Steamboat's most important home is back in tune

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A piano, most likely produced before 1873, sits inside the historic home of James Crawford. The piano probably was purchased in Denver before being shipped to Steamboat Springs and would be similar to those found in bars and taverns of the time.

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It seems only fitting that the home of James and Maggie Crawford stands on a hill in downtown Steamboat Springs overlooking Howelsen Hill. Many of the stones, including those that form the foundation and those that provide the large, arched entryway, were cut from quarries on Emerald Mountain.

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James Crawford moved along with his family into the unsettled Yampa Valley in 1875. The family lived in two log cabins and a framed house in what is now called Old Town Steamboat Springs before moving into the native sandstone home. The outside of the home, and the materials James Crawford used to create it, reflect the Steamboat Springs area and the time period in which he built the home.

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The rustic entryway of the Crawford home is like stepping into the past. Many of the mantles and fireplace fixtures were purchased from the Sears catalog. However, some of the rockwork around the mantles uses native stone and even onyx mined from quarries around Howelsen Hill.

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This rocking chair, which is now found in the main downstairs living room of the Crawford House, was a favorite of James Crawford. Bill Irvine, who spent three years refurbishing the home, says he has found many photos of James sitting in the chair.

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Bill Irvine is reflected in the mirror of a mantle on one of the fireplaces inside the Crawford home. Photos of settler James Crawford and his children are on display.

James and Maggie Crawford's old Hallett and Cumston upright piano is back in the parlor where it belongs, and their Romanesque revival home is back in the family, too.

After more than 50 years in the hands of others, the descendants of Steamboat Springs' founding family once again own and cherish the grand home that became, in the early 1890s, a symbol of the community's growing prosperity.

Jim Crawford and his wife, Anna Fang, of Belmont, Mass., own the historic sandstone block home on Crawford Hill built by his great-grandparents James Harvey and Margaret Crawford from 1893 to 1895.

Jim's sisters, Sharon Crawford, of Frisco, and Nancy Rosi, of Denver, along with their guests, are always welcome to visit.

The piano, which Jim guesses was purchased used in Denver and brought back in a horse-drawn freight wagon, was repurchased from a Steamboat landlord who kept it in a rental home. Now, it sits in its traditional spot in the Crawford parlor.

After reacquiring their family's historic home from Pam and Jerry Nettleton in 2004, Jim and Anna have completed a detailed ground-floor restoration with the help of Hayden craftsman Bill Irvine. Steamboat contractor Tyke Pierce built a modern addition on the back of the old house to provide comfort that is up to contemporary standards.

Although he had never spent any time in the homes of his great-grandparents, Jim Crawford, a career computer programmer - the last 15 with America Online - has long felt a passion for it.

"There was no question I wanted the house," Crawford said. "Buying this house was reconnecting with our ancestors."

The old upright piano plays a symbolic role in the restoration of this singular house that provides a direct link to the personalities who founded the community.

James and Maggie Crawford always opened their home to neighbors and strangers, and musical gatherings were a big part of their hospitality. Their son, Logan, played the fiddle, and John played the banjo. On summer nights, the lights were on and the front door was open, encouraging neighbors to gather and socialize.

The family that grouses

The original grandeur of the Crawfords' home is evident in the faithfully restored flooring and woodwork. It is honored by the laborious preservation of double-hung 116-year-old windows and even the mortar in the repaired stone work. Look closely and you'll see it in carefully chosen furnishings and historic family objects.

The restored front portion of Jim and Anna's home is a comfortable museum that affords visitors a sense of James and Maggie. Walk from room to room and you glimpse a pair of stuffed blue grouse shot by one of the Crawford boys. There are original paintings by the Crawfords' daughter, Lulie, and son, Logan, along with photographs of 1886 hunting trips in North Park. There are even Mexican relics collected by James Harvey on his trips abroad.

Walk into the foyer and one immediately acquires a sense of who the Crawfords were and how they lived at the end of the 19th century.

Roots in Central Missouri

James and Maggie grew up on farms near Sedalia, Mo., and married after James returned from serving for three years as a lieutenant in the Union Army. They farmed quietly in Missouri for seven years, but then James moved his family to Beaver Brook, Colo., and later Hot Sulphur Springs.

During spring 1874, James made a trip to the Yampa Valley and staked a homestead claim. He moved his family into the unsettled land in 1875, and they moved into the first of two rustic log cabins. They later built a frame house in what is now commonly called Old Town Steamboat before finally building the house of native sandstone where they lived until their deaths - James in 1930 and Maggie in 1939.

Jim Crawford, the modern owner of the historic Crawford house, grew up on Indian reservations across the West, listening to his father's inspired stories of the home in Steamboat they never returned to. James Daniel Crawford, Jim's father, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as superintendent of several reservations. Later in his career, he settled the family in Billings, Mont.

But even on vacations, they didn't visit Steamboat, taking camping trips closer to home.

"Until we moved to Billings, we always lived 70 miles down a dirt road," Jim said. "Dad (James Daniel Crawford) never moved back here, but this was home even though he hadn't been here for 30 or 40 years."

Jim did not set eyes on the Crawford home in Steamboat until he had reached college age.

After the death of Margaret Crawford, the house was inherited by a group of family members. Later, it was owned and occupied by a succession of four local families. One family hosted Church of Scientology meetings in the house, and another housed bed and breakfast guests in the upper story.

Irvine's passion for the historic residence matches that of the modern Crawford family.

"It's the biggest job I've ever done and the one I'm most proud of," Irvine said.

Picking at the details

During the three-year job, 78 of the locally quarried stones on the front façade were removed from the 20-inch thick walls, just to get at the keystones over the front window so they could be repaired.

The original mortar was lime and sand, Irvine said. Mason Jeff Kortas had special tools made for hand pointing the new mortar.

The finish of the original molding was painstakingly restored, but not to the point of perfection.

"We didn't remove the scars from the house, we made it fresh," Irvine said.

The dramatic staircase with its built-in bench, where traveling strangers were welcome to sleep, received special attention. One summer, Irvine assigned an intern to use dental picks to remove gaudy mint green paint from the balusters.

Irvine is impressed with the original stonemasons, whom he said did excellent work.

They anticipated that the massive walls would settle over time and built accessible bolts into the wall so they could be used to re-level the walls.

The stonemasons' compensation, Irvine added, included horses valued at $1,025.

First Caucasian family

When the Crawford family moved to the big bend in the Yampa River and built their first cabin, they left friends, family and 19th-century civilization behind. They naturally befriended the native Ute Indians, who became their only companions.

"My grandfather moved here with his parents when he was an infant," Jim said. "Our grandfather's playmates growing up were Indian boys. He and his brother, Logan, played with (Chief) Yahmonite's grandson."

The original settlers of Steamboat Springs lived remarkable lives and through force of personality guided a tiny frontier town into an era of culture and prosperity. It's a story that is well chronicled in a series of highly readable books by family member Lulita Crawford Pritchett that is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

But if you want to get a true sense of Steamboat's founding family, and you're fortunate enough to receive an invitation, ride up Crawford Hill and enter the parlor where the old upright piano waits. The sheet music on the stand is titled "With Maggie by my Side."

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