A Light in the Wilderness

clarence-light-sonsThis is a true story.

One day, in 1907, C.W. and Olin Light—brothers and owners of the F.M. Light & Sons clothing store in Steamboat Springs, Colorado—came across a customer who specialized in bounced checks. The sharp got away with about $7.50 before the boys realized what was up. Taking matters into their own hands, the Lights pulled pistols from behind the store counter and took after the miscreant. He was heading to the red light district when the brothers caught up with him—and recovered all but 35 cents of the stolen money.

To paraphrase Cole Younger, F.M. Light is a tough company and used to tough times.

Which is a big part of the reason that the store celebrates its 100th anniversary this year—and why it’s still run by the Lights. That’s pretty rare; one estimate says only 3 percent of family-owned businesses make it that long.

Founder Frank Light probably wasn’t looking that far ahead when he made the long trip from Ohio to Colorado in 1905. He was taking a pretty big chance, especially considering that he brought his wife and seven kids along for the ride. He needed to start making money fast, and he saw an opportunity in the town of Steamboat Springs (which was a long way from the ski mecca it became more than 50 years later). There were no sidewalks or railroad service. Mail delivery was infrequent.

And there was no men’s clothing store. So Light purchased a lot and constructed the building. He bought about $2,000 worth of merchandise, and then with the assistance of sons C.W. and Olin, he opened for business on November 9, 1905. The first day was a little slow; they made about $11.50.

In those early days, the store specialized in shoes. But demand was such that Light & Sons soon expanded into suits, hats and other items. Business thrived as the store served a customer base from a radius of more than a hundred miles. Frank Light helped with the development of Steamboat Springs. He built a sidewalk so that he could avoid walking to work via the muddy streets. And he pushed the idea of having sidewalks 15 feet wide at a time when most such walkways were only eight feet. That turned out well for the town when it began drawing the ski crowds in the 1960s.

Then came the Great Depression.

The challenge of the era forced some creative thinking. By 1930, the company was taking its act on the road—putting merchandise in trucks, then having salesmen visit folks as far away as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the Utah border—distances of 500 miles or so. And Light expanded its offerings to include ranch equipment. The salesmen took orders and sent them back to the store, which shipped the items within a day. The move paid off. A bank failure in 1933 cost the Light family every cent, but the tours proved to be a savior, comprising 50 percent of sales within a couple of years of that low point.

Then there were the strategies to bring the customers to the store. In 1911, Light & Sons started putting up signs on the main roads leading to Steamboat Springs. They advertised particular items, such as cowboy boots, Stetsons or even Navajo rugs, on signs with a yellow and black design that became familiar to locals and visitors alike. Nearly 100 of those signs are still around, registered as historic landmarks with the state of Colorado and still selling the tale of Light. Every spring, somebody from the store fixes up signs in need of repair.

Today, F.M. Light & Sons is run by brothers Ty and Del Lockhart, the great-grandsons of Frank Light. And while they may not keep pistols behind the counter to take on bad guys, they’ve taken up new weapons in the fight to keep the store in the black. They have a website (www.fmlight.com) for long-distance buyers. The store now features Western wear, a bit of tack and ropes, and other accouterments aimed at tourists as well as residents.

And the future looks Light. Ty Lockhart’s son Brandon works at the store, so the operation may well stay in the family for some time to come. That’s a tradition that’s hard to match.

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