Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs There’s a posse of card sharks that’s been operating in Steamboat for 80 years and I dare say very few people are aware of the activities of the Mesa Club.
They play a friendly game of 500 every Wednesday afternoon in the breakfast room of the historic Rabbit Ears Motel. Then, on Saturday, a few of the wilder members of the all-ladies club step up to nickel/dime pinochle. On a bad night, somebody can lose 40 cents.
Things turn serious Sunday nights at Rose Hart’s house when they deal Texas Hold’em. It was Lyle Koehler’s 90th birthday this past Sunday and her friends celebrated by taking $21 off that sweet elderly soul.
“Lyle is a great Texas Hold’em player,” Hart said. “She’s smart with her bets.”
Koehler has a different philosophy of winning at cards.
“It’s all positive thinking,” she said. “If you think negatively, you won’t get any cards.”
Lyle and her late husband, Ron, purchased the Rabbit Ears Motel in 1970 and her family continues to run it. She and her husband were jazz fans and traveled far and wide to attend live performances. They also excelled at dancing and once jitterbugged in front of the Montana State Legislature in Helena, accepting ward bonds as their honorarium. But that’s another story.
The Mesa Club is named after the little red Mesa Schoolhouse easily visible from U.S. Highway 40 south of town. It didn’t begin as a card club. Instead, it was called the Homemakers Club.
Longtime member (think 1946) Katherine Gourley explained that the club was initiated by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in about 1930. The intent was to support rural ranch families, she said.
“It started as a home demonstration club,” Gourley said. “An extension agent (Josephine Chambers) came from Hayden and taught canning and cooking and crafts — things like making baskets out of pine needles and toys out of inner tubes.”
To understand the origins of the club it helps to understand a little bit about life in rural Steamboat on the edge of the Great Depression. People were much more self-reliant in terms of producing their own food.
Communities were organized around school districts and their one-room schoolhouses, Gourley said. Her family lived in the Sidney District just a few miles from the family of Elaine Gay in the Mesa District.
Women from the different districts gathered once a month. And there wasn’t much entertainment to be had — of course there were no TV sets, and radios were battery operated.
People owned automobiles, but they weren’t always the most practical form of transportation. In winter, the women might arrive on horseback or ride on a heavy sled pulled by a team. The roads were never plowed.
Elaine Gay, 93, can recall her mother hosting the gatherings of the Homemakers Club and the extension agent supplying everyone with aluminum pressure cookers so they could learn to can food for the long Routt County winters without risking exposing their families to botulism.
Somehow instruction in the home arts gave way to endless hands of pinochle and 500, and Gay is the right person to explain this enduring transformation.
“After pressure cookers came exercise,” Gay recalled. “None of us had ever done exercise before, but Mrs. Irving, who was 85, could do cartwheels. I guess they thought ranch women didn’t have enough to do. But that was the end of it.”
Well, not quite the end of it.
“In about 1935 we thought, ‘Let’s have some fun!’” Gay said. “We got together with the men for dinner and played the game of 500.”
Gourley added that it wasn’t long before the men were banned from the gatherings except for one night a year, and the future of the Mesa Club was set.
Throughout the years in Steamboat, I’ve noticed that it’s the determination of the individuals within generations to carry on traditions that best preserves the character of a community.
Whether it’s weekly rodeos in summer, Winter Carnival in winter or hosting the best Independence Day fireworks in all of Colorado, it is those traditions and the people who carry on who determine the character of Steamboat Springs.
So let’s recognizes the lady card sharks of the Mesa Club for preserving an important component of rural life in the Yampa Valley.
Just don’t bet against them in a game of pinochle. They’ll take your lunch money.