Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Vernon Summer told all the best stories at his 90th birthday party on Tuesday.
Summer ranched for many years and is a son of pioneers who weathered the hard times of the Great Depression. He is a historian and ski patrolman who bridged the gap between old time agriculture and ski town development. And he tells a great story.
Summer was feted by a crowd of friends and well-wishers at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs this week. He took obvious delight in all of the attention, which included enough cakes to support 90 candles, or at least it seemed that way.
Vernon's father, Louis, was just 13 in 1898 when his family of 14 arrived by horse-drawn wagon to file claim to a homestead. Louis and his parents came from Georgetown by way of Austria. Perhaps skiing has always been a part of Vernon's genetic makeup.
Grandfather Summer took the "relinquishment" of a Frenchman, Monsieur LeVine, which amounted to a quarter section in the rich river bottomlands at a site that would become the now-vanished town of Sidney.
The family spent that first winter in a log cabin with dirt covering the roofing boards. When spring arrived, they planted a garden in the dirt on the roof.
"My father used to tell that story and laugh," Vernon said. "He liked to say that whenever they needed a carrot or an onion, they just reached up and pulled one through the roof!"
Vernon was born in town, in a stone house on Pine Street. But he wasn't a town kid. He spent most of his time in the productive farmlands of the South Valley. He and his sister, Evelyn, attended the first eight grades at the old Sidney School.
When cattle prices bottomed out in the depths of the Great Depression, Vernon's father lost his ranch, but continued working Grandpa Summer's place.
Vernon told the Steamboat Pilot in 1971 of the indelible memories of Steamboat during the Depression of the late 1920s.
"One thing which sticks in my mind is the time a man from below town stole a sack of flour from the grocery store. The undersheriff was sent to bring back both the flour and the thief. When he arrived and opened the door, there was the family, all gathered around the open sack. The children were shoveling it into their mouths as fast as they could. When the grocer heard about it, he insisted on sending $25 in groceries to the family and no charges were ever pressed."
Vernon has always been an avid skier and ski historian. He served on the National Ski Patrol for 16 years, from 1961 to 1976. He was on the Steamboat Ski Patrol for 10 years and was patrol leader in 1964 and 1965. He earned many NASTAR medals in citizens' ski races on Mount Werner.
In June 1970, Vernon accepted a post on the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission and said, "I feel that the influx of people here is inevitable and orderly planning is a must in the interests of the people that live here now and those that are coming."
That statement was made just 37 years ago. I guess we should add "prescient" to all of Vernon's admirable qualities.
Vernon told a wonderful story Tuesday about a skiing adventure he undertook in April 1954 with Dick Randolph, John Fetcher and a young man, Larry Larson, who was a high school honor student at the time.
The men took off up the Rainbow Lake Trail from the North Park side of the Park Range. They were on a mission to test the latest survival equipment, including eider down pants and sleeping bags, Vernon recalled. They camped the first night in a tent at Slide Lake, just above Rainbow Lake. The next morning they set out for the 11,923-foot summit of Mount Ethel.
"I remember that the wind had blown the snow off the summit and it was bare," Vernon said. "But we did see six ptarmigan."
"I remember the ptarmigan!" Fetcher chimed in.
Retreating from the mountaintop to the west side of the Continental Divide, they camped a second night at Windy Gap. The third day they skied down the range into Strawberry Park and they were home.
If the Yampa Valley is the place you call home, you should know it is enriched by special people like Vernon Summer, who have always embraced change and the new folks it brings.
Happy birthday, Vernon. You're the best.