How a herd of cows helped save Steamboat Ski Area

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Trivia about Steamboat

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Buddy Werner died in 1964.

Steamboat always has made a legitimate claim to being a cowboy ski town. What few people recall is that cows came to the rescue in the early 1960s when operators of the fledgling ski area were hard pressed to make payroll.

The opening of Steamboat Ski Area in January 1963 was a major accomplishment for a small group of determined visionaries that included Jim Temple, who grew up on the Focus Ranch. It was Temple who had the original vision for the ski area on Storm Mountain and poured his heart, soul and resources into the project. Other members in the venture included Jerry Groswald, the great four-way skier Marvin Crawford, and John Fetcher, who came together to form the Storm Mountain Ski Corp. The great ski racer Buddy Werner, who died in spring 1964 in an avalanche in Switzerland, also worked hard on getting the ski area opened. It was Buddy Werner who stayed up late on Christmas Eve 1962 splicing the lift cable for the first chairlift.

Hank Perry, of Denver, came on board a little later to help arrange financing for new lifts.

Fetcher was the local rancher with an Ivy League pedigree. He earned engineering and business degrees from Harvard and served as president of the ski area from 1962 to 1971.

But cash flow in the first years was so meager that Fetcher risked his ranch in the upper Elk River Valley near Clark to keep it going.

“My dad mortgaged the ranch and even the cows,” his son Jay Fetcher recalled, “Numerous times he would round up 10 cows at a time and use our farm truck to take them to Denver and sell them so that he could make payroll.”

Ultimately, Jay Fetcher said, it wasn’t the family’s beef cattle that put the ski area on strong footing, but Steamboat Lake.

How could a reservoir save a ski area almost 30 miles away?

“When the Division of Wildlife came to us and said they’d like to build a reservoir and bought half of the ranch, it allowed for the ranch to get out of mortgage,” Fetcher said.

That transaction allowed his father to leverage the ranch further to keep the ski area going.

In a recollection that he wrote on Jan. 31, 1994, John Fetcher described how in 1965, the company obtained a Small Business Administration loan for the construction of the old Thunderhead double chairlift, which rose 1,600 feet over its length of more than a mile.

“I remember that our contract with Miner-Denver for the towers, cable and machinery was under $111,360,” Fetcher wrote. “We installed it during the summer of 1965 for less than $50,000.”

The ski area negotiated a second SBA loan in 1968 for the first Four Points lift.

The future of the ski area began to change in 1969 with the realization by Fetcher and his colleagues that to become a destination resort, they needed to build a gondola to run from the ski base to the top of Thunderhead Peak. They began to look for well-capitalized suitors.

Three companies showed interest: LTV Aerospace, of Dallas; Brunswick Corp., of Chicago; and Johns Manville. On March 27, Fetcher wrote, a delegation from LTV confirmed its strong interest in acquiring the resort, and on April 18, the deal was cut to sell the ski area for $3.3 million.

LTV didn’t need to sell any cows to build the first six-passenger Stagecoach Gondola and the original phase of the Village Inn hotel we now know as the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. But visionary cows and the ranchers who counted them among their prized assets are part of Steamboat Ski Area’s history.

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