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Cherry Days celebrates coal mining heritage

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia native Claudia King speaks about the history of coal in the North Fork Valley during the Cherry Days July 4 festivities at Paonia Town Park. Paonia poet laureate Marian Stewart, left, and miner John Poulos also spoke a few words

Following the July 4 Cherry Days parade, a tribute was made to coal mining, the coal miners who worked and died in the mines, and the prosperity the mines brought to the people of the North Fork Valley. Cherry Days committee member Ulli Lange spoke of the earliest days of mining; Paonia native Claudia King spoke of her 76 years growing up in a coal mining community; and Paonia Poet Laureate Marian Stewart read "Ambiguity," about her positive and negative views of living in a coal mining town.

North Fork Historical Society Museum director Judy Livingston talked about the many historic treasures the museum has, including Bowie Mine records recently donated by the Bowie family that include mine ledgers and blueprints. The museum also has on display the barber pole from Pete's Barbershop, owned by the late Pete Poulos.

Coal miner John Poulos was asked to say a few words about the North Fork Valley's coal miners, and said the following:

"For the last 39 years, give or take, I've been a miner here in the valley. I grew up here in the '60s and '70s. Some of you may remember my dad, Pete Poulos. He was a barber here for some 56 years. Throughout my years as a miner I've spent some time in four different mines in the North Fork: the U.S. Steel, Hawk's Nest, Orchard Valley, and the West Elk Mine. I started at out at the U.S. Steel Mine in Somerset, along with a few of my high school buddies. I still recall getting our instructions at the start of our shift from our supervisor. He was a broken-down, gray-haired old section foreman and I still remember thinking to myself just how old he looked, how much gray hair he had sticking out from underneath his hard hat. But now today I am that old man.

"But what is it that needs to be said about the North Fork coal miners and their families that they provide for? I can't say that the miners are different than any other person. We all strive for the same things: a living wage, a warm, safe house to come home to, and a better opportunity for our children than what we had. What is different, I guess, is the way the miner goes about earning his wages. That's far different from most career paths a person could choose. Most jobs are carried out on the surface of the earth, but the miner has chosen to toil in the dark deep beneath the surface.

"Here, the working conditions are like no other job. The roof must always be watched for changing conditions, for in the past, cave-ins, or what a miner calls a 'roof fall,' is one of the leading causes of injuries to miners. The walls of the mine are called the ribs, and they must be monitored for failure. They're almost as many injuries from large slabs of coal falling onto a miner from the ribs as there is from rock falling from the roof. Even the floor of the coal mine can give you fits. When you're mining in very deep conditions, the floor can be thrown upward violently when Mother Nature pushes down on coal pillars so hard that they're punched into the floor rock. Miners call this a 'bounce,' when the floor rock is shoved quite violently upward into the coal mine openings. This most sudden event, quite literally, will knock you off your feet.

"So now you have the coal and the rock coming at you from all four sides, but what about from in front of you or behind you? Well, that's where you get to deal with the gas, the dust, the smoke from a fire, or the water from a flood. Coal miners here in the North Fork Valley have seen all these conditions, and they've handled them with professionalism and skill. The everyday environment in which a coal miner carries out his task is one to be ever cautious of, but now after listening to all that, you would think that coal mining is as dangerous as being an infantryman, a New York City policeman, or a fireman. However, when you consider the number of work days missed due to work-related injury, coal mining in America today is much safer than farming or commercial fishing.

"Our mining methods and safety practices have been written in the blood of the miners who came before us. Just have a look at the statue of the coalminer in the southwest corner of the park. There you can read the names of those who lost their lives while coal mining. And I believe that Mark Twain said it best: 'It is better to be safe 100 times than get killed once.'

"The coal miner is not the only one who endures the working condition of a miner's life. More often than not there's a family at home that spends half their evenings and weekends without their father, or in some cases without their mother at home because of the around-the-clock, seven-days-per-week schedule that most of the mines here in the valley used to work. But let us not forget we're all here today to celebrate this great country and our wonderful little corner of Colorado we call the North Fork Valley.

"Remember, it's the farmer who grows our food, the rancher that provides our meat, the orchardist who provides the fruit of the valley, and the coalminer who provides the fuel to generate the cheap electricity that we enjoy every day."

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North Fork
Cherry Days, coal, Paonia
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