Going out West to Work in a Mine

Essay by Jim Ludwig

Mining Memories – March 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT WAS A TYPICAL Wisconsin damp spring day in 1950 when John and I arrived at my folks home in Stetsonville. We were on our way to pick up Pa and take him with us to Mercer for some spring walleye fishing. As usual, Ma had food on the table when we arrived, and the Leinenkugel beer in the garage was cool and refreshing.

It is strange to recall that Ma and I shook hands as a greeting. Though we loved each other dearly, I never once told her so, nor did she tell me. Neither did we ever see our folks embrace or say some expression of endearment. It would be many years before I could even put the warmth of love into a handshake, or even consider putting my arm around someone other than my wife. To touch someone made me nervous and uncomfortable.

The familiar “Bless us O Lord,” ignored by college men but never forgotten by mothers at home, was followed by a silent passing of the dishes of food, and it wasn’t until Ma began serving raspberry sauce for dessert that the questions came. In our home, food was generally eaten in silence. “If you talk while you’re eating, your feet will grow big!”

“So you are going out west,” my mother said. “What are you going to do?”

“Work in a mine, Ma.”

“You mean under the ground, in the dark, in the cold and wet?”

“Yes, Ma.”

A long silence, punctuated only by the spoons in the raspberries, then Pa taking a pinch of Copenhagen, as my mother slowly reconciled to the fact that her somewhat prodigal son was at it again.

“Oh well, be careful and please don’t drink too much and ruin yourself like your Uncle Bill did. I guess you have worked away from home since you were twelve, so I’m sure you will be OK. I remember when your father rode the rods to Dakota to work in the wheat fields. I worried myself sick, but it turned out for the best. Will you be home again before you leave?”

“No, Ma. John and I and Ronnie Boehm are going to leave right from school on June third. We can share expenses and arrive at Climax on the fifth. They say they have a boarding house where we can stay and eat until we have earned our first paycheck.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have enough money to go back to school. I’ll work hard and maybe something will turn up. School is so easy for me and they say that once you become an engineer you can be set for life. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“You’re a dreamer, Jimmy. I can’t believe you are really going out west. Write when you arrive.” We left the table for Ma to clean up, and went to load the car to drive to Mercer that night. (It would be six months later that I would return with a new wife, money in my pocket, and a brash cockiness that I was on my way to be a millionaire.)

We topped Loveland pass in mid-morning, parked the car and stepped out into the frosty altitude. Wow! Snow lay in scattered patches and other tourists were throwing snowballs. The light-headed feeling from first experiencing the 12,000-foot altitude was new and unique to us flatlanders.

The trip across mid-America had been uneventful, but this was something else! The old 1936 Chevy, loaded with all the worldly possessions of three young men, had labored on the pass, but did not overheat, and the brakes would survive the grade down.

The last eleven miles to Climax was an unpaved road from Wheeler Flats, through Kokomo, past the tailings pond to the top of Frémont Pass. We pulled up to a woven wire gate, and eased on through when a guard rolled it back and motioned us on.

We introduced ourselves, and he checked a handwritten list and said, “Oh yes, Ernie is expecting you. Take this slip and follow this road to the boarding house. They’ll put you up and feed you. Another guard will pick you up in the morning and take you to the office to sign in.”

We handed the slips to a rather bleary eyed guy, who with hardly a word lead us up the steps to some somber but clean rooms. As he handed us our keys he said, “Can’s down the hall. We eat at five.”

We brought our meager gear in from the car and were scrubbed and clean for dinner. And what a dinner! Food was stacked high on platters, steaks, chicken, and vegetables, followed by pies, cakes, and ice cream. All you could eat; I’d never seen anything like it.

After dinner we checked out the place, scrutinizing bulletin boards for information. Across the road was the rec hall. I couldn’t believe everything was free. There was a library, snack bar, pool hall, gym, and four bowling alleys. There didn’t seem to be a lot of people around; only later did I realize that we were the first new hires in several years, and the company had been downsizing since after the war.

THE NEXT MORNING, we were met outside the dining hall by the chief guard, Keith Getty. He took us to the personnel office, where Ernie Jones signed us in, and then assigned John and me to the mine. We were issued a badge with our picture and work number and told to display it on demand. (Ronnie went shoveling coal and quit within the week.)

Getty showed us the mine dry and we were assigned a basket and locker. He explained that the mine was not wet and that our leather boots would be just fine, but I wondered why we would have a basket to hang up our clothes to dry, or even why they called it a “mine dry.” The mine clerk made us a brass stamped with our work numbers (#40) and instructed us to appear near the brass windows, dressed and ready for work at the buzzer. We then received a safety book and were told to study it. The whole procedure was very informal, and I didn’t realize until much later that they really were somewhat at a loss to remember the complete hiring procedure.

They explained the operation of the Frémont Trading Company, and told us how we could charge a hard hat, lamp belt, and clothes or food, and it would be deducted from our check. We did have to go to the store office to sign for a book of coupons with which to buy beer, however.

We were completely in awe of the whole setup. They almost acted as if they wanted us to stay. Everything seemed to be for the convenience of the employee. The people seemed reserved but friendly.

That evening as I sat reading in the library, a rustic looking fellow sidled up to my chair. “Name’s Tennessee Tom. You ever play baseball?”

“Yeah, a little. Didn’t bring my glove though.”

“That’s OK. Use one of mine until you see if you can make the team. You got a name?”

“Yuh, Jim, Jim Ludwig from Wisconsin.”

“See ya around. We’ll throw a little up in the gym tomorrow night. Gorsuch promised me they would get a bulldozer up and clean the snow off the field this week.”

I played every Sunday in summer for four years.

The next morning, after filling our newly purchased “Pie Can” for lunch, we walked up to the mine dry, changed clothes and tried to look nonchalant as we waited for the buzzer. I was surprised to see so few people; later I learned that the total mine workforce was 160 people at that time. We picked up our brass and under the watchful eye of our shifter, Shorty Tebbets, a cap lamp, then caught the mantrip underground. We went to the 110 tool room, where we were handed square-point shovels, and then were taken to clean up under 160 north ore pass.

Water dripped everywhere, and the mud was often over our shoes. I cursed the guy who told us it was dry underground. By lunch we were soaked, and we kept warm by working harder.

I am inclined to think our introduction to the mine was a deliberate hazing for those “college kids.” We decided it would get better, however, and bought some boots and kept out mouths shut. We were undergoing the test “to see if we were going to be good hands.” At week’s end we were assigned to the concrete crew, and I began my education. If they were trying to run me off, it would take another 33 years.

The mine has a language all its own, and we learned it quickly in self-defense. The impressions of those first days will be with me always, and I grew to love the mine, the mountains, and especially the people who worked there. Everyone had a nickname, many had a shady past, and most lived for the moment and always talked about where they would go when “they could leave this damn place.”

My mother did not live to see where I went “out west,” but my dad visited shortly after Mother died. His comment after a tour of the mine was, “I hope you like it; you can have it!”

I did. It became my life’s work, and I have never been sorry that I decided to go out west and work in a mine.

Now retired, Jim Ludwig refers to himself as a “grumpy old man” in Buena Vista, where he cultivates native plants at Pleasant Avenue Nursery.