Collection Spotlight - Steamboat Strawberries
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Many people around Steamboat Springs, including myself, have admitted to searching grasses, fields, and an occasional garden for any sign of the now vanished local Remington strawberry. I have had no success. Could it be that time has completely erased any sign of these once prevalent berries?
The strawberry boom of Steamboat Springs occurred from 1900 to 1915 in a meadowland north of town. Originally the area was called Sheddeger Park after a Swiss homesteader. Kansas farmer L.R. Remington produced a large berry that could sustain the cool climate and survive the journey in unrefrigerated rail cars to Denver and beyond. Local farmers jumped at the opportunity to produce strawberries, and land prices in what became known as Strawberry Park, soared from $150 to $1500 per acre.
Local author, John Rolfe Burroughs grew up in Steamboat Springs and worked the strawberry patches as a young boy. In his book, Head First in the Pickle Barrel, Burroughs writes:
…[T]he first money I ever earned as anybody’s employee was by picking berries…[for Frank Bergman].
Mrs. Bergman actually had charge of the strawberry “shed”; that is, she checked in the berries picked and credited the picker with the proper number of boxes by punching numbers out of a card much as railroad conductor punches a commuter’s ticket. At first those of us who picked for Bergmans walked to work, leaving town about 6 am carrying our lunches. Later on Mr. Bergman or one of his sons picked us up at the Mining Exchange corner on Lincoln Avenue promptly at 6:30 am and hauled us out to Strawberry Park in a hay rack. Please understand that the job of picking strawberries was not confined to youngsters. Quite a few older people, especially women, availed themselves of the opportunity to earn some money. Riding out to the Park was pretty much of a lark: it was early morning, the air was fresh, and the sun only a hop, skip, and a jump above the horizon.
The berry men—Mr. Remington, Mr. Bergman, and Mr. Forgey, W.S. Fisher, and others—paid pickers two cents the heaping quart box. The job went something like this: Whoever was driving the team wheeled the hay rack up in front of the “strawberry shed” in the middle of the patch with a flourish, and everybody piled out. Mrs. Bergman, a friendly women with sparking black eyes, wearing a fresh sunbonnet, already was behind the counter, on which were piled the “carriers”—wooden boxes with low sides and rigid handles—into which six quart boxes, three in tandem in two rows, fitted exactly. In picking, you worked down the row assigned you, shoving the carrier in front and picked the ripe and nearly ripe berries on both sides by clipping off the stems between your thumbnail and the outside of your forefinger. In reality each picker stripped one half of two rows, while the pickers on either side of him did the same thing.
We kids messed around for the first half-hour or so, dropping about as many berries into ourselves as we did into the boxes, laughing and joking, throwing overripe berries at one another, and, when the opportunity offered, mashing them in some girl’s hair. But if we held up our monkey business too long, Mrs. Bergman came out of the shed and told us to settle down and get to work, which we eventually did. When all six boxes in your carrier were heaping full, you took it to the shed, where Mrs. Bergman briefly inspected the berries and, if everything was all right, punched a “5” and a “1” out of your ticket, removed the full boxes, and filled the carrier with empties. Five plus one makes six; and six multiplied by two meant that you already had earned all but three cents of the price of a pineapple ice-cream soda at Chamberlain-Gray’s soda fountain. This made you feel pretty good; and so you hurried back to your row, intent on picking another 12 cents worth in nothing flat.
The piece-rate method of payment certainly was the carrot on the stick that kept us youngsters picking instead of playing. The first two or three carriers came pretty easy; but by 10:00 the sun was hot, the backs of our necks were blistered, our knees were sore, and the mosquitoes and deer flies had found us out. From then on picking strawberries degenerated into a job of work, and the intervals between trips to the shed with full carriers became longer and longer. Noontime eventually did come, however, and, after hurrying to the shed, we snatched up our lunches and beat it down the hill to eat in the cool shade of a spruce tree beside Soda Creek.
“A strawberry ticket” was worth five dollars when it was completely punched out. It took me five days to earn my first ticket, which meant that I had picked an average of 50 quarts of strawberries per day. It occurs to me in retrospect that this wasn’t too bad a showing for a 9-year-old boy; and it also gave me an insight into the close relationship which exists between financial success and social approbation.
For about fifteen years the local strawberry industry was hugely successful. But as labor costs rose and competition stiffened, the industry began to suffer. The boom ended when consecutive early frosts in 1915 and 1916 destroyed the crops. Land prices returned to pre-boom values, and farmers looked for other crops and industries. There may (or may not) be any plants left for us to see or study, but what is left is the history that our small, high mountain community of Steamboat Springs was able to give big California and Arizona producers a run for their money during the early 1900s.
Historic Guide to Routt County
Head First in the Pickle Barrel
A 1912 booklet, was created by Highlands Development Company of Boulder to encourage sales. The booklet describes the Steamboat Springs growing environment, the local strawberry business and profits, and how to plant and cultivate. The first pages from the 25 page booklet are below.
Tread of Pioneers Museum, archives collection