 1985, Ron was ready to hang things up, but Greg, who was living in Denver at the time, decided to move back to Steamboat with his wife and their two young children to carry on the family tradition.

The biggest problem at that time was the motel wasn’t big enough to support his mother and father and still pay his salary. So the family expanded once again adding the Park building and 14 more rooms, bringing the total to 53. A few years later the Koehlers decided to add another story and 12 more rooms to the original building.

Today, the motel offers 65 rooms.

Greg says his parents’ decision to buy the motel 50 years ago was a good one.

“Location, location, location,” Greg said. “I mean we’re on the river, we’re across from Old Town Hot Springs and you can come here to stay and park your car. You can walk to the restaurants and shops and everything downtown.”

He said he has been blessed with a great staff over the years, and the commitment to keep the rooms up to date and clean has helped the motel build a large base of regular customers.

“When (guests) come we know who they are and they’re always greeted by the same people,” said front office manager Beth Hicks, who started working for Greg’s parents in the early ’70s.

Hicks said she met Ron and Lyle through a local bowling league and quickly formed a lasting friendship.

Greg said the operation is really more of a family, and that is part of what makes the Rabbit Ears so special.

The motel was subject of national media attention in 2020 when comedian Bill Engvall, who was walking past the motel last June while pushing his granddaughter Autumn in her stroller, gave a shoutout to the motel in a Facebook Live post. He was visiting Steamboat with his family, but was not a guest at the motel.

“Our guests like to come here, because they like to be here, and they like to visit with the people who work here,” Greg said. “That’s always been kind of one of our trademarks. We’re not hiding in the back, we’re not corporate owned and we’re out there with our guests all the time. That’s the fun of it.”

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