History of F.M. Light and Sons

He came to the west by way of the Rio Grande Railroad, looking for relief from asthma; in the end he established a Steamboat Springs legacy. Thus begins the history of F.M. Light and Sons.

F.M. Light and Sons Family Portrait | Western Wear Store in Downtown Steamboat Springs, CO Since 1905

Frank M. Light stood on the train platform in Wolcott, on a cold Colorado day in April 1905, along with his wife and seven children, aged 11 months to 17. 

The rugged west must have seemed so very far from the farmlands they left in Ohio.

The family loaded all its belongings on the stagecoach and rode the last leg of its journey to Steamboat Springs, stopping overnight, halfway into the 80-mile trek, at the Antler’s Hotel in Yampa.

It only took F.M. Light a few days to notice that Steamboat Springs lacked a men’s clothier. Encouraged by local business leaders and bankers about his prospects, Light purchased a lot in downtown Steamboat Springs.

With $2,000 worth of merchandise, Light and his two sons, Olin and Clarence, opened their store for business on November 9th, 1905 – just seven months after arriving in town.

The first day’s receipts totaled $11.50, with the second day even less.

F.M. Light and Sons, Historical Pictures from 1905-1909 | Western Wear in Steamboat Springs, CO

In the beginning, the store’s merchandise consisted mostly of shoes, but soon expanded to men’s fine wool suits and Stetson hats. Many of the store’s fixtures and sales cases that are still in use today came in on the stagecoach from Wolcott.

Hard work, determination and a knack for marketing kept F.M. Light & Sons solvent when many stores were closing. During the lean years the Lights considered farming and teaching to make ends meet. And, in a unique marketing approach even by today’s standards (with better vehicles and roads), they obtained a loan from Milner Bank & Trust, increased their inventory and took their store on the road. Throughout the history of F.M. Light and Sons, creative thinking and imaginative marketing has been a cornerstone.

Store on Wheels

The great depression was the cause for many broken businesses and busted banks. Rather than waiting for the farmers and ranchers to come to town, the Lights went to them.

When 1st National Bank locked its doors one morning in 1933, Light lost all of his money. With true western grit, the Light family fought for their store.

 Through the history of F.M. Light and Sons, each generation has worked hard to further the legacy.

The idea of the traveling store first took shape when the railroad came to Steamboat. F.M. Light packed up his wagon with goods and went to the workers and eventually to the ranches and farms. Not long after, his sons Olin and Clarence were alternating weeks on the road, traveling as far north as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, west to the Utah border and south to Aspen.

“The Lights always stayed with the ranchers to better understand their customer.”

And, they always paid for their room and board. Clarence Light explained it:  ”a tour of the territory required a good many weeks. The usual plan was to spend a night at the ranch to get thoroughly acquainted with the family and hired men and their clothing needs, often resulting in orders of $100 or more. We always insisted on paying for our own lodging when visiting customers. We also made many lasting friendships.” Clarence was still traveling at the ripe old age of 87.

Clarence Light Standing Beside his Store on Wheels Used During the Depression| F.M. Light and Sons, Western Wear in Steamboat Springs, CO | Historical Photo, 1928

The F.M. Light salesmen would pull up in paneled trucks equipped with shelves, hangers and merchandise. Olin and Clarence would haul great suitcases heavy with samples into the ranch houses and bunkrooms. Orders were mailed into the store each day so they could be filled and shipped out to the customers immediately. For many, this was the only shopping they did all year. Within five years the traveling store represented 50 per cent of their sales. This was the darkest time in the history of F.M. Light and Sons, but hard work and the community all came together and the store persevered.

Marketing Comes in Yellow & Black

F.M. Light and Sons - Historical Yellow Signs around Steamboat Springs, CO | Family Owned Western Wear for Over 100 YearsA huge part of the history of F.M. Light and Sons is our yellow signs. A man of advanced marketing techniques; Clarence Light launched his most notable medium that still marks the Colorado landscape. His marketing is in the form of yellow and black roadside signs that advertise everything from cowboy hats to Navajo rugs. No matter what road you traveled into Steamboat, you knew about F.M. Light & Sons. In 1928, Clarence Light erected 260 signs in a 150-mile radius of Steamboat Springs. Eventually, that number grew to 300. Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification act resulted in more than a 150 signs being removed from roadways. Those that do remain standing are considered historic, with each one numbered and registered with the state of Colorado.

“To this day, each spring marks the annual sign maintenance and repair duties, now handled by the fifth generation, taking at least two men and two weeks to repair all the signs.”

Five Generations

The 3rd, 4th and 5th Generation of the Light Family outside F.M. Light and Sons, Steamboat Springs, CO | Western Wear for Over 100 Years

F.M. Light eventually sold his interest in the store to his sons, Clarence, Olin and E. Day. Surviving his brothers, Clarence was sole owner when he passed the store onto the third generation, his son-in-law, Lloyd Lockhart in 1963. Ty Lockhart, Lloyd’s son, the fourth generation, took over active management of the store in 1973. His brother Del joined him in 1979.

In 2012, the store was passed on to Ty’s daughter Lindsay, and her husband Chris. This means the store is now owned and operated by the 5th generation!

 

According to the Boston-based Family Firm Institute, only one in five companies are still in business after five years, and of those only 20 per cent will celebrate the 10 year mark. Additionally, the institute reports that only three per cent of the family-owned businesses in the U.S. make it to the fourth generation. So, for F.M. Light & Sons to celebrate 100 years, still be owned by the same family and be located at its original site, is very rare indeed.

The year 2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the F.M. Light & Sons store. A store still in the family after five generations and built on a philosophy of providing quality merchandise and fair prices. Celebrations in the community and within their store will take place all year long. The history of F.M. Light and Sons will continue on for generations. Ty Lockhart put the 100-year mark in perspective:

“It’s not only a celebration about our family’s history, it’s also a celebration about Steamboat Springs and the many ranching families who made their homes here.”

Permanent link to this article: http://fmlight.com/history/