Saturday, December 13, 2008
Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
Steamboat Springs As Steamboat kicks off a new holiday tradition tonight with Merry Mainstreet and the good folks in Hayden look forward to the tradition of the Roving Christmas Tree, it's good to be reminded that in a more innocent time, Steamboat youngsters looked forward every Christmas Eve to the popcorn balls that Santa Claus delivered to their doors.
For more than four decades, the late Walt Webber, his wife, Gertrude, and their friends and relatives ensured that every Steamboat household with young children received a visit from Santa. The merry old elf's panel van even pulled a large Christmas tree through the downtown streets on a wagon.
It's amazing to think that Santa Walt Webber would be 115 years old were he alive today. Walt died at the age of 90 in January, 1983. However, for a generation of Steamboaters, he was an "electrifying" personality in the community.
Born in Fruita in 1891, Walt learned the electrician's trade in Leadville as a youth. He served in the Army in World War I and upon his return to Colorado worked in various power plants in his home state and Wyoming, rising to the position of chief engineer.
Walt and his wife, Gertrude, moved to Steamboat in the 1920s to open Webber's Electric.
"When we came here, the only Christmas decorations were the street lamps at all the intersections on Lincoln Avenue," Gertrude Webber told former Steamboat Pilot Editor Dee Richards. "During the holidays, they were stuffed with red paper. It looked terrible."
Walt wasn't willing to accept such a poor excuse for holiday decorations.
Strings of colored holiday lights weren't available for purchase in those days. So Walt purchased clear lights and dipped them in a special dye he had to purchase in Denver. The lights were then strung across Lincoln, and later from the Routt County Courthouse.
Always looking for a way to use his electrical skills to contribute to the community, Walt ran the first electricity to Howelsen Hill. He also outfitted the panel van he used for work with two over-sized loudspeakers and provided the sound truck for special community events, like parades.
One winter, it occurred to Walt that he could play Christmas carols through his sound truck. He mounted Christmas trees on all four corners of the truck and drove through the neighborhoods. It was one of the Walt's daughters who suggested he pass out popcorn balls as he made his rounds.
After two holiday seasons of casually handing out popcorn balls, Walt acquired a Santa Claus suit, and before she knew it, Mrs. Webber and her friends were making as many as 895 popcorn balls a year. Gertrude Webber told student writer Dale Cooper in 1981, for an article in Three Wire Winter, a student-produced local history magazine from that era, that they were able to sweeten the pot considerably after Bob Heid of Boys' Market offered to supply candy at his cost.
Eventually, Walt replaced the four small trees on the sound truck with one very large, lighted tree, which he pulled behind the truck on a trailer. When the size of the tree increased year after year, the phone company and the electric cooperative agreed to raise the lines over the streets along Santa's route.
Santa Webber and his helpers began their Christmas Eve rounds at 5 p.m., with Walt walking the entire 9-mile route through Old Town Steamboat. They often didn't come home until after midnight.
In an era when Steamboat was much more isolated than it is today, the Webber family embodied the spirit of the holidays.