Jo Semotan-Steamboat’s poster child
Semotan embodies spirit of Ski Town USA in all she does
March 29, 2004
When winter comes, it wraps Josephine Anne Semotan’s North Routt ranch in snow. The untouched white layers rise high on the hills and dampen noise from the few trucks that pass on the winding road. Semotan, 65, prefers the quiet hills, as drives into Steamboat Springs only remind her of how much the old cow town has changed.
But if everything that Steamboat touts — from the ranching history and rugged Western style, to the Olympic-level skiing and the town’s reputation for dance and entertainment — could be wrapped into one person, that person likely would be Jo Semotan.
Never mind that Semotan has spent much of her life in different towns and states, pursuing dance, studies and her family life. The valley always pulls her back.
“There’s a saying — ‘mountains have my heart’ — and it’s really true,” Semotan said. “I love this county. I love every mountain.”
Her devotion to Routt County hills is so strong it can be felt, her friends say.
“She loves the area with a passion,” said Mary Jean Perry, a Routt County native who knows Semotan and knew her parents. “Just talking with her, just being around her, you just feel that.”
Ranching in the Yampa Valley is where Semotan’s life begins. As the slim, energetic woman tells the stories of her ancestors and her own childhood, she laughs often and lets one story shoot off to another.
Both sets of Semotan’s grandparents homesteaded in the area. One pair had Evelyn, who first married cowboy Laurence Peavy. He died, leaving Evelyn with three girls and a ranch in the North Routt hills. Evelyn had the grit to run cattle on her own, then met Quentin Semotan at a county dance and they rode horses into town that night to get married. The pair raised cattle and the three girls, and then Jo was born in 1939. They also raised horses. In 1946, Quentin bought Starduster with a carload lot of steers, which was worth about $1,000, and Evelyn had a fit, Jo said.
But the horse was to become a foundation horse that sired a line of the newly forming breed of cowboy horse called the quarter horse. In 1948, Starduster took grand champion at the Western Stock Show, and was named “Champion of Champions.”
The horse is listed in a Western Horseman Book on quarter horse legends.
After a series of shows, the Semotans had to bring Starduster over Rabbit Ears Pass during whiteout conditions. Quentin tied the horse to the car and walked ahead, pointing his arm in the direction to go. Jo sat on the hood, mimicking her father’s directions, so her mother could see to steer.
“They bundled me up, and (my mother) said, ‘You just sit out there on the hood like a hood ornament and you do what your father does,'” Semotan said.
Also important to the family was horse Ding Bob, which Evelyn got before she married Quentin. With a set of mares, Ding Bob and Starduster made a nick, which means they had consistent foals, Semotan said. “It’s what every horse breeder dreams of,” she said. “It was daddy’s dream and was a success.”
Semotan’s own dreams were big and included horses, dancing, skiing and family. When she was young, she showed and helped care for the family’s stock, rode and raised horses, and had her own small herd of Herefords. She rodeoed, roping with her father and competing in barrel races.
Semotan skied through school, learning under legends such as Gordy Wren and competing in Alpine events. She eventually appeared in one of Steamboat’s famous horseback skier photos.
“My mother watched me race downhill one time and she almost passed out with fear,” Semotan said.
In 1957, she was named rodeo queen and Winter Carnival queen. She went to the state competition for rodeo queen, and showed up in chaps and a pretty shirt.
“All of those queens had attendants and banners,” she remembered. But she competed and won the horsemanship contest, which made her father proud as that’s what he figured a rodeo queen was all about.
Semotan played string bass in a band, loving the way the floor vibrated when the instrument sounded.
She also discovered a love for dance. Her parents made her and her three sisters take dance and piano, and she remembers her father as a natural gymnast, always walking on his hands or doing the Charleston.
“It didn’t really upset him when his cowgirl came home a dancer from Stevens College,” she said. “I wasn’t planning on making (dance) a career, but that’s what happened.”
Working under Harriet Ann Gray at the Perry Mansfield School of Dance and other legendary dancers across the country convinced her to study dance at college and learn how to teach it.
Gray was a “real pusher” and a “perfectionist,” Semotan said. “One thing we heard all the time was, ‘One more time,'” she remembered. “Like a broken record.”
Semotan’s love for horses and Routt County was warm in her heart when she left home for school. “When I left, (my father) told me I was the best cowboy he ever had,” she said. Her parents had plans that she and a local boy, now Semotan’s companion, would one day ranch the largest herd of cattle in the valley.
Instead, Semotan married three times, not staying in any marriage because, she said, she was too independent. But through each marriage, she had one of her “three beautiful daughters.”
One of those daughters, Trenia Sanford, lives with her husband and son in the county. Sanford remembers how fun her mother was when the girls were growing up.
“She is a very joyful person, and everything is fun,” Sanford said. That included eating oatmeal, which Semotan used to dye purple to give her girls a surprise.
“There weren’t many moms that could ride and rope and ski and play and dance and do all the things that she could do,” Sanford said.
As the county changes, Sanford said her mother remains an enthusiastic welcome wagon to newcomers.
For her neighbors, Semotan brings soup, homemade bread, and encourages neighbors to meet and know each other, Sanford said.
“It’s like it was in the old days, and that’s because of her,” she said.
Semotan has been teaching skiing since she returned to Steamboat in 1991. She’s working to preserve the history of the quarter horse and the history of the county, and supports memorial scholarships in her father’s name for the teenagers in the county’s 4-H and cattlewoman groups.
Semotan lives at her family’s old ranch. Her horse — Skip Mary Nile — came from Buddy Nile, a stallion owned by renowned horseman Coke Roberds.
Her wooden barn is the old Moonhill Schoolhouse, the same schoolhouse to which Semotan would ride her horse in the first grade, watch the children go inside and then take off to roam the fields.
She did that until her mother found out while talking with the teacher at the grocery store.
“My father told me that if I didn’t go to school, they’d put him into jail,” Semotan remembered. “So I went to school to keep daddy out of jail.”