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Hotchkiss trustee recalls mine layoff for the 1980s

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The North Fork area has a rich history of coal mining. Unfortunately, mining is a boom-and-bust industry that includes a long history of layoffs.

James Roberts knows what it's like to lose a good-paying mining job. Roberts, who serves on the Hotchkiss Board of Trustees, worked for Hawk's Nest Mine when it and other mines closed during the early 1980s.

"I wasn't fond of the mines, but the money was great," said Roberts, who is now retired.

Roberts, who was also a farmer, was one of about 300 mine workers to be laid off from Hawk's Nest. "It was devastating to us," he said. "It cost me a fortune."

Fortunately, a friend and former co-worker told him jobs were plentiful in California, and assured him he could find a job within 24 hours. It was right after Christmas, recalled Roberts. He headed for California and the Los Angeles area and immediately hired on with a Home Depot-style company, where he was known as the "old farm boy."

He didn't particularly care for the work, and soon picked up a job driving a cement truck. "I had to learn how to drive," said Roberts, "but I really enjoyed it."

His wife, Barbara, and their two children followed him to California. On their way out of town, he said, they handed the keys to the family house in Hotchkiss to the finance company.

Things got rough in California in the early 1990s due to the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots, said Roberts. The family returned to Colorado and never looked back. "We decided we're going home," said Roberts. He decided to continue driving trucks rather than go back to the mines because, "I kind of like to watch the sun come up."

Roberts said he feels for the 78 Bowie Mine #2 employees and 19 contractors who received notice of layoffs last week and are facing the loss of all they have worked so hard to gain. He also worries about the community as it faces the loss of more jobs and the declining tax base, and the possible loss of students from the already shrinking school district. Layoffs over the last three years, now reaching close to 600, also resulted in the closure of businesses, including Farmer Frank's, a clothing and shoe retailer that had been in business more than 50 years.

"It affects more than just the miners," said Roberts. "It's going to affect Hotchkiss big-time."

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North Fork
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Coal, Hotchkiss
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