Tom Ross: Large trove of Steamboat memorabilia auctioned to highest bidders at Tugboat Grill & Pub
September 11, 2013
Steamboat Springs — There's only one way to put it. The Tugboat Grill & Pub, as we remember it, is gone. The irreplaceable ski town bar, where a stream of visitors packed in to rub shoulders with good-natured ski area workers throughout the course of four decades has been stripped of its meaning.
The collection of Steamboat's unofficial history museum was liquidated Wednesday. And with the dissolution of the trove of memorabilia on the Tugboat's storied walls, the legend of Ski Town USA was diminished.
The Colorado Department of Revenue did what it had to do under the law and auctioned off the contents of the Tugboat because the present owner had failed to remit sales tax monies to the state.
For former longtime owners Hank Edwards and Larry Lamb, who sold the iconic bar and restaurant in late August 2011, it was difficult to watch.
"It's emotional," Edwards said and started to say more before he checked himself.
Lamb plainly felt a strong connection to the memorabilia that ran from a who's who of Olympic skiers to sports car racers, Major League Baseball players, musicians, broadcasters and legendary fighter jocks.
“Yeah, it’s an emotional deal. I was hoping it would all sell to one bidder, and it could stay here,” Lamb said. "Hopefully, it all goes to good homes and people appreciate what they got.”
The Tugboat opened on New Year's Eve 1972, and Edwards and Lamb began working there in 1973. Edwards, a ski school supervisor, bought out the partners in the business in 1977.
I asked Edwards if the auction didn't remind him of someone looting Egypt's pyramids, and he replied, "Thanks for making me feel older."
Larry's son, David Lamb, said his family hoped that the many friends of the Tugboat would join in to make the auction a positive experience by sharing their own treasured memories of the establishment. The Steamboat Pilot & Today is making that convenient for its readers with an online comment form.
What state tax officials could not take into account when they scheduled the auction was the rich local history contained in the hundreds of framed photos, signed ski racing bibs and other sports memorabilia they dispersed to the highest bidders this week.
Former longtime Steamboat beer distributor and Denver Broncos center Larry Kaminski was up there on the south wall in a publicity photo posed as if he were about to snap the ball. There are several signed photos of the late Gen. Robin Olds, who flew fighter planes in three wars. Bo Jackson's baseball bat (courtesy of Dean Vogelaar) is in a glass case at the foot of the bar not far from a putter used by Tom Watson.
Byrne Powers, a familiar face on Steamboat's ski slopes, attended the auction in hopes of acquiring one modest black and white PR photo of a long ago member of the Boston Red Sox, Carroll Hardy. The Steamboat local's name is immortalized as the answer to a trivia question: "Who was the only Major League Baseball player ever to pinch hit for the great Ted Williams?"
Leslie Vesper, who ranches near Laredo, Texas, was at the auction intent on acquiring the one specific bar stool that her husband, Dick, claims as his own. Dick is in a rehabilitation center in San Antonio, and I hope Leslie was able to pick it up for him. Pairs of Tugboat bar stools were selling for a modest $20.
Along with the legendary figures of national stature, there was ample room for photos of local championship women's softball teams, deep sea fishermen, hot dog skiers and general rascals and bon vivants. There were also mundane items necessary to run a bar and restaurant: bottles of well Scotch taped together into four-packs and stainless steel condiment caddies stocked with Heinz 57 and Tabasco.
The Tugboat was a bar where people could get rowdy and get away with it. But it was also a church, in the looser sense of the word, where people were married and some memorable wakes were held. When the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker died here in 1998, a slew of legendary Detroit Lions from the 1960s made a pilgrimage to the Tugger for the wake. When Doak's wife, the Olympic ski racer Skeeter Werner Walker, died, her wake was held there, too.
Skeeter's brother Loris "Bugs" Werner, who always will be known for shaping trail development at the modern Steamboat Ski Area, said he did not covet his family photos about to be sold off the walls of the Tugboat.
"We gave them to (Hank and Larry) because they are good friends, and we wanted to be a part of this," Werner said.
On the rapscallion side of things, people rode horses and Harleys into the Tugboat from time to time. Scarcely anyone batted an eye. The list of stories goes on and on. But Barb Shipley tells one of the best.
In summer 1976, Shipley, who had worked the preceding winter as a ski hostess, went down to F.M. Light & Sons and purchased a soft, gray cowboy hat to replace the uniform hat Steamboat Ski Area issued to employees on the mountain in those days.
"I wore it to the Tugboat where (ski school director) Corky (Heid) and some friends were sitting at their regular table.
"Corky said, 'Let me see that cowboy hat,’ and I handed it to him," Shipley recalled. "He said, 'This hat could use a few holes in it.' He went out to his pickup truck, took out a .22 and shot a few holes in it and brought it back to me."
Shipley thus was initiated into the fold.
Steamboat Realtor Pam Vanatta claims to have set a record at the Tugboat that never may be broken.
"Larry told me I have the record for dancing on the bar more times than anyone else," she said.
Climbing onto the bar to dance was an annual ritual for Vanatta to be observed faithfully every Nov. 3 on her birthday, a tradition she kept right up until Lamb and Edwards sold the bar in 2011.
Not that dancing on the bar at the Tugger was a rarity. Longtime former Tugboat bartender Jack Doyle said J.D. and the Love Band frequently climbed onto the bar to perform a song during their many visits to the Tugboat.
Musicians of national prominence who performed on the tiny Tugboat stage included country crooners Tanya Tucker and Clint Black. Big Head Todd and the Monsters played the Tugboat before they were famous, and Banks and Shane also took the stage.
Longtime employee Eric Barry drummed in numerous bands at the bar, including Duck Butter. What is duck butter, anyway?
Barry was determined to acquire a weathered metal Budweiser sign at the auction. Mounted behind the stage, it did double duty as a percussion instrument.
"When I played there, I used to hit that sign with my drumstick," Bary said.
Ultimately, it was Shipley who put the Tugboat auction in perspective.
"The reality is, all of this is just stuff," she said, looking around at the Tugboat's walls. "It's your memories — if you don't hold them in your heart, it's just stuff. That's what the Tugboat is; it's memories. All of us truly are a part of it."