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How the coal miner statue came to be

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Photo by Tamie Meck A proposal recently approved by the Paonia Board of Trustees will create an official entrance to Paonia Town Park where the iconic miner's statue has stood for almost 35 years.

The following history of the miner statue at Paonia Town Park was submitted to the Town of Paonia Board of Trustees by mayor pro tem, David Bradford:

On April 15, 1881, an explosion at the Mid-Continent Coal Mine, officially known as Dutch Creek Mine No. 1, outside of Redstone, killed 15 coal miners. This disaster reminded many in the North Fork Valley of the dangers involved with coal mining and the many miners who died in the coal mines in the valley.

A group of citizens began an effort to create a monument for the fallen miners. The group included Don Emmons, Harry Galer and Kathy Geddes of Colorado Westmoreland Mine; and Lloyd Miller, Don Morrow, Joe Vorhees, Galen Reynolds and Ken Pavlisick of the U.S. Steel Mine in Somerset. Vorhees was president of the United Mine Workers local, Reynolds was vice-president and Pavlisick was secretary/treasurer. The group, represented by Galer, approached the Town of Paonia at the July 28, 1981 town board meeting about putting up a statue and a plaque with the names of miners lost in disasters in the area. The town board supported the concept and Mayor Donald (Shorty) Wood worked with the group on the project.

The opportunity to create the sculpture was opened for proposals and several bids varying from $15,000 to $100,000 were received. Mr. Gary Prazen, of Price, Utah, was hired to create a sculpture of a coal miner for $15,000. Prazen was a native of Carbon County, Utah, with strong ties to the local coal mining industry. He began his sculpting career with a bronze sculpture of actor John Wayne, who had visited Carbon County in 1978. It was based on a scene from the movie, "True Grit," where Wayne's character, Rooster Cogburn, faces off against the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and three of his henchmen. Prazen completed the sculpture, titled "Fill Your Hands," and presented it to the actor shortly before his death on June 11, 1971.

Prazen founded the company, Original Creations, Inc., in Helper, Utah, in 1980, and went on to create over 300 sculptures. He focused on mining, but created western and wildlife sculptures as well. His sculptures sell all over the world. Mr. Prazen passed away in 2016, and in 2017 he was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville. Prazen's son-in-law, Danny Blanton, who took over management of Original Creations, told me he thought the miner statue in Town Park was the first life-sized sculpture that Gary Prazen created.

In 1981 and 1982 the group worked at getting donations to cover the $15,000 cost of the sculpture. Colorado Westmoreland, Bear Coal, West Elk, U.S. Steele, Western Slope Carbon, and possibly the Blue Ribbon mines all donated money. The United Mine Workers Union donated $5,000. Miners also contributed by raising funds through the Mine Rescue contests the mines held to promote mine safety and rescue training. Individual donations were also accepted.

The statue was created using the lost wax method. It was installed at Town Park on Nov. 3, 1982. Additional rockwork on the base and installation of the memorial plaque with the names of the deceased miners was completed after that.

The dedication of the memorial was held on a rainy Memorial Day on May 30, 1983. Despite the rain nearly 100 people showed up for the dedication. There were 62 names listed on the plaque at the time. Mayor Donald Wood accepted the memorial on behalf of the town and told attendees he would "strive to keep a proper position in our park for it."

The miner statue is a significant piece of artwork that commemorates the hardworking miners who lost their lives in North Fork coal mines. There are currently 68 names on the plaque; there are spaces for 88 names. The town cooperated with the coal miners' families in the installation of the memorial 34 years ago. The 35th anniversary of the dedication will occur in 2018.

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