Tom Ross: Furniture maker’s national reputation has roots in Routt County’s Strawberry Park
August 7, 2013
Steamboat Springs — When Robert Erickson returns to Steamboat Springs this month he'll bring with him stories of building the original Thunderhead chairlift at the Steamboat Ski Area and memories of his late Strawberry Park neighbor, Daisy Anderson Leonard. She was a noted local author and one of the country's longest surviving Civil War widows.
Erickson, a longtime maker of custom hardwood furniture, will be here Aug. 16 to 18 to show his elegant chairs during the All Arts Festival. Made of cherry, walnut, oak and elm, the different designs have his signature floating back in common. The curved slats on the back of the chairs bend to support their owners' backs.
Erickson began his career as a fine craft furniture builder, working in the barn of Linda and the late Wayne Kakela in Strawberry Park in 1971. But six years earlier, as a recent high school graduate, Erickson worked with ski area pioneers Marvin Crawford, Willis Nash and John Fetcher on the original Thunderhead chairlift. It was the first lift that ferried skiers to Thunderhead Peak.
"In 1965, fresh out of high school, I was offered a summer job in Steamboat Springs," Erickson said this week. "The mother of my best friend, Harry Gaylor, had recently moved to Steamboat, and she arranged to have us hired at the mountain. It changed my life. I returned in summers to work at the mountain during college and came back after graduating for a year to begin making furniture."
Today, Erickson builds highly sought-after hardwood chairs and tables from a shop in Nevada City, Calif., and has enough orders to keep himself busy through the spring of 2014. His furniture can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Yale Art Gallery and the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
Erickson said he's eager to get reacquainted with Steamboat this month and will invite prospective buyers and the just-plain curious to have a seat at his All Arts Festival booth.
"People have to sit in these things," Erickson said of his chairs, which can cost $3,000 and more. "When you try out this chair, it has a surprise. The feel to the chair is very distinctive."
The 1960s in Strawberry Park
Erickson had access to some interesting periods in Steamboat history as the little ranching town with a small ski area in its backyard at Howelsen Hill tipped toward becoming a destination resort.
"We mixed hundreds of cubic yards of concrete with a hand mixer and poured all of those foundations for the Thunderhead (lift towers)," he recalled. "When it was time to shovel gravel, Marvin (Crawford) would jump in and shovel right along with us. John Fetcher surveyed the road system up to the top, and Willis Nash ran an old World War II Caterpillar."
At home in Strawberry Park, Daisy Anderson was his landlord. Miss Daisy, as she was known to some, married Civil War veteran and one-time slave Robert Anderson in Forest City, Ark., in 1922 when he was 79 and she was 21. He had fled his plantation with his master's blessing in time to join the Union Army in the last days of the Civil War in 1865.
Mr. Anderson died eight years after he married Daisy but left a modest fortune behind after successfully running a ranch in Nebraska. In the wake of the Great Depression, she found her way to her sister's home outside Steamboat where Daisy raised poultry and gardened.
"Harry and I lived in a pink, painted cabin owned by Daisy," Erickson recalled. "She lived right next to us. She would bring us vegetables she had harvested from her garden. She taught me how to make rhubarb sauces, and she brought us peaches from Grand Junction.
"Daisy drove a green Army surplus open-air Jeep and always wore a red bandana around her head."
But Daisy was best known for writing a book about her late husband's life entitled "From Slavery to Affluence: Memoirs of Robert Anderson, Ex-Slave," which won her international acclaim and allowed her to tour to give lectures.
When Daisy died in September 1998 in Denver at the age of 97, she left behind just two other surviving Civil War widows. Her obituary in The New York Times ran 22 paragraphs in length.
A life spent in the woodworking shop
Working from his shop in a historic little town about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento on the eastern edge of the Sierras, with his son, Tor, and wife, Erickson has gained notoriety for his chair designs that achieve elegance while providing comfortable lumbar support. One dining room chair can cost several thousand dollars. He also builds distinctive dining tables.
"The story is that I really got my start in Steamboat, and my initial inspiration came from working in Wayne's barn," Erickson said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com