Steamboat Living: Tom Ross Remembers — Festivals of the Bygone Wild West

Remember the Fall Foliage Festival and the Tugboat River Race?

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Tom Ross

Sure, Steamboat has a full lineup of festivals this summer to help keep tourism dollars flowing all season. But have you ever wondered what happened to some of those long-forgotten festivals that have gone on eternal sabbatical?

Quite a few stand out, from Steamboat’s Way it Wuz Days and Fall Foliage Festival to the Rockin’ Roundup, Tugboat River Race, Vintage Auto Races and even this year’s loss of the Sisters in Steamboat Festival.

They’re all special events that spiced up Steamboat’s summer calendar until they went the way of the grizzly bear — never to be glimpsed here again.

Steamboat’s calendar of special events is so packed that we’re sometimes forced to make difficult decisions between a weekend camping trip and a free concert, art opening, author symposium or festival.

Take, for instance, the weekend of July 12 and 13. If you toss the camping gear in the back of the car and bug out after work on Friday, you’ll miss a free concert by the Drive by Truckers, a concert by Nashville (and Steamboat) string wizard Brent Rowan, the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo, one of the best farmers markets of the season and the ever-eclectic Art in the Park festival.

But it wasn’t always that way. Dating back to the late 1970s and early ’80s, Steamboat’s summer season didn’t really get underway until the Fourth of July and Cowboys’ Roundup Days. Except for the Steamboat Marathon (32 years and going strong) and the old Jackpot Rodeo Series, June was a dead zone in terms of tourism. While plenty of residents didn’t mind, others did — especially those in the service sector, a big part of Steamboat’s employment base. It was difficult to retain employees when they finally emerged from mud season only to face five more weeks before seeing a paycheck or full tip jar. Those forgotten festivals, now gone the way of the dodo, tried to thwart that trend.

The Tugboat River Race, which took place whenever the Yampa River dropped to a level safe enough for buzzed floaters to safely navigate the riffles, was a great fundraiser for local nonprofits, but not an event the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association would want families on vacation to jump into. Let’s just say it was R rated.

The Way it Wuz Days was a well-intentioned but doomed event that sought to revive Steamboat’s summer tourism economy with replica pioneer and Indian villages near the Meadows Parking Lot. Somehow, people from Denver saw through its smoke signals and stayed away.

The lineup for the first Rockin’ Roundup concert at the base of the ski area — including country crossover acts like Clint Black, John Prine and Asleep at the Wheel — appeared to be a big success. Somewhere along the way, Santana and the Allman Brothers were “that close” to headlining an additional festival here but were deemed not to fit Steamboat’s Western image. So we wound up with bluegrass banjo great Earl Scruggs and James Brown on the same lineup. Now, Steamboat has settled into a nice groove with its Free Summer Concert Series with shows you can’t turn down.

The vrooming Vintage Auto Races brought droves of affluent classic sports car enthusiasts to town every August for a long run in the ’80s. But continuing condo development near Eagle Ridge Drive and Mount Werner Circle made racing cars on city streets at 90 mph not quite, shall we say, PC.

The strategy that finally turned the corner for Steamboat’s summer season came when officials seized on the capacity of homegrown sporting events and organizations like Triple Crown to attract people here. Today, festivals and tournaments centering around everything from wine, beer, wild mushrooms and the river to biking, softball, rugby, soccer, stock dogs, cranes, authors and mustangs have continued to pick up where the other festivals have fizzled.

Someday they, too, might get eclipsed by still other events and take flight. But I’m sure whatever new ones come along will continue to ring with locals while they ring local registers. Might I propose bringing back a celebrity chef Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry? After all, this is still the Wild West. ■

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