100 Years and counting

F.M. Light & Sons celebrates its centennial

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Long dresses, wool suit coats and carefully knotted ties wouldn't seem to coordinate with winter sports. But an album of photos from Steamboat Springs' oldest family-owned retail business says otherwise.

F.M. Light & Sons, the store with the iconic yellow signs posted along all roads to town, is celebrating its centennial on Steamboat's Lincoln Avenue this year.

The business has a deserved reputation as a Western wear store -- after all, no retailer west of the Mississippi

has been selling Stetson hats longer -- but it's about more than gear for cowgirls and cowboys.

The Light and Lockhart families are sharing family photos as they celebrate 100 years in business, and it's plain that Francis Marion Light and his family favored formal garb, sometimes even when skiing. Family photos depict F.M. Light wearing a coat and tie while seated on a steel runner sled with four members of his family. The family album also includes an image of Clarence Light (F.M.'s son) and his wife, Anna Shearer Light, skiing in formal attire, including a wide tie for the gentleman and a skirt for the lady.

In the early days, F.M. Light & Son's merchandise reflected a commitment to formal attire for the men of Northwest Colorado.

"They were having some trouble making it, and my grandfather went to Denver and bought 500 men's suits," Annabeth (Light) Lockhart said. "I remember my father saying, 'But there aren't 500 men in Routt County!'"

F.M. Light may have misjudged the demand for men's suits in the Yampa Valley of the early 20th century, but he quickly learned to adapt and thrive as a businessman.

Annabeth Lockhart is the granddaughter of F.M. Light, and hopes to publish a book about his life as soon as March.

F.M. Light, a farmer and schoolteacher from Ohio, brought his family west on the train to escape his affliction with asthma. They completed the last leg of the journey to Steamboat Springs with a two-day stagecoach journey from the railroad stop in Wolcott. He noticed the lack of a men's clothing store in town and purchased a downtown lot. With sons Olin and Clarence, he opened for business Nov. 9, 1905, with $2,000 in merchandise. And with the exception of Stetson hats, it wasn't a Western wear store.

A promotional letter the three men sent to potential customers in 1911 described the "high-grade clothing specialties, shoes and furnishings" offered by F.M. Light and Sons.

"We have over 500 suits in stock at the present time, which is by far the largest and best stock of clothing in Northwestern Colorado," the letter stated. "Our Stein-Bloch suits are made of all-wool cloth, and the cloth is made of first-quality long staple wool, which makes the best cloth possible. They are sewed with silk throughout."

The store also offered work clothing, Wilson Brothers dress shirts and Sweet-Orr trousers.

"It was a department store. That's how they thought of it," said Ty Lockhart, who owns the store with his brother, Del. They are the great-grandsons of F.M. Light, and their father, Lloyd, owned the store before them. Lloyd purchased F.M. Light & Sons from his father-in-law in January 1964. Ty's son, Brandon, represents the fifth generation in the store.

Today, Del and Ty dress more informally for work than their grandfather and great-grandfather did, but they agree that change remains a constant in retailing throughout different eras. They hope a year-long celebration of their store's 100th anniversary will set the stage for the century ahead.

Saddles and other items of horse tack have come and gone from the mix of merchandise at the store more than once, Del said. During the past, the store sold Winchester rifles, Colt side arms, genuine Navajo saddle blankets, and even custom cut lariats for cowhands.

There was even an era when they purchased lace-up leather Garmisch ski boots from legendary Aspen ski industry figure Klaus Obermeyer, who called on the store in person.

Today, the store's merchandise still retains its Western flavor, selling Luchese cowboy boots, for example. But the rifles and lariats are a thing of the past. And the footwear available for customers ranges from athletic shoes to aprÃs ski boots.

Success is all about "being aware of what your customers are looking for without losing your base," Del said.

Ty says the store's customer base remains the Northwest Colorado resident.

"It's still the local," he said. "If you lose that, you become just another store that loses a lot of its identity. We still have a core group of locals."

For more than a decade, Ty and Del have sent personal thank-you notes to their customers after they make a purchase.

"It's becoming more and more difficult to do because people don't write checks as much any more," Ty observed.

F. M. Light may not have had a background in retailing, but he understood customer service, and he was a firm believer in doing business in "spot cash." The store paid its suppliers in cash, often in advance, and the Light's were opposed to extending credit to their customers on business and philosophical grounds.

"Are you tired of paying other people's debts?" they asked in 1911. "That is what you do when you patronize the credit store. Credit stores are compelled to charge more for their goods in order to cover losses, which are sure to occur under the credit system."

It was profound adversity that led to F.M. Light's greatest innovation, and it was to become the store's signature for many decades.

When the old First National Bank (no connection to the banks of the same name today) succumbed to the Great Depression in 1933, F.M. Light lost all of his money.

If ever there was a time in the first 100 years that the future of the store was in jeopardy, it was then.

"I imagine they were saying 'What in the Sam Hill can we do?'" Ty said. "I know the boys went out and worked on ranches."

F.M. Light and his sons refused to pack it in. With a loan from Milner Bank & Trust, they acquired a panel truck and packed it with goods. The plan was to take the store to its rural customers on farms and ranches where the men and women needed sturdy work clothes and boots, as well as finer clothes for special occasions.

Not long after, Clarence and his brother Olin were alternating weeks on the road. They always stayed overnight with the ranch family (a practice that allowed them to get to know their customers) and they always paid for their room and board. They would be gone for weeks at a time, traveling as far north as Jackson, Wyo., west to the Utah border and south to Aspen. The family has a treasured photo of the F.M. Light truck crossing the famous swinging bridge across the Green River in Moffat County's Browns Park.

They mailed in their orders, which could grow to $100, thanks to the presence of hired hands. The store in Steamboat was next door to the U.S. Post Office at the time, and merchandise would go out the shop's back door and into the post office's back door.

"We still have customers who come into the store and tell us they can remember the F.M. Light truck pulling into the yard," Del said.

It was a different era, and the arrival of the sales truck also meant the arrival of news from other towns, and even gossip.

"It had to be a happening almost," Del said. "It had to be really exciting," for families living on remote ranches.

Clarence Light traveled with his truck full of merchandise until he was 86. He died Oct. 26, 1974, a month shy of his 87th birthday.

Annabeth Lockhart remembers that her grandfather F.M. Light was very approachable, but also somewhat reserved and very businesslike.

"If I had questions to ask, I just walked up the path to grandma and grandpa's house," Annabeth recalled. "I remember that he was frugal, but if he wanted anything, he bought it. And he bought good stuff. They always had good horses."

F.M. Light & Sons, at 830 Lincoln Ave., has prepared a museum-quality window display of historic family ski photos just in time for Winter Carnival. It provides a singular glimpse of the history of retailing in Northwest Colorado, courtesy of the only store in town that can say it has been in business here for 100 years.

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