Tom Ross: Silly rabbit earns respect |

Tom Ross: Silly rabbit earns respect

Motel sign has become emblematic of Old Town

— What’s 7-feet, 6-inches tall, has orange glowing eyes, prefers carrots to hamburgers and represents one of the best remaining examples of roadside Americana in Steamboat Springs?

If you answered “The long-eared fellow on the Rabbit Ears Motel sign,” congratulations are in order. I now bestow upon you the title of “honorary longtime Steamboat local.”

The Rabbit Ears sign, 53 years old this month, was just named to the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties. Laureen Schaffer, historic preservation specialist with the city of Steamboat Springs, said the historic designation doesn’t mean the neon sign will forever be preserved. But it does afford another layer of protection. Any project utilizing state funds – a widening of U.S. Highway 40, for example – would have to make accommodations for the sign, Schaffer said.

The Rabbit Ears sign was erected in September 1953 by the original owners of the motel, H.L. and Evelyn L. Beswick, formerly of Kansas City, Mo. One of the great results derived from an application to the state register is that historical research is done and recorded for posterity. Schaffer compiled the history of the sign with editing help from Dale Heckendorn and the Koehler family, who are the current owners of the motel.

The Rabbit Ears harks to a very different era in American motoring history, when four-lane interstate highways were unheard of. Families making long-distance car trips discovered independently owned motels and restaurants along the way because there weren’t any homogeneous chains.

My family piled into a light green Ford station wagon every July for a five-day trip that took us from Southern Wisconsin through Fargo, N.D., Miles City and Billings, Mont., Idaho Falls, Idaho, and on to Spokane, Wash., before arriving in Portland, Ore. Along the way, we consulted the AAA guidebook for advice on motels. I cannot recall with specificity, but we might have stayed in motels called the Paul Bunyan Motor Court, the Prairie Schooner Lodge and the Big Sky Motel.

During the 1950s, small towns were dotted with neon signs not unlike the Rabbit Ears sign. You saw them on root beer stands, bowling alleys, indoor roller skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters and, of course, motels and restaurants.

Ironically, they are a part of vanishing America now considered worth preserving, even though you couldn’t get a new neon motel sign past municipal sign codes in most towns today.

The motels seemed to rely on regional icons like Indian wig-wams, saguaro cacti (even in Denver, several hundred miles from the nearest saguaro), neon palm trees, covered wagons, satellites and a variety of birds from swans to swallows.

The Rabbit Ears, in case you whiffed on it, is an obvious reference to the nearby geologic feature.

The Beswicks owned the Rabbit Ears Motel for almost a decade before selling the property in 1962, according to Schaffer’s research. The motel had various owners until the spring of 1971, when Butte, Mont., businessman Ron Koehler and his wife, Lyle, purchased the property. Ron and Lyle’s son Greg and his family operate the motel today.

What you might not realize if you didn’t grow up in Steamboat is that the Rabbit Ears sign has been through some changes over the past half-century.

Schaffer writes that the original sign was more animated. The neon-outlined eyes of the rabbit were mechanized, creating the illusion that they were moving from left to right. This was accomplished with an electric motor and two sets of eyes on a revolving plate hidden behind the rabbit’s face. The motor turned the plate, giving the appearance of the eyes flashing back and forth.

Like many roadside motel signs, the Rabbit Ears sign features a large arrow pointing at the motel – a strong hint that the motorists should turn into the parking lot. At one time, the arrow was festooned with attention-getting, 40-watt blue “chase” lights. The animated features went away in the 1970s after passage of a state law prohibiting animated road signs.

The sign has undergone several other modifications and refurbishings since the early days, but it remains an icon at the east entrance to downtown Steamboat.

I’ll probably never have to check in to the Rabbit Ears Motel – unless I get run out of town (a distinct possibility) and return only for short surreptitious visits. And although I’m not familiar with the motel itself, Steamboat wouldn’t feel the same without the familiar sign.

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