Tom Ross: Steamboat Whistle publication provides glimpse of summer tourism in the 1960s
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Can you recall distant summers when Steamboat Springs was a mostly undiscovered ranch town? Were you hanging out in Steamboat when summer tourism relied primarily on camping, fishing and horse shows?
If you answered “yes,” you might recall the early Steamboat Whistle, a free resort tabloid formerly published once a week by the Steamboat Pilot. In the 1960s, it was a different era in Steamboat, when summers weren’t very busy but still far busier than the long winters.
It may strike you this weekend that the ‘Boat is extra busy, and it’s not just your imagination. With the Steamboat Mountain Soccer Tournament and the Tour de Steamboat cycling event in town, we may be reaching the peak of the summer tourism season.
I can’t turn back the clock to the days when Steamboat was a sleepy, Western town, but I can remind you of those days. Thanks to Alta Tozzi, a part-time neighbor of mine, I got my hands on a copy of an August 1963 Steamboat Whistle that she picked up while on summer vacation with her parents.
In those days, and continuing into the 1980s, the Steamboat Pilot was a weekly newspaper that came out on Wednesdays and also published the Steamboat Whistle, a free, four-page tourism guide, later in the week.
Residents may have recognized that in 1963, Steamboat was on the cusp of a new era in tourism. Fatefully, the first chairlift began operating at the base of Storm Mountain in January of that year.
Summer was Steamboat’s busiest season back then, but not by today’s standards. The biggest tourism event in the first week of August 1963, according to the Whistle, was the Northwest Colorado Horse Show. Yet traffic on Lincoln Avenue was the town’s summer lifeblood. There were an ample number of businesses catering to the needs of campers and anglers.
Published in the Steamboat Whistle in 1963: A man who owned a hand-operated rotisserie was barbecuing a chicken in his backyard and turning the crank when a beatnik walked by. “I don’t want to bug ya, Dad,” the character said, “but your music’s stopped and your monkey’s on fire.”
Former Steamboat Pilot Editor and Publisher Chuck Leckenby knew Steamboat as well as anyone in those days. As a teenager in the 1950s — working for his father, Maurice, who preceded him as editor and publisher — Chuck made the rounds selling ads for the newspaper.
“When I worked for my dad, I sold ads up one side of the street and down the other side” Leckenby recalled this month. “There was almost a gas station on every corner.”
According to an ad in the August 1963 Whistle, the Enco station was open 24 hours a day and offered to wash customers’ cars, gas them up, lube them and change the oil, all while they slept.
From a 21st century perspective, the small adds in the Steamboat Whistle were a bit strange. Very few of them included an address, just a phone number. Virtually all of the businesses in town could be found in a stretch of nine blocks on Lincoln Avenue.
At the Skee Inn, right across the street from F.M. Light & Sons, proprietors Kay and Eddie Edwards proclaimed in the Whistle: “Good food is our specialty!”
That must have been reassuring to patrons.
Christine McKelvie, who became the Steamboat Pilot’s first copy editor in the early 1980s, recalled that former Pilot ad man and reporter Jim Johnson enlisted his dog to help distribute the free Steamboat Whistle. George, a boxer, was fitted with saddlebags, and Johnson walked him around town once a week handing out free copies of the Whistle.
There was stiff competition for the breakfast business among Steamboat cafes, which typically began serving pancakes at 5:30 a.m. But no one in town could top the El Rancho, which opened at 5:30 a.m. and closed at 2 a.m. the following morning. That means they had three and a half hours to clean the joint every day!
The film playing at the Chief Theater in August 1963 was a Western, “The Savage Game” starring Dewey Martin.
Of course, Steamboat had liquor stores in 1963. There were ads in the Whistle touting “Lucky Liquor – Thirsty? – Try us” and “Bottled Sunshine – for all your needs – Corner Liquor.”
Steamboat resident Bill Padgett recalls that the Harbor Hotel, which boasted of serving French cuisine, was the fancy spot in town. He worked there as a bellboy when he was in high school.
“If we got a dollar tip, we were happy,” Padgett said this week. “If we got $2, we were very happy.”
Steamboat was relatively sleepy 55 years ago in summer 1963, but the seeds of change had already been sewn.
John Fetcher, the Harvard-trained engineer and cattle rancher, along with others, had installed the first chairlift on the ski area at Mount Werner in January of that year.
John’s son Jay showed me this month a tiny notebook kept by his father in which he recorded daily events, including the first weeks of operation at Storm Mountain, as the ski area was originally known.
The elder Fetcher, who had a talent for brevity, wrote Jan. 27, 1963: “Good crowd at Storm Mountain, we had a $330 week.”
It was hardly a tidal wave of winter tourism, but we now know as the ski resort has grown so has its bed base, and with it, the urgency to fill those beds through the summer season.
For me, meeting summer visitors from across the country, and coming to call some of them friends, has been a rewarding experience. But it’s undeniable that Steamboat has become a bustling resort town over the past 55 years.
When it’s solitude I seek, I know I can always find it in the mountains.
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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