Whispering the Past: Routt County’s historic buildings share long-forgotten stories
September 15, 2013
Steamboat Springs — The winter of 1918 was a particularly difficult one in Routt County. Snow that drifted to 30 feet below Corona Pass kept the Moffat Railroad from reaching Steamboat Springs from early January to early February, cutting off most commerce for that time. And the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed millions of primarily young adults around the world also claimed the lives of many Routt County residents.
Sadly, among the victims were two siblings, teenagers Louis and Meda Gay, among the five children of Emile and Percede Gay. The Gays, Swiss immigrants who had come to Colorado in the late 1880s, made a life for their family in a little corner of the Yampa Valley south of Rabbit Ears Pass now known as Pleasant Valley.
Some of the memories of that rugged winter and some of the hardships it brought are contained within the walls of the Gay family's old farmhouse. It once was an impressive structure. Today, it is inexorably giving in to the passage of time and the stubborn tug of gravity. The Gay house still is standing but unoccupied.
Elaine Gay, 95, whose late husband, Bob, grew up there with his siblings, including Louis and Meda, said the old house was far from grand.
"It wouldn't be nice by today's standards," Elaine said. "They used muslin (to line the interior walls) and pasted wallpaper on the muslin. It was built long ago."
Her son, Bill, who just finished the hay harvest during Labor Day weekend, had a slightly different point of view.
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"That was a pretty grand house for this part of the county," Bill said. "It had a stone basement, a south-facing porch and a cement landing for the pump and the well. That meant they didn't have to go to the creek for water. They just stepped out of the kitchen to pump water. Those were real luxuries in those days."
The Gay house is just off Routt County Road 25 in Pleasant Valley. The actual date of construction is difficult to pin down. In her 1995 self-published book, "How Pleasant is the Valley," Elaine Gay made reference to the fact the home remained standing after "some 95 years," which would place its construction right at the turn of the 20th century.
Few pass by on this rural road that leads to the back-door entrance to Stagecoach State Park. It's a little corner of the Yampa Valley with a history all its own.
But its history is rich with the story of industrious Swiss cattlemen and cattlewomen who mixed their own dairy cattle with the shorthorn breed to become prosperous ranchers. And along with the trying times, there were good times, too.
Bob Gay, who died in 1994, had a deep sense of stewardship of the land that was faith based. He strongly felt that the agricultural areas of the Yampa Valley should remain intact.
"Cattle ranches are not compatible with city life," he told the Steamboat Pilot in a 1990 interview.
Tragedy and prosperity
Emile was a Swiss immigrant, born in the town of Martinez in 1861. He came to the United States in 1887 because he had "no future," according to Elaine Gay's book, "How Pleasant is the Valley."
That remark reflects the story of many Swiss immigrants, Elaine's son, Bill, agreed. Tiny Swiss farms in the steep valleys of the Alps could support only the first-born son, when the properties were passed from generation to generation. As a result, many younger brothers looked to America for opportunity, often settling in an organized Swiss colony.
Emile lived in Leadville and Minturn before coming to Pleasant Valley.
The 1918 flu pandemic — often referred to as the Spanish flu because at the time it broke out during World War I, Spain was one of the few countries freely reporting deaths — was thought to have killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.
The Gay family tragedy was particularly hard on the parents, according to surviving family members.
"They didn't get to go to the funeral" in Steamboat, Elaine Gay said this month. "It was a long way to town when you go by sled."
This week, Bill Gay referred to family records and read a news item about the deaths from the Steamboat Pilot: "The French/Swiss colony south of Steamboat Springs lost two fine young people." In those days, Bill said, it was the town fathers, not family members and close friends, who served as pallbearers at funerals.
The Gay family home lacked modern conveniences including indoor plumbing. And the first electricity still was decades in the future.
The Gays were relatively prosperous members of the French Swiss colony, and the source of the prosperity had much to do with their two-story home.
A big reason why they had a standout home in Pleasant Valley was that Percede Gay took in boarders, primarily men who drove strings of pack horses from Steamboat to resupply lumberjacks on Sarvis Creek. The trees they harvested supplied the Sarvis Creek Mill and Lumber Co.
The Gay home — with its four, large second-story bedrooms — represented roughly the halfway point from Steamboat to the logging operations further up the creek.
"They could put their pack horses in the barn, stay at grandma's house, eat dinner and then go on up Sarvis Creek," Bill said. "She put a roast in the coal stove, potatoes and carrots, which they grew, cheese, bread and fresh milk, and if you were lucky, maybe even boiled cabbage and onion on the side."
A lasting legacy
Bob Gay, took over operations of Emile and Percede's ranch at age 16. He and Elaine moved onto the old Lugon Place nearby in Pleasant Valley in 1948. Bob died Feb. 3, 1994, and Bill Gay has made certain that his family's cattle ranch has thrived into the 21st century. It's an important piece of Routt County history that sprang from the Gay house.
According to Bob's obituary in the Steamboat Pilot, he resisted numerous lucrative offers for his land at a time when a large new ski area, Lake Catamount, was being planned for Mount Baldy, which overlooks the family ranch.
"If you crowd everybody out, you ain't gonna have any open space," he said at a public meeting just weeks before his death.
The ski area never was built, and today's Lake Catamount residential development is lighter on the land and encourages agriculture in its open spaces. And the Emile and Percede Gay house perseveres.