Living history: Paonia seniors open doors to the past

By Eric Goold

Living history: Paonia seniors open doors to the past | seniors, Paonia, Hotchkiss

Photo by Eric Goold The Paonia Senior Center relies on a cast of volunteers to make weekly luncheons possible. Pictured here is the clean-up crew from last Wednesday's edition of the social event. Pictured left to right are Marsha Long, Gary and Joe Hands

In 1919, the mayor of Paonia was C.T. Vincent. J.E. Deatherage and Fred Hofer were elected to the town council and Bert Bross was the new town marshal.

In 1919, there were 19 graduates of Paonia High School. Floyd Hammond was valedictorian and the Rockwell Cup, given to the school's most outstanding students, went to James Rogers and Haidee Moritz.

Postage stamps cost two cents.

And in 1919, Josie Minerich was born in Bowie. She moved to Paonia shortly thereafter and has been in the community for most of the 97 years since.

The Town of Paonia is only 114 years old, so minus the first 17 years, Josie has personally been around for every year of its existence.

"I was born at Bowie and moved to Paonia," Josie said during a recent Wednesday at the Paonia Senior Center. She is the eldest of the senior center's patrons. "Friendly people, there's just a lot of good people here. And usually the weather's nice."

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the senior center hosts lunch for area seniors who come to eat, gossip and share stories about the old days.

Pearl Stimac, 87, usually arrives with her friend Josie.

"I don't cook anymore; I come for the food," Pearl said. "And it's nice to see my friends."

The senior center is run by a board of directors and an all-volunteer staff. Currently Jim Nierenberger is president of the board and lifelong Paonia resident Lynne Bear is the vice president.

"We have seniors who want to keep up with what is going on in their community," Bear said. "We visit and talk a lot and just enjoy each other. Several come on the bus and are picked up at their homes. Some share rides with other friends."

The senior center gets a team effort to host the lunches as no less than 18 volunteers help in the kitchen, in the front office and in the dining room.

Every lunch begins with social hour around 11:30. Around noon everyone says the Pledge of Allegiance and then there's a prayer. Then the food is served and eaten with gusto.

The meals are prepared and packed at the Hotchkiss Senior Center, then volunteers deliver them to Paonia for service at the senior center.

There is also an active Meals on Wheels program that brings meals to seniors who can't make the trip to the lunches.

Wednesday's menu featured spinach salad with mandarin oranges, cubed pineapple bites and an excellent burrito with beans and rice and all the toppings.

The following Friday it was a barbecue chicken sandwich with tomato, onion and lettuce, cucumber and grape salad, potato salad and a banana for dessert.

Good enough to go back for seconds, especially when it is a mere $3 donation for poor reporters to join in the repast and the camaraderie.

Volunteers scurry about throughout the luncheon, helping with trays and doing the serving and the cleanup.

"I love being here with these guys," volunteer Marsha Long said. She has been helping out at the senior center for over two years.

The whole point is socialization for most of the patrons, getting to share the old times with peers who have been there and done that.

They also sympathize with each other.

"Things have changed. A lot of things," Marsha said. "We used to know everybody. We went downtown, we could see everybody and knew who they were. And now I don't know a lot of people. And we've lost so many of them.

"I wish the kids of today would talk to them. Listen to them," she added.

Marsha's family has five generations of miners. She was among many seniors who spoke sadly of the closing of the coal mines in the North Fork Valley, citing that as the biggest change over the years.

Orville Schneider, 91, worked on farms around the valley and did some construction over the course of his career. When asked what he likes about Paonia, he was quick to cite a rural truth that is true still today.

"It's a nice place to live," Orville said. "But if you want to make money, you better go to a place where they pay good wages."

He was asked to name the biggest change he's seen around here over the years.

"All the fruit is gone," Orville said. "We used to have five packing companies in town. Now we don't have any."

Gary and Joe Handschumacher like to help out at the senior center and get some good meals to boot.

"Joe and I come most every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and we also deliver Meals on Wheels, sometimes two times a month," Gary said. "I do the recycling for the building and occasional odd jobs at their homes."

The social aspect of having lunch with your friends is the big draw for most of the seniors.

"It gets people out and coming down here and gossiping a bit," Gary said. "Joe just loves to hang out with the folks. It's good to get to know the people and learn some of the history around here."

In the kitchen in the back of the senior center, the cook busily prepares each meal for service and directs the three or four other kitchen workers during the lunch shifts.

The cook, who asked not to be named in this article, was all business as she described her duties.

"It's about getting them food on time," she said. "Making sure the hot food's hot, the cold food's cold, and all of it is tasty!"

The cook, who has worked at the senior center for 10 years, washed pots and pans and had little time for a cub reporter's questions. But she warmed up when she talked about her patrons.

"I like working with the senior population," she said. "These people become my family after 10 years."

Asked what she thinks is special about Paonia's history, the cook was silent for a few moments.

"Almost all of these people are the same generation," she answered quietly. "They've lived the history; they don't have to talk about it. When they're gone, then that history is gone. And that's a shame."