The City of Gunnison got its start in the 1870s when a bunch of naive — really naive — white people thought it would be a great place to found an agrarian colony. With a growing season of less than 60 days, this turned out not to be such a good idea, but Gunnison was reasonably well-suited for cattle, and also found its feet as a supply center for surrounding mining towns.
The Town of Crested Butte was probably the biggest, certainly the most long-lasting, of those. At a guess, the first prospectors in were looking for minerals, gold and/or silver, but anthracite coal, handily located on a bench right above town, proved to be king in Crested Butte, and it was mined from the 1880s into the 1950s. There’s still plenty of coal up there, by the way, but by the ’50s it was too expensive to mine and more importantly transport to make it worthwhile.
(There’s also a massive deposit of molybdenum in a mountain directly over town — “the Red Lady” — but so far Crested Buttians have been successful in fending off attempts to mine it. The opposition has been organized and vocal, but I think transportation issues have remained a factor to this day.)
The people who came to work Crested Butte’s coal mines came from an assortment of places: Wales and Cornwall of the United Kingdom, Italy, and Croatia. Some of these folks eventually turned to ranching, and their names live on in the area: Veltri, Danni, Rozman, Kapushion, Malensek. My late friend Otto (because he was the eighth son) Carricato grew up in Crested Butte, as did his late wife Fran(cesca), who used to officiate with me and loved singing the old high school fight song with bewildered young volleyball players from Crested Butte.
One of these old mining families that stayed was named Spritzer, and this is the family Tia married into. Her late father-in-law’s name was Mills, not Spritzer, but his mother (a Falsetto by birth) lost her first husband after three children, and Don’s stepfather was one of a pile of Spritzer brothers.
One of those brothers was Uncle Martin, although I’m not sure I knew that when I first met him. I would visit my friend Wenona, herself the daughter of a mine foreman (last name: Benson), at the senior care center, and one of her fellow residents was Martin Spritzer.
The first time I interacted with him, I pushed him in his wheelchair all around the facility because he wanted to go “home,” and it took me much longer than it should have to realize he didn’t want to find his room in the center — he wanted to go home. He was an outdoorsman trapped in an mostly-indoor existence.
Uncle Martin loved fishing, and somewhere along the way he got it into his head that I was a fisherman too. I wasn’t, but I was doing a lot of rafting, and what makes for ideal rafting conditions makes for poor fishing, so I was able to give him fairly good updates on what the fishing would have been like, had either of us been out doing that.
Another brother was Uncle Emil, who played the accordion and spawned an entire family of musicians. (Even if you didn’t know Uncle Emil, chances are good you’ve met at least one of his children: Dennis was the long-time fire marshal for the city; Linda worked at Bank of the West, and Loretta was the nerve center for Western No Longer State’s athletic department. All three of them retired last year.)
Uncle Emil’s last home was on Pine Street, not terribly far away from my friend Carol’s house and well within the area of my travels. I always enjoyed seeing him out for his walks — he walked like others ice skate, with a smooth, gliding step that moved slightly sideways while still going firmly forward. He looked so serene while walk-gliding around his neighborhood that it was hard not to smile just seeing him out there.
Uncle Emil is no longer with us, sadly (nor is Uncle Martin), and his children sold his house on Pine Street. But yesterday, even if it’s only temporary, it came back into his family.
Tia and her husband, Don (named for his dad), are in need of temporary housing for when they move to Gunnison before their house gets built, and yesterday Don’s mom discovered that Uncle Emil’s house was available for rent. Tia, in town this week for work, did a quick tour and signed a one-year lease, effective March 1.
The current owner of the house turns out to have previously rented it to someone else who used it as temporary lodging while their house was being built, so the owner has decided this is his niche, renting to people who are building.
Tia professed great relief last night at dinner at having something rented, and she is pleased that it’s Uncle Emil’s house. It’s only three or four blocks from her office, and it’s on the roundabout route I’ve been taking to work (because it gets me off the highway, even if it means I encounter every stop sign in town).
So even though it won’t be hers for a couple of weeks yet, and no one’s likely to be there much before Tia’s son Justin graduates high school in May, and even though Uncle Emil wasn’t mine or Tia’s step-great-uncle, it feels like Tia’s come home.
Here’s a food update for you: Lynn, Tia and I had dinner last night with Sharon (Tia’s mother-in-law) at a restaurant, and it was warm, the food was good and arrived promptly on extremely hot plates. So Cafe Silvestre was a much better experience than Palisades. Remember how they brought Sharon an unasked-for second cup of red chili because the burger she ordered came out so late? They charged her for that. That ought to cost them the very last of their Michelin stars right there.