Tales from the Tread: Remembering Ernie Graham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — What began as a tribute highlighting black citizens in Routt County history for Black History Month on the Tread of Pioneers Museum’s social media last week, quickly turned into a wide-spread outpouring of respect and admiration for a beloved man who embodied the spirit of community and generosity in Steamboat Springs.
I first learned of Ernest Graham in the memoir, “If the Creek Don’t Rise” by his niece Rita Williams. In the book, Williams, whose mother May died in 1953 when Williams was just four years old, describes her struggles and experiences growing up with her eccentric and embittered aunt Daisy Anderson in Strawberry Park in Steamboat Springs. Anderson was the last black widow of the Civil War and recorded her late husband’s memoirs in the book, “From Slavery to Affluence.”
Williams’ mother and aunt Daisy ran the Rushing Water Inn (and restaurant) in Strawberry Park and were hunting and fishing guides since the 1930s. Ernest or “Ernie” was their brother who also lived in the area.
“There is just no place on the national consciousness that there were black Westerners, pioneers and cowboys,” Williams said in an interview with the Steamboat Pilot in 2006. “My people really accomplished extraordinary things, and when we look at Strawberry Park today, nobody would have known of that existence.”
“If the Creek Don’t Rise” is a memoir mostly focused on Williams’ life in Steamboat Springs and relationship with her Aunt Daisy. Since Ernie is scarcely mentioned in the book, I was surprised by the overwhelming number of comments and remembrances on the museum’s social media post featuring Ernie’s obituary. Community response revealed Ernie as widely revered and someone who had a profound impact on all who had the privilege of meeting him.
Ernie was born Feb. 5, 1907 in Tennessee and was a staff sergeant in World War II. He was best known around Routt County for his green thumb, which annually produced prize-winning vegetables and flowers at the Routt County Fair. Ernie’s garden alongside his home in Strawberry Park was a landmark throughout his 50 years in the county, and despite the short growing season, Ernie worked hard to produce the best berries, garlic, potatoes and onions in the county.
“Each year he’d call the Pilot office to have the photographer stop out to photograph him with his bounty. ‘I’ve got them this year,’ Ernie would proudly state of his chances against the competition. And he was usually right. He was the recipient of the Green Thumb Award, a plaque for the most blue ribbons, several years running. In his memory, the Ernest Graham Memorial Fund was set up for the Hayden Fair.” — Steamboat Pilot, 1988
Always eager for conversation and friendly exchange, Ernie’s generosity and appreciation was marked by his gifts of fruits, vegetables, turkeys and other ways of sharing his agricultural bounty with his neighbors and community.
“I gave him an extra packet of turnip seeds one spring, and he showed up with a bushel of turnips for me that fall.”
This giving spirit left a lasting impression on all who knew him. Dozens of social media comments expressing words of affection and fond remembrance from former and current residents of Routt County allow us to learn much more than an obituary about the essence of this man: “Ernie was one of the most memorable and kind humans from my Steamboat days…” “…was one of my most fond memories as a child growing up in Routt County. Always looked forward to going to Ernie and Daisy’s house in Strawberry Park.”
“Living in Steamboat Springs during that era, as one of the only black men in town must not have been easy for Mr. Graham, nor his extended family.” said Katie Adams, Tread of Pioneers Museum curator. “And yet, Ernie was only kind and giving — that speaks so highly of his character.”
To learn more about Black History in Routt County, follow the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Facebook and Instagram. “If the Creek Don’t Rise” is available in the Tread of Pioneers Museum Store.
Candice Bannister is the executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.
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