Steamboat Ski Area celebrates 50th anniversary
Forty-one years have passed since a pair of Steamboat ski instructors who knew how to handle a quarterhorse as well as they could ski the moguls posed for a photograph that endures as the definitive symbol of this cowboy ski town.
Skiers across the world know it as the Steamboat barn poster, but it ought to be known as the More Barn poster after the longtime ranching family that gave permission for the photo shoot on their property along Pine Grove Road.
Jo Semotan remembers well that frigid February morning in 1972 when she and Rusty Chandler climbed into the saddle — he on a gelding and she on a frisky mare owned by Clarence Wheeler — and rode through unblemished snow that reached to the horses’ bellies.
It didn’t hurt that their path took them in front of the classic Western barn, with the slopes of Mount Werner as a backdrop. The poster that resulted has lured generations of skiers to Ski Town USA, and it has sold many cowboy hats.
“It was right after Winter Carnival. The shoot was scheduled for the break of dawn, and it just happened to have snowed 18 inches overnight,” Semotan said. “That was normal, but it also was a blessing. It was so deep that Rusty’s feet were dragging through the snow. We just had rubber galoshes over our cowboy boots, and it was cold.”
Mix Beauvais, director of sales for the ski area at the time, remembers best that photographer Gerald Brimacombe wouldn’t get a reshoot because once the horses had tracked the snow, it would be all over until the next big storm.
“It was a one-shot deal. We knew we had to get it the first time,” Beauvais said.
Brimacombe said almost 45 years as a contract photographer for Life magazine had prepared him to expect the unexpected and to make the most of what the weather and the setting offered. In this case, he and Minneapolis-based advertising agency Wilson Griak consulted closely on how the shot should look.
“We didn’t know about the snow and the lighting, but we went out there, and it was just spectacular,” Brimacombe recalled. “There was sort of a soft mist in the air, so it wasn’t harsh lighting, and the snow was really beautiful. Everyone just set up, I composed the image, and away we went.”
But did anyone recognize at the time how special the photograph would turn out to be?
According to those on the scene, they immediately sensed that it was a beautiful image, but no one could guess that it would turn into an iconic image that would live for a half-century or more.
“Everybody (else) was out of their mind,” Semotan remembered. “We didn’t think too much about it, except we had cold feet.”
Beauvais knew it would be a great image, but it wasn’t until he began carting the poster to ski shows all across the country that he fully grasped its impact.
“I always knew it was going to be long term,” Beauvais said. “There was nothing out there like it.”
An interesting historical note is that the photo opportunity at the barn was a last-minute addition to a multiday still and film shoot.
In those days, the ski area worked with Wilson Griak to create its annual campaign, which included a ski film complete with original music. In that era, of course, the crews were not shooting video but actual movie film.
In February 1972, Beauvais said, they were intent on shooting a stagecoach action scene when he and Steve Griak, along with Brimacombe, spied the pristine snow in front of the More Barn and visualized a pair of riders on horseback in the scene with Hart skis slung over their saddle pommels.
Chandler was a ski jumper from New Hampshire who, under the tutelage of Olympic skier Skeeter Werner, had become expert on Alpine boards and risen to the rank of ski school supervisor.
Semotan was an Elk River ranch kid who was an expert skier and was able to bring the agricultural and resort communities together.
“Every year, Mix Beauvais asked me to find a location and get cowboys and horses and stagecoaches because at that time, the relationship between the ski area and the ag area was not real close,” Semotan recalled.
So, it was Semotan who could approach Jerry More for permission to shoot on his property and line up the horses from Wheeler.
Beauvais knew he wanted Chandler for the barn shoot, but Semotan was struggling to find a cowgirl because the local ranch women were busy feeding cattle. Finally, Beauvais realized that Semotan was the obvious choice.
Did the photo shoot turn Semotan and Chandler into local celebrities?
“We took a terrible teasing from the ski school and our friends,” Semotan recalled. “They’d say, ‘What were you guys doing in that barn?’”
For the historical record, the two attractive horseback riders were “compatriots” but were never romantically involved.
Steamboat’s claim to being a Western ski town is legitimate — ranchers pioneered the first ski trails on Storm Mountain and ranchers drove the first grooming machines. But the barn poster was pure marketing genius.