Generation gallop

Since the 1940s, members of the Wilhelm family have pulled skiers down Lincoln Avenue for Winter Carnival

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"Shorty" Lloyd Truax didn't know he was writing the first line of a long story when he rode a horse down Lincoln Avenue with a skier in tow.

He just did it for fun on the urging of his neighbors, the Wheeler family, but 60 years later, his family still is filling the saddle. The Truaxes, who became the Wilhelms when Shorty's daughter Patsy married, have become an intricate piece of Steamboat Springs' annual Winter Carnival as the fourth generation, at age 4, learns to ride a horse and already is sharing a saddle with his father, Rick Wilhelm.

"We had no idea it would last for all these generations," Patsy Wilhelm said. Shorty Truax moved to the Yampa Valley in 1942 and bought a piece of land on County Road 129, now called Sunset Ranch.

First and foremost, the members of this family are horse people. They measure time by the names of the horses they were riding.

"That was back in the days when I was riding Debbie ... or Missy K," Patsy Wilhelm will say.

Since the mid-1940s, one or more members of the Truax/Wilhelm clan have been the horse riders in the Winter Carnival. They are part of a core group of ranching families -- the Wheelers, the Yeagers, the Duncans, the Snowdens, the Gates and the Schusters to name a few -- who have kept alive traditions that are symbolic of the melding of ranching and skiing in the Yampa Valley.

Shorty Truax rode in the carnival with his son, Jerrald Truax, Patsy's brother. Patsy rode in the carnival for the first time when she was 9, on an old Tennessee walking horse named Suzy.

Since then, she has seen a lot of changes in the event.

First, the direction of the races has changed. For the purpose of photographs, racers who used to ride from east to west now ride from west to east so the Steamboat Ski Area is in the background.

"Before that, there was no Mount Werner," Patsy Wilhelm said. "We just had Howelsen."

She remembers the days before liability issues and signed releases.

Her son, Lynn Wilhelm, remembers pulling Buddy Werner down the street.

It was Lynn Wilhelm who rode the first shovel down the street in the late 1970s, creating what has become one of the banner street events. He did it because there was a gap of time between the street events and the parade, and the crowd was getting restless, he said.

Lynn decided to hop on a shovel, pulled by a horse, to entertain everyone. Riding shovels behind trucks was a popular rural pasttime for the Wilhelm boys.

"We didn't have toboggans," Lynn Wilhelm said. "After chores, we would ride what was around, like barn shovels."

In the beginning, carnival organizers just counted on horseback riders showing up, and let any who did pull a skier, Patsy Wilhelm said. "But some years, no one would come, and the next year, there were too many."

So the job of pulling little skijorers and not-so-little shovel racers became an honor carried by a few families.

It can be a dangerous job that requires a good horse and a responsible rider who knows how to handle a horse on ice while galloping past screaming crowds and pedestrians who pick the most inopportune times to cross the street.

"It's a commitment we make as a family," Patsy Wilhelm said. "Every year, I say that this will be my last year. I say that I'm getting too old for this. But every year, I ride again."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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