Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Tread of Pioneers Museum’s Brown Bag Lecture Series is held at noon every Friday through Sept. 2. The events are free, and most are at the museum at Eighth and Oak streets.
Remaining lectures in July include:
■ July 15: Jim Crawford talks about the life of James Crawford, who founded Steamboat Springs.
■ July 22: Jim Stanko meets the group at the Steamboat Springs Cemetery for a talk about cemetery history and pioneer tales.
■ July 29: Mountaineering pioneer Bob Beverly shares his experiences in the early days of climbing in the Zirkel-Dome Wilderness.
Steamboat Springs A cabbage patch almost got in the way of love when the late Bob Gay first began courting his future wife, Elaine Becker, nearly 73 years ago.
Elaine Gay, now 93, grew up on the old Kemry place on modern day Routt County Road 24 just a few miles south of the current city limits.
Bob and Elaine were the son and daughter of true Routt County pioneers and she continues to live and work on their homestead ranch in Pleasant Valley. Elaine still bakes a loaf of French bread nearly every day and cooks for the ranch crew.
Today, the county road serves as the entrance to the Priest Creek Ranch estate home subdivision. The area had been homesteaded by Chester Priest in about 1898, hence the name of the creek. But Elaine’s family lived in a more modern 1930s-era home that still houses a Routt County family.
Bob and Elaine’s son, Bill, recounted the story of his parents’ courtship before a packed house Friday in the Utterback Room of the Tread of Pioneers Museum for the weekly Brown Bag Lecture Series.
Elaine’s father had one of the biggest vegetable gardens in the upper Yampa Valley in that era.
“Back in the days when Rabbit Ears Pass was closed in the winter, my grandfather was one of the primary growers of vegetables for the Safeway store in Steamboat Springs,” Bill Gay said. In winters, “he took cabbages, turnips and potatoes to the store with a team of horses and a sled.”
Young Elaine was given primary responsibility for the cabbages and those chores almost thwarted a romantic date one summer evening.
“When my father called on mother for a date, she said she still had to finish watering 2,500 cabbages,” Gay told his audience. “I think he thought she was kidding. But they used buckets to dip water out of the creek and water those cabbages — no power, no hoses, no pumps!”
What wouldn’t you do for love?
The great cabbage patch date dovetails nicely with Gay’s talk Friday about the evolution of agriculture in Routt County.
His grandparents were French-speaking Swiss immigrants who came to Western Colorado for a chance at a better life.
“We came from the poorest of the poor in Europe — people who had been pushed higher and higher into the Alps where poor soil resulted in poor production,” Gay said. “What a grand opportunity it was for them to come to America. We are grateful beyond belief.”
Today, Bill Gay, his mother and nephew Todd Hagenbuch continue to grow hay and raise beef cattle on Green Creek Ranch.
Farming and ranching in the Yampa Valley was different for the early pioneers from what we know today. The Homestead Act allowed them to “prove up” 160 acres, and they focused on dual-purpose cattle that represented a balance between production of milk and beef. They made cheese from the milk and they grew vegetables.
Gradually, improved irrigation allowed the farmers to grow more hay, which allowed them to raise more cow/calf pairs, supporting beef production.
“In the 1940s there were 35 cow/calf operations between Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs. There’s one left. That would be us,” Gay said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, mechanized hay production allowed ranches to bloom, and thanks to ranchers like Bill Ross, the Barbers, the Kemrys and the Nefzgers, the valley became known as a hub for regional ranchers to find quality animals to grow their own herds.
“It was an era when we were known for seed stock, but it’s all gone,” Gay said.
By the 1970s, the Routt County ranching industry became sidetracked with an infatuation with larger cattle from Europe that promised to produce more pounds of beef and milk. But those animals produced large calves that led to difficult births and proved to be labor intensive.
The valley returned to relying on the tried and true Angus and Hereford cattle that do so well in this region.
However, ranching still is changing here. The high cost of fuel is driving up the cost of hay production and more ranchers are abandoning mother cows and devoting their operations to buying steers to graze on natural pastures.
Making that change allows ranchers to avoid the expense, labor and debt associated with carrying pregnant cows through the long Routt County winters, Gay said.
Spring 2011 was a tough one on Green Creek Ranch. The cold mud was pervasive and baby calves struggled to keep their body temperatures up. The death of 15 to 20 calves was only partially offset by the birth of four sets of twins on the ranch.
Don’t worry, you can expect the members of the extended Gay family to carry on the agricultural traditions of the valley come heck or high water. It’s what they love to do.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com