Special access: Tread of Pioneers Museum tours offer behind-the-scenes access to new collections and more

A sign, outside of the Tread of Pioneers Museum's collections facility, reminds visitors to look and not touch. As Museum Curator Katie Adams explained, touching an object will cause oils from a person's hand to transfer to the object, which allows dust to latch on and cause quicker aging of the artifact.
Mackenzie Hicks/staff

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When you walk into a museum, you expect to see historical artifacts, but those items you look at and admire may not be the only interesting pieces of history that museum has to offer. And if you find yourself at the Tread of the Pioneers Museum, walking through Steamboat Springs and Routt County history, you’re only viewing part of the collection.

Luckily, the museum provides a way for visitors to experience some of the hidden history through the Tread’s bimonthly Behind the Scenes Collections Tours.

“We want to make sure to give people a chance to see the thousands of objects that are not on display,” said Museum Director Candice Bannister.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum’s collections facility was part of an expansion completed in 2013. It boasts a work space for museum curator Katie Adams, where she processes new pieces, an upstairs level and a basement, each of which hold their own sections of history.

If you take the tour, you start in Adams’ workspace. In this portion of the collections facility, Adams shows visitors how she processes new pieces and how it’s decided if they should stay at the museum. Her main job is to research historical items donated to the museum, so the museum committee has the information they need to determine whether or not a piece should be part of the museum’s collections.

Most of what Adams processes is given directly to the museum by community members. And Bannister, who has been with the museum for 19 years, said people may be surprised to learn that many of the artifacts currently on display have come into the collection within the last couple of years.

“One would think a town that was founded in 1875 might, by 2020, have most of the old stuff here. No. Not true,” Bannister said. “What people have in their homes, in their attics, in their basements that have been passed down is incredible, and we’re getting top, most interesting, significant artifacts in every day.”

Among the Tread of Pioneers Museum’s large ski collection are John Steele’s jumping skis from the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. Steele was Steamboat Springs’ very first Olympian.
Mackenzie Hicks/staff

From the processing center, Adams leads tour guests to the upstairs of the collection facilities. The biggest attention-getters in this section of the museum are a large collection of skis and Western saddles. The upstairs, which is also filled with historical documents and Native American baskets and pottery, is known as the Locked Archives. The documents, which contain everything from the original founding papers of Steamboat, dating back to 1900, to the contents of someone’s wallet, are considered too fragile to be in the museum research center. 

In those Locked Archives is another treasure all its own. Wrapped in brown paper to protect them are photogravures by Edward S. Curtis, a pioneer photographer and artist whose goal was to document traditional Native American life and culture. Adams typically keeps two to four of them on rotation in the Victorian House, which is connected to the main museum.

“It’s a rare collection that an institution of this size doesn’t usually have, so we’re very fortunate,” Adams said.

After everyone has walked around the space and all questions have been answered, Adams then takes visitors downstairs, where the first thing people may notice is a blue couch with an interesting looking arm designed for fainting.

This “fainting” couch was owned by the Crawford family, Steamboat’s founding family. It gets its name from the Victorian era when women needed a place to find relief from tight corsets and clothing.
Mackenzie Hicks/staff

“In the Victorian era, women wore their corsets and clothing so tightly that they couldn’t bend their torso,” Adams explained. “So, this was an easier way for them to ease theirselves into a sitting position, but also, they wore them so tight that occasionally they would faint and this caught them.”

The fainting couch, as it is called, belonged to the Crawford family, Steamboat’s founding family.

And the fainting couch isn’t the only unique item found in the basement. There’s a love seat made out of ram horns, John Steele’s coat from the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, Doc Willet’s bearskin coat and the first colored television to arrive in Steamboat. Another oddity Adams loves to show off is a candy case, which is believed to be 110 years old.

A candy case the museum believes to be 110 years old opens like a fishing tackle box to reveal candy still inside.
Mackenzie Hicks/staff

According to Adams, the candy case, which opens like a fishing tackle box, was used by traveling salesmen who went store to store to sell candy, and the one at the museum still has candy inside.

“Kids love the candy case,” Adams said.

With all these items, it’s hard to know how the museum decides what’s shown and what’s kept in storage. Adams, however, has a pretty simple explanation.

When Adams opens the candy case, people can view the candy, still preserved, inside the box.
Mackenzie Hicks/staff

“We have goals and parameters where we want to take the next exhibit, so we sort of plan that out a couple years in advance,” Adams said. “So, I come through and select artifacts that support the theme. Occasionally, we’ve worked it the other way around where I have a collection, and we want to make an exhibit around that.”

And why do some items move off display?

“We try to follow museum science rules called resting. If something’s been on display for about a year, it comes down here and rests for about four years,” Adams explained. “Being out in the lights and people interacting with it is hard on the thing, so it comes down here in this nice stable environment to kind of regroup.”

Bannister said educating the public about what museums actually do and how they care for historic items are two of the motivators behind the Behind the Scenes Collections Tours. 

If you go

What: Tread of Pioneers Museum’s Behind the Scenes Collections tour
When: 11 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
Where: Tread of Pioneers Museum, 800 Oak St.
Cost: Free

“And we not only want people to understand all that we do, but we want them to feel a part of it,” Bannister said. “And I think when you bring people behind the scenes, they can feel more a part of it.”

To reach Mackenzie Hicks, call 970-871-4208, email or follow her on Twitter @mackenzieshawna.

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