September 8, 2009
Growing up in a Western mining town can be like getting admitted to graduate school before you’ve quite mastered the alphabet. It’s not that you learn things others do not, it’s just that profound knowledge can be thrust upon you way before you would have gone after it on your own.
You learn to follow the fluctuating price of silver and about union and management squabbles and about strikes and lockouts and "scabs" and "thugs" at about the same time you get word that Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
During recess you learn that a flush beats a straight and to look out for Big Jack’s uppercut. How to draw back a cue ball with low "English" is often accompanied by an invitation to see Dick and Jane and Spot run. How the single miners pass their leisure time probably got covered on your way to altar-boy practice.
Admittedly, it’s an accelerated program and it might well be the topography that drives it. Something about living in a mountain valley bisected by gulches and ridgelines could cause that information usually reserved for post-adolescence to lose friction and tumble down to where it becomes accessible to those who only recently learned how to tie their shoes.
Whether the scene of the crime was up in the panhandle of Idaho, as in my case, or here within the Wasatch Range, we with a miners-town sensibility wear it like a badge. Those friends of mine who grew up in Park City while ore was still being extracted from the local hills certainly fit the profile.
One favorite annual celebration during the time I lived up north went by the seemingly innocent name of "Miners Picnic." Most often it was held on Hayden Lake, a most pristine body of water that for a while during the recent past achieved notoriety as ground zero for white supremacists. Actually, that was the town, not the lake.
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Miners from the length and breadth of "Silver Valley," plus the assorted tradesmen required in the ore removal and smelting processes, would attend the affair along with their families. All revelers would be shuttled from the lakeside parking areas to the picnic site by those even-then quite trendy Century and Chris-Craft wooden runabout boats.
Through the years, a few cottage industries grew up around the gathering, not the least of which was the loose association of whisky drummers who would set up shop somewhat clandestinely in the middle of it all. Those types of activities, of course, would not go unnoticed by the "well-schooled" younger generation and sporadic pilferages were known to occur.
Mainly, however, the memories are of pitching horseshoes and ice-cream-eating contests. My family, most all brick masons, for whatever reason performed better at the latter than the former. Recollections of iconic drillers like Rich Martinez don’t come to mind, however.
There was and is tragedy in mining, of course. It seems like yesterday that they called my buddy Bobby out of our third-grade class because his dad, who had made both of their lunches earlier that morning, had been killed by a collapse in an old section of tunnel. I learned more than I wanted that day.
One of the great things about mining towns, of course, is that when they are grief-stricken, they gather close and comfort — a tradition that continues within a few of the many varied communities that currently make up Park City. It may not be "close knit" anymore, but the old traditions that matter most still find expression.
As in most mining towns, the joy of the landscape was in its diversity. The Irish, Italians, Spaniards, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Germans, Slavs, Poles, Turks, Greeks, Welsh, Cornish, Mexicans, and even Utahns brought their individual cultures to whatever communal table they joined.
And it is within this multi-ethnic backdrop that the most memorable aspects of the "Miners Picnics" of my youth become evident. And that would be the "Picnics" themselves. It was always about the mix of traditional foods, the tipsy renditions of "O Sole Mio" and "Danny Boy," and the miners, arm-in-arm, negotiating that most alien of environments, the outdoors.
My main guide into Park City mining’s past had to be Loran Larsen, a cantankerous and loving spirit, guru, and mentor who’s been gone now for eleven years. A bunch of his equally-ornery friends continue to gather around his birthday each August in celebration, as we did a couple of weeks back. We also, of course, think of him every Miners Day.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.