Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Ski Haus owner Rod Schrage, the dean of ski shop operators in Ski Town USA, told a Tread of Pioneers Museum audience Friday that it originally was the Yampa Valley’s prize-winning Hereford beef cattle and not skis that provided him an introduction to Steamboat.
“I started my ski career in Iowa, which is very difficult,” Schrage said. “We used to have skating parties along a river. Someone brought skis intending to ski down a hill to the river. They got hurt, decided they were done with skiing and left the skis behind.”
Schrage claimed the abandoned skis, and his fate was sealed.
Schrage grew up in a small farm community in Northern Iowa where his father, Eugene, owned an LP Gas company. But his family always had farmed and continues to do so to this day. When Eugene Schrage sold his business to another family in the mid-1960s, he returned to farming. The elder Schrage had read that some of the best Hereford breeding stock in the country could be found in the Yampa Valley, and he came west to buy cattle. Eugene Schrage was taken with the landscape and had a sense that his son would be happy here. He brought home the cattle and planted a seed in his son’s mind.
Rod Schrage, who was in high school, discovered that the new owners of the LP Gas company owned a home in Steamboat and saw a chance to pursue his passion for skiing on a grander scale.
“I’d been reading all about Steamboat and (ski racing great) Buddy Werner,” Schrage recalled.
He spent his first Christmas holiday here in December 1966 as a high school student, babysitting the children of the family that bought his father’s business. Today, he presides over a compact but diverse retailing empire at the corner of U.S. Highway 40 and Pine Grove Road where in addition to his year-round outdoor sporting goods store, he operates a gas station and a liquor store.
Schrage arrived on the scene early enough to see Steamboat Ski Area in its early years, when the original Christie and Thunderhead chairlifts were the only lifts on the mountain.
“When I graduated from high school in 1968 and enrolled at (Yampa Valley College now Colorado Mountain College) it was quite a shock after being here at Christmas and realizing there was no radio station,” Schrage recalled. “Music was a big deal in the '60s, but KRAI in Craig was playing the Sons of the Pioneers in those days, and the only theater in Steamboat was the Chief, and they were playing John Wayne reruns. Steamboat pretty much did not exist beyond the (swimming) pool.”
Schrage got hooked up with Tenth Mountain Division veteran and ski instructor Rudy Schnackenberg, who taught him how to turn his skis both ways. He also got a job working at Ski Haus in downtown Steamboat at 805 Lincoln Ave. The shop sold skis in the winter but switched to hunting rifles, Yamaha motorcycles and boat motors in the summers.
Merle Sandefur was running the downtown store, and Ken Harrell was running a store at the ski area. Schrage went home for the summer of 1969, but he and his father returned to camp and fish and heard that Ski Haus might be for sale at an attractive price.
Father and son didn’t wait long before putting the deal together.
“My father was not going to hand this store over to an 18-year-old kid,” Schrage said, so he hired local building contractor Tom Burnham to run the store during the ski season, and Rod became an employee.
“Tom Burnham proceeded to put his signature on the store,” Schrage said. “He was a cigar-smoking and chewing guy who was gruff, but a total likable guy. He patterned the store, the first step (to) what it is today.”
Not long after the Schrages acquired Ski Haus, Texas aerospace company LTV-RDI purchased the ski area and began investing heavily in improvements like the first gondola, and business at Ski Haus increased dramatically.
Burnham went off to concentrate on his construction business, and Eugene Schrage agreed to turn the business over to his young son but called every morning at 6 a.m. to check up on him and traveled monthly to Steamboat to do the inventory.
“The first five years in the '70s were magic. Our business doubled and tripled,” Schrage said.
But the disastrous winter of 1976-77, when the ski area finally opened right before Christmas only to close Jan. 2 until February, changed everything.
Schrage since has learned that the fortunes of local ski shops rise and fall with the community.
“My whole thing with Ski Haus has been ups and downs. I don’t think there’s any business in Steamboat that doesn’t follow the town,” Schrage said.
Some of Schrage’s favorite memories of skiing in Steamboat go back to the early days when his golden retriever used to run up beneath Christie in order to “ski” back down with him, and those magical mornings when a couple of friends knew how to turn on the chairlift, and they all helped themselves to early powder when no one was around.
“I’m about 63 years old. I have no thoughts of retiring, and I like what I do,” Schrage concluded.
Schrage’s Ski Haus has matured into a landmark in the skiing landscape of Steamboat Springs and a link to the modern history of the community.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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