Tales from the Tread: Picking strawberries in Strawberry Park
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
“The first money I ever earned as anybody’s employee was by picking berries …”
— J.R. Burroughs
The strawberry boom of Steamboat Springs, occurred from 1900 to 1915 in an area north of town that was eventually called Strawberry Park. Here, a Kansas farmer, L.R. Remington, produced an unusually large berry that could also sustain the cool climate and survive the journey in unrefrigerated rail cars to Denver and beyond. Local farmers jumped at the opportunity to produce strawberries, and land prices in Strawberry Park soared from $150 to $1,500 per acre.
Local author, John Rolfe Burroughs, grew up in Steamboat Springs and worked in the strawberry patches as a young boy. In his 1963 book, “Head First in the Pickle Barrel: A Rocky Mountain Boyhood,” Burroughs describes a day of work in the strawberry field:
“The berry men, paid pickers two cents (for) the heaping quart box. The job went something like this: … We kids messed around for the first half-hour or so, dropping about as many berries into ourselves as we did into the boxes, laughing and joking, throwing overripe berries at one another, and, when the opportunity offered, mashing them in some girl’s hair. But if we held up our monkey business too long, Mrs. Bergman came out of the shed and told us to settle down and get to work, which we eventually did. When all six boxes in your carrier were heaping full, you took it to the shed, where Mrs. Bergman briefly inspected the berries and, if everything was all right, punched a 5 and a 1 out of your ticket, removed the full boxes, and filled the carrier with empties. Five plus one makes six; and six multiplied by two meant that you already had earned all but three cents of the price of a pineapple ice-cream soda at Chamberlain-Gray’s soda fountain. This made you feel pretty good; and so you hurried back to your row, intent on picking another 12 cents worth in nothing flat.
“The piece-rate method of payment certainly was the carrot on the stick that kept us youngsters picking instead of playing. The first two or three carriers came pretty easy; but by 10:00 the sun was hot, the backs of our necks were blistered, our knees were sore, and the mosquitoes and deer flies had found us out. From then on picking strawberries degenerated into a job of work, and the intervals between trips to the shed with full carriers became longer and longer. Noontime eventually did come, however, and, after hurrying to the shed, we snatched up our lunches and beat it down the hill to eat in the cool shade of a spruce tree beside Soda Creek.
“‘A strawberry ticket’ was worth five dollars when it was completely punched out. It took me five days to earn my first ticket, which meant that I had picked an average of 50 quarts of strawberries per day. It occurs to me in retrospect that this wasn’t too bad a showing for a 9-year-old boy; and it also gave me an insight into the close relationship which exists between financial success and social approbation.”
For about 15 years, the local strawberry industry was hugely successful. But as labor costs rose and competition stiffened, the industry began to suffer. The boom ended when consecutive early frosts in 1915 and 1916 destroyed the crops. Soon, land prices returned to pre-boom values, and farmers looked for other crops and industries. Eventually, the strawberry days of Burrough’s boyhood memories faded away as did most evidence of Steamboat’s strawberry boom
Katie Adams is the curator at Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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