Doing it the Light way

A century later, F.M. Light's principles still in place at city's oldest retailer

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When the Great Depression prompted federal regulators to close the largest bank in Steamboat Springs on Nov. 13, 1931, Clarence and Olin Light didn't sit around mourning the potential loss of their deposits.

Determined to keep their men's clothing store alive, they turned to direct marketing -- the old-fashioned way.

Despite the national economic crisis, large crews of hay hands and ranch workers were busy in the fields and grazing lands of Northwest Colorado. And they still needed dungarees, sturdy work boots, gloves and hats to shade them from the sun.

The two brothers returned to a practice their father, F.M. Light, had experimented with more than 20 years earlier. Thanks in part to their ingenuity, the store survives today to celebrate its centennial. F.M. Light & Sons is the oldest retail business in Steamboat, today owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Light family.

The store's history is rich and is a tale of perseverance, innovation and smart business decisions.

In the beginning

It was 1905 when F.M. and his wife, Carrie, sold their farm near Hicksville, Ohio, and moved their family to Steamboat Springs. They and their seven children made the last two legs of the journey by stagecoach. Clarence, the eldest, wrapped himself in a bearskin robe and rode shotgun next to the driver.

The Light family spent its first months in Steamboat living in a little two-room cabin behind the Sheridan Hotel. The first home they built was the barn that would later serve their permanent home. They lived in the barn, without electricity, for four years. Their water source was Soda Creek.

Within six months of arriving in Steamboat, F.M. Light made a decision to open a menswear store despite existing competition. He bought land, built his store and stocked it in time to open in November.

From the very beginning, F.M. Light insisted on doing business on a cash basis. He paid cash to his suppliers, often in advance, and would not extend credit to his customers. Those principles helped the store weather its early years.

Clarence and Olin pursued work on area ranches to augment the cash the family earned from the store. One summer, the two brothers dug an irrigation ditch by hand at Dry Lake, near the base of Buffalo Pass.

In 1908, F.M. considered selling the store and returning to farming. However, after consulting his banker, he was extended a loan and went to Denver where he purchased 600 men's suits. That was a leap of faith because there weren't 600 men living in Routt County at the time. But suits were far more prevalent at the turn of the 20th century -- men wore them to informal occasions in those days, and even to do physical labor. F.M. Light & Sons continued to hold its own and better.

In 1909, when the long-awaited railroad line approached Steamboat from the South, F.M. Light didn't wait for the first steam locomotive to arrive -- he loaded up a horse-drawn wagon and delivered coats, overshoes and

gloves to sell to the immigrant workers.

"I think that maybe that was the beginning" of the tradition of taking goods to the store's rural customers, said Annabeth Light Lockhart, F.M.'s granddaughter and Clarence's daughter.

In commemoration of the store's 100th anniversary, Anna--beth is completing a book on the history of the store.

Lessons of the father

Clarence and Olin quickly acquired an education in frontier business methods working in their father's store. Annabeth recalled the story of how her grandfather once left Clarence and Olin in charge of the store so he could attend to business in Hahn's Peak. She said the brothers wound up pulling pistols out from behind the counter and chasing down a bad-check artist. They recovered all of the money but 35 cents the rascal had splurged on lunch at the Green Lantern Cafe. He was on his way to the bordello district across the river in Brooklyn when the brothers took back the balance of $7.15 at gunpoint.

When the old First National Bank of Steamboat Springs (No connection to the current bank of the same name) closed, Clarence already had devised some clever sales strategies. He was a devoted marketer who always paid for a year's worth of newspaper advertising in advance.

Clarence didn't stop with advertising in print. He had metallic yellows signs promoting the store made. They were nailed to trees alongside all of the horseback trails leading to Steamboat from the surrounding mountains. It was hard for travelers on horseback to overlook F.M. Light & Sons, "Clothiers to Men of Distinction." The distinctive signs have become perhaps the store's most famous trademark, dotting the highways leading to Steamboat.

On the road

Annabeth said the practice of visiting farms and ranches with a truck full of samples was critical to the store's ability to survive the Depression. At the time, "it was kind of slim pickings," she said. "But they made fast friends of these customers. My father was still doing it when he died in 1975."

The Light men became extremely proficient at turning around the rural orders, phoning them in at their first opportunity. Back at the store, the ranch orders were packed within 24 hours of being placed. It was good fortune that the post office was right next to the store, allowing the packages of dungarees, work gloves, Stetson hats and work shirts to be shipped quickly.

Soon, loading up the trucks with samples in the spring and autumn became a way of life for the Light men. They made multiple trips each season and might be gone for a day, or for as long as two weeks when they made the long swing to Jackson, Wyo., and back. More typically, they made shorter rounds through nearby Jackson, Eagle, Garfield and Moffat counties.

Putting customers first

Ranch workers of the early days in Northwest Colorado remember looking forward to the visits of the F.M. Light truck.

"It was the highlight of the summer," North Park ranch hand Donna Hellyer recalled. "They always had Levi shirts and straw hats."

Jan Davis, who grew up on a ranch in North Park, said the much-anticipated visits of F.M. Light & Sons helped ranchers keep their crews intact.

"We had hay crews of 30 men," Davis said. The clothes they ordered from the Light men "came out of their paycheck at the end of the month."

They didn't have to go to town to look for the items they needed, and that was a good thing. "When the men went to town, they sometimes didn't come back," Davis said.

It was also a good practice for F.M. Light & Sons. Rather than collect cash from every cowboy in the territory, they dealt seemlessly with ranch owners who had come to know and trust them.

By most accounts, Clarence Light's personality reflected a mixture of his no-nonsense approach to business matters and genuine warmth for his customers.

"My father was all business all the time," said Margaret Light Curdy. "But he was always friendly to his customers," and the business was built on the belief that the customer was always right.

For many years, for customers whose tabs crossed a certain threshold, change was returned in the form of silver dollars. It was just one of those special touches Steamboat's oldest retailer has always extended to customers.

The next generations

Annabeth Light married Lloyd Lockhart, her high school sweetheart, two weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Soon, he would leave Colorado for Europe, where his Army unit took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Lloyd later worked for the original Frontier Airlines in Denver. But Annabeth and her husband would return to Steamboat. When Clarence expressed an interest in 1963 in semi-retirement, it was Annabeth and Lloyd who pursued purchasing the store.

Lloyd Lockhart recalls that the store in Steamboat served as a wholesaler, providing essentials to smaller stores in places such as Wolcott and Lay, where the owners hadn't developed the relationships F.M. Light & Sons had with its suppliers. So, they provided items such as work gloves to stock the smaller stores.

Just as Annabeth and Lloyd returned to Steamboat, their sons Ty and Del also returned to their hometown after brief careers in aeronautical engineering.

Ty says his earliest memory of the store is of bumping his head on the sharp corner of a display case. Del will never get the fragrance of Levis 501 jeans out of his nostrils.

Ty returned to the store in the early 1970s, and Del joined him in the 1980s.

The brothers say it's sometimes eerie how they feel almost genetically connected to the business principles, work ethic and traditions of creative marketing the earlier generations practiced in the store.

Ty believes succeeding generations who have worked in the store were shaped by the experience of surviving the Great Depression.

"Clarence kept track of everything down to the penny," Ty said. "Family members didn't take merchandise out of the store without paying full price. They were always scared that another depression would come up. They didn't take a dime out of here without writing it down."

"Their integrity and honesty became the lifestyle of the store," Lloyd said.

Del quickly adds that hard work always has been part of that ethic. A willingness to adapt to changing times continues to be a part of the store's success, Del said. F.M. Light & Sons was among the first retail stores in Steamboat to take advantage of the strengths of computerized inventory control, he added.

"We've always avoided complacency and realized that things can change really, really quickly," Del said.

One thing that hasn't changed on Lincoln Avenue is the steady presence of a pioneer retailing family that understands the hard work and sacrifice that made Steamboat Springs what it is.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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