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Bright signs and cowboy boots: F.M. Light & Sons keeps Steamboat heritage alive

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F.M Light & Sons, located in downtown Steamboat Springs, honors the city's western heritage in a changing world. 
Photo: Alison Berg, Rocky Mountain PBS

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The bright yellow signs advertising “Cowboy Hats,” “Levi Overalls” and “Stetson Hats” alongside US Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 131 start 100 miles from downtown Steamboat Springs. 

Since 1905, the 100 hand-lettered signs — which begin in neighboring Grand and Moffat Counties — have promoted Steamboat Springs’ oldest retail store: F.M. Light & Sons.

Chris Dillinbeck and his wife, Lindsey, who is a fifth-generation descendant of F.M. Light, currently own the store.

F.M. Light & Sons will celebrate 120 years in the business of Western wear next year.

“Steamboat has changed a lot over the years, and since COVID, it’s changed even faster,” Chris Dillinbeck said.

“But we’re proud to maintain the heritage of what downtown Steamboat is, and we'd like it to stay,” he said.

Located in the heart of the city’s downtown corridor, F.M. Light & Sons sells traditional Western gear: leather cowboy boots, thick denim jeans, ranching supplies and hand-crafted pocket knives. 

Dillinbeck said the store represents Steamboat’s character, and how the city evolved over more than a century.

F.M. Light and his three sons opened the store in 1905, decades before the city became known for its world-class ski resort. Since then, the store has seen five generations of Light family ownership. 

A photo of a skijoring contest from the 1940s shows the F.M. Light & Sons sign in the background.
Photo: Denver Public Library Special Collections

F.M. Light & Sons plastered 250 signs across Northwest Colorado, Utah and Wyoming during the Great Depression to drum up business.

After Lady Bird Johnson launched the Beautification Project to clean up America’s highways, the federal government asked the Lights to take down the signs.

In ensuing negotiations with the government, only the 100 signs located in Colorado were permitted to stay.

“Anyone who drives into Steamboat sees the signs, and they want to come in and see what this place is all about,” Dillinbeck said.

A scent of fresh leather permeates the air inside the shop. Walls are decked out with old photos and colorful cowboy hats. Boots line the shelves.

The supplies primarily cater to ranchers or those seeking a true Western aesthetic, but small souvenirs and children’s toys are sprinkled throughout the shelves.

The title of “Steamboat’s oldest store,” is fitting, Dillinbeck said, because the store represents a part of Steamboat’s culture that’s no longer dominant.

Grit and gondolas

Steamboat resort opened in 1963. In the decades since, the resort’s growth brought thousands to town — some visitors, some permanent residents. 

As skiing became the primary economic driver in the area,what was once a historic ranching town slowly became a skier’s paradise. 

As tourism increased and thousands flocked to town during the pandemic, housing prices rose. Local families moved out and short-term rental owners took their place. 

Now, trendy, expensive chain stores including Lululemon and North Face line Lincoln Avenue — the city’s historic Main Street.

“We used to be about more humble origins,” Dillinbeck said. “We didn’t used to be a fancy ski town, it used to be that we were a real town that had a ski area. It feels the other way around a lot of the time now.”

F.M. Light & Sons remains in the same building where its been all these years — 830 Lincoln Avenue.

Though it evolves to keep up with changing markets, the core roots remain the same: it’s first-and-foremost for ranchers, though tourists and those who are Western-curious are also welcome.

Cowboy hats and western wear at F.M. Light & Sons.
Photo: Alison Berg, Rocky Mountain PBS

“We have a lot of local ranchers who come in here for their goods and jeans and everything, and we also have tourists from New York City come in in fur coats,” said Tarsha Ebbern, a customer service associate at the store.

“We get the whole gamut of people and a whole range of different tourists from all around the country and the world,” Ebbern said. 

Ebbern said greeting visitors from around the world at a ranching supply store is the most exciting part of the job since many have never seen anything like it before.

“We got a group of people from Nepal who came in and wanted cowboy hats for a wedding,” Ebbern said. “I hope they still remember us with those hats.”

Elk River Pet and Ranch remains the only other Steamboat store that markets itself specifically to ranchers.

And Dillinbeck expects the world to keep changing. He knows the business has to keep up with the times but he plans to keep its roots front-and-center. 

Shifting to selling online was a change they made reluctantly, he said.  

We’ve continuously had to grow and change since the years have gone on,” he said. “And we will continue to do that because if you don’t change, you won’t stick around for 100 years.” 

Alison Berg is a reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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