Hitchens brothers combined ranching and skiing in pursuit of happiness
July 27, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Diane Hitchens Holly regaled an audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday with stories of two sons of pioneers who grew up on a ranch outside Milner looking for some fun, each in his own way.
The brothers, Errold and Melvin Hitchens, could not have been more different from each other in their approaches to work and horses, which were one and the same in the 1930s and ’40s in Routt County. But when it came to skiing and the pursuit of fun, their lives intersected.
"They knew how not to take life too seriously," Holly said.
Errold was her father, and Melvin was her uncle.
Errold helped build some early ski lifts at Steamboat Ski Area and became its first ski patrolman, reveling in carving big turns on the wide-open slopes of Mount Werner.
Melvin grew up ski jumping at Howelsen Hill and then became one of its biggest benefactors throughout the years.
Horseback riding was one of the places where the brothers' life paths diverged.
"Melvin loved horses," Holly recalled. "He lived for horses and women. He was born on a horse and almost died on a horse. He rode into his 70s" and into his 80s continued to care for a couple of horses pastured on Snake Island near the Iron Horse Inn on the east edge of downtown Steamboat.
Errold, a hard-working rancher, who preferred to be called "Hitch," grew up riding an old jug-headed horse named Brownie to school.
"Here's my father's take on horses," Holly added. "The front bites, the back kicks and the middle is damned uncomfortable."
Melvin, who also preferred to be called "Hitch," was a self-described ladies' man who was known to have said, "My two vices are skis and shes."
Melvin's mission in life was to find a way to make a pile of money so that he would not have to work any longer. But a good deal of the money he made, more than $100,000, was donated to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
"If I could just figure out how to not have to work," Melvin was known to say out loud, Holly said.
He made a little money from a small strip mine near Milner but lost most of that when he tried to build a trout farm in the spoils pit from the mine. He bought 10,000 trout that quickly went belly up.
He finally figured out how to make a small fortune without lifting a finger. Melvin collected money from the county for allowing access across his land to the community dump west of Milner. And ultimately, he made more money by selling the dump (now a landfill) to the current owner.
Errold, the younger of the two by eight years, suffered a long convalescence after suffering serious burns in a gas explosion at the Tow Creek oil fields. But skiing helped to restore joy to his life.
Errold, Gerald Truax and Lloyd Patterson were paid only $1.75 per hour when they first began ski patrolling at Mount Werner in 1963, but the perks included family ski passes, and Holly has fond memories of skiing the big mountain as a girl and junior ski racer.
As a youth, Melvin was an avid ski jumper who would leave the ranch and catch the train into Steamboat for a day of ski jumping, then wait for hours to catch the train back to Milner.
He once wrote a check for $5,000 to help build a lift to the smaller ski jumps at Howelsen Hill and took the time to type a note on the check itself with an admonishment to "Do it as cheaply as you possibly can."
The Hitchens family ranch, known as Overlook Ranch, is recognized as one of a few centennial ranches in Routt County.
The family's legacy of combining ranching traditions with a devotion to skiing has left its mark on the Yampa Valley.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com