Museum Feature: Tread of Pioneers

A few weeks ago I visited Steamboat Springs. Sounds like a funny name for a town that lies deep in Colorado mountain country, but its name origin is interesting: early trappers, attracted to the area by a steamboat-like chugging sound coming from a mineral spring, named the area Steamboat Springs. Later, James Crawford and his wife Margaret, known as the “Mother of Routt County,”  established their homestead nearby in 1875, and the name stuck, although most people nowadays shorten it to Steamboat.

The Lighted Man, a Winter Carnival tradition since 1936. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

Steamboat is known as “Ski Town USA,” but people didn’t always come to the area to ski. It snows in the Yampa Valley most months of the year, so those who live there must deal with sometimes harsh winter conditions. During the winter, the only way to travel used to be on “snowshoes,” later called skis. It wasn’t until Carl Howelsen, a famous ski jumper, arrived to town in 1913 that locals started skiing for fun. Howelsen Hill, visible for miles around, hosts the Winter Carnival, a highlight of each year’s ski season. An annual tradition of the Winter Carnival is the “Lighted Man,” who has skied his way down the hill every year since 1936. Mount Werner was cleared for ski trails in 1958, and Steamboat began hosting tourists and famous skiers from around the world on its trademark “champagne powder.” Skiing is so much ingrained into the town’s culture that it’s no wonder Steamboat is home to more Olympic athletes than any other city in North America.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum, housed in a 1901 Queen-Anne style Victorian home, is found at 800 Oak Street, right at the heart of downtown. It houses lots of period furniture including a piano, organ, and melodeon and some interesting claw-foot furniture. Among other things, the exhibits focus on homesteading, ranching, Native Americans, skiing, and Olympic heritage. Of particular note is the ranching exhibit. Some of the pioneers handed down their sheep or cattle ranches to future generations, so many multi-generational family businesses are still running after 100 years or more, and visitors can listen to recordings of local ranchers discussing their life in the area. The museum houses an impressive gun collection and even has a case where visitors can see the shackles that once confined Harry Tracy, one of Butch Cassidy’s notorious Hole-in-the-Wall gang (he was arrested for killing a sheriff’s deputy in 1902).

A child using the Smith and Corona typewriter in the children’s exhibit (Credit: Danielle Zimmerer).

By far my favorite part of the museum was the interactive children’s room. Museum Executive Director Candice Bannister, inspired by her own children’s inquisitive nature, created it. Most museum artifacts aren’t meant to be touched, but Ms. Bannister wanted to make the past come alive by providing a way for kids to experience life as it was at the turn of the century. Kids can play with antique blocks and toys, have a tea party, play Old Maid, and try out an old Smith and Corona typewriter. Kids can also color and draw, read and write a telegram, or try on old-fashioned clothing. They can practice all kinds of pioneer chores like sweeping, dusting, making the bed, and even emptying the chamber pot! Discovery cards get parents involved as they lead kids on a scavenger hunt throughout the room. This was a charming idea that I would have loved when I was a child.

In 2013, a million-dollar expansion to the museum allowed the creation of the Lufkin Library Research Center right next door. During special programs, the curator opens the research center to highlight parts of the museum’s collection that are not currently on display. The research center also houses the Routt County Collection of historical photographs.

If you visit Steamboat Springs, stop by the museum before you plan your outings, because the employees there can give you lots of advice about what to see and do. For instance, you can take a walking tour of the mineral springs, and you can see the spring that inspired the town’s name (it doesn’t make a chugging sound anymore. The spring was disturbed when the railroad went through, and has been silent ever since). The Tread of Pioneers Museum is extremely involved in the community, sponsoring a variety of engaging programs throughout the year all over town. In a separate article, I will highlight some of these unique and innovative programs, so check it out for some great activities during your next trip. Steamboat is a fun place to go, even if you don’t ski!

Photo By: Danielle Zimmerer
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