Tom Ross: Electricity changed Christmas forever

Tom Ross

In the 1930s and early 1940s North Routt teacher Irene Fuller and her school-age daughter Charlene spent their winters at a series of one-room schoolhouses while Irene’s husband, Rock, remained in their remote ranch house. But the family managed to re-unite every Christmas. (courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As you gather around the Christmas tree this morning and open your electronic gifts, it might be entertaining to remind yourselves of how recently homes and ranches in rural Routt County didn’t have access to electricity.

Rural electrification didn’t take hold here until the 1940s. It goes without saying that, once the kerosene lights were doused, the nights were very long.

There are current residents of our community who can describe their childhood holidays celebrated without the comfort of electric lights, kitchens and entertainment systems.

Steamboat Springs resident Charlene (Fuller) Stees, 86, shared with me this week how, as a young child in the 1930s, she and her parents celebrated Christmas in a remote ranch house without electricity.

The Fullers lived 4 miles north of the North Routt mining camp of Columbine, 33 miles from Steamboat Springs on Routt County Road 129, also known as Elk River Road.

“My mom cooked on a coal stove, and we had a big, square, heating stove in the middle of the living room,” Stees recalled. “The lighting was provided by several kerosene lamps.”

Stees’ father Rock Fuller’s pride and joy was a battery-powered radio about the size of a modern microwave. If little Charlene were lucky, her father would turn the dial away from the news to let her listen to “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.”

It goes without saying that in that era, there was no such thing as streaming music on one’s phone.

Who turned on the lights?

Household electricity was late in coming to rural farms and ranches in Routt County. It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II in the Pacific, in 1941, that the first line was energized.

Yampa Valley Electric Association reports:
• The first pole was set near the R.R. Hudspeth Ranch.
• The first meter was installed on the Perry Clark ranch on Elk River.
• The first co-op member to use 100 kilowatt-hours was E.C. Arnold.

The Fuller family played carols on a hand-cranked Victrola. Christmas tree lights were candles — there were no strands of colorful lights on timers like there are today.

“We had a real tree. It seemed like it was really big. It had candle clips, and we’d light the candles and let them burn for maybe 10 or 15 minutes at night,” Stees said. “The tree was draped with homey decorations — popcorn balls and red and green ropes of chenille.”

Santa Claus came to the lonesome ranch house every Christmas Eve. And somehow, the jolly old elf knew to leave new doll clothes — hand sewn by her mother Irene Fuller — in little Charlene’s stocking along with walnuts and candy. Most years, he also left a fresh orange in the toe of the stocking.

“I think that was the only time we had oranges,” Stees said.

However, the story of what her parents went through to reunite their little family for the holidays almost eclipses the scarcity of modern conveniences in that era.

“They were both hard workers,” Stees said of her parents this week. “My father was a rancher through and through. In 1921, right out of World War 1, he went to work for George Salisbury breaking horses,” in the Little Snake River country.

Irene taught in one-room schoolhouses, not infrequently changing the rural school district she worked for from year to year, based on the salary offered.

For more

Learn more about the struggle to bring electricity to rural Steamboat:

The staff of the Bud Werner Memorial Library recently posted an online article from the1970s student magazine, Three Wire Winter, explaining in detail how a handful of people brought electricity to farmers and ranchers here.

You can hear the principals tell in their own words how they blasted holes for power poles, and strung wires to belatedly bring Routt County into the age of electricity here.

The digital Three Wire Winter project is a collaboration between the library and the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

Wherever Irene went for her school year employment, so went Charlene.

It meant the Fuller family lived apart for most of the long North Routt winters.

Rock was left behind on the remote ranch, not far from the Wyoming state line. He spent the lonely winters feeding his cattle herd from a sled pulled by draft horses.

One year, Irene taught at a school that was close enough to the ranch that the teacher and her daughter could come home for weekends. Another year, she worked at a little school even further north at Slater Creek. Early Kelly, who carried the mail from Slater to Columbine, was able to help Irene and Charlene reunite briefly with Rock.

“I think he was probably sort of glad to see us,” Stees ventured. “We wouldn’t see him for two or three months. The only person he saw was the mail carrier.

“My mom was a hard worker, too,” she said. “When it came to teaching, she taught, and they learned.”

Rock prepared for his family’s Christmas reunion late each autumn by leaving his truck at the point on the county road where the snowplow ceased snow removal and turned around.

“When we would come home for Christmas, he went down to get us with the team and sled,” Stees said.

During those Christmas breaks on the ranch, little Charlene’s playmate was Fudge, her father’s working cattle dog.

Her bedroom was on the second floor of the ranch house and wasn’t exactly warm on winter nights.

“I took a hot water bottle to bed,” she recalled.

The walls were lined with the pages of the Denver Post, an informative, if not effective form of insulation in that era.

“I read them at night,” Stees said.

When Charlene was 12 years old, the family moved closer to civilization in Clark. For the first time, they had electricity in their home.

And Christmas would never be quite the same.

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.

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