Huerfano County, Colorado
Oral Interviews

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Robert C. Riley

Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Sherry Cook
Date of Interview - 11-1980
Interviewed by Sandra Cason

Robert C. Riley
Date of birth - 9-18-1896
Parents - William Riley and Mary Clark
Maternal grandparents - Robert and Christine Clark
Ethnic group - Scotland, Mother Pennsylvania; Father Ireland
Family origin - Missouri
Date of family arrival in County - 1893
Location of first family settlement - Pictou

SC: Mr. Riley, what is your full name?

RR: Robert C. Riley.

SC: And what is your maiden name, Mrs. Riley?

MR: Bunker.

RR: You will have to speak louder than that because my right ear is absolutely dead.

SC: Ok, we'll speak up, that's good for taping it anyway. And what is your first name, Mrs. Riley?

MR: Maisie.

SC: When did your family first come to Huerfano County, Mr. Riley?

RR: About 1893. Came here out of Missouri. My older sister was born in Vancouver, Washington. My brother was born in Richfield, Missouri. He was a year old when they came here. So they came here in 1893. To Pictou.

SC: Were they miners?

RR: Yes.

SC: What year were you born?

RR: 1896, near Pictou.

SC: So how many were there in your family, in all?

RR: There were four children; two girls and two boys. I am the only one that's left.

SC: Did you grow up in Pictou?

RR: Well, partly. I don't know how long we stayed in Pictou. I was just a kid. I know they left Pictou and went down to Dawson and come back from Dawson and went to Toltec, that's a little camp, just this side of Pictou. We were there for I don't know how many years. I was just a kid there. And then Dad had a mine round this side of Maitland called the Monkey Mine, operated that for a long time. Then he bought a ranch up at what was Crest Stone in those days, but its Redwing now. We lived there for 10 or 12, 15 years, something like that. My mother got sick and she just couldn't stand the high altitude so they sold out and we went to California and to Washington and then we come back to Walsenburg.

SC: What year did you get back to Walsenburg, then?

RR: About 1910, I think it was. '09 or'10. Something like that.

SC: What was it like then? How was it different in Walsenburg then than now?

RR: Well, it was a whole lot like Walsenburg. Like my folks said when they came here it was the Twin Lakes Motel, two grocery stores and one small hardware store, board sidewalks. All this was farmland, all this was. It all was up the river. This house we are in now was built in the '80's (1880) started in the '80's.

MR: One of the oldest houses in Walsenburg. It's considered the oldest.

RR: They built two rooms here, sometime in the '80's. It was here when my folks come here. They had a well for Walsenburg's water right out here in the back yard.

SC: That was water for the town?

MR: No, everybody had their own well.

RR: Everybody hauled their water from the well that was in the back yard!

SC: Has your family lived in this house since then?

RR: No, no. We bought the house. My folks bought the house in 1910 or '11, something like that.

MR: They were here 65 years, I think you mother said before she died.

RR: They rebuilt it all over.

SC: What was it like growing up here in Walsenburg? Did you go to school here?

RR: Yeah, I went to school here at the Hill School. Started school here in the 6th grade, went 6th through high school.

SC: When you came back to Walsenburg, what was your father's line of work?

RR: We opened a dairy here.

SC: What was the name of that?

RR: Just the dairy, that's all.

SC: That was right here?

MR: Right back where the garage is.

RR: It was the house up on that corner, house on that, house on that corner and Young's house on that corner. That's all the houses that was around. There was no houses down in this valley. This house was away over there on the hill. No houses on that hill. When the army came here in 1913 strike that's where the camp was right over there on that hill. That's where the army had their camp.

SC: So you were here during the strike? What was it like?

RR: Yes, we were here when all the shooting was going on and everything.

SC: Was that in the neighborhood?

RR: Miners was on the Hogback, that hill there. The guards were over here by Walsen camp and they were shooting across the canyon. Nobody got hurt. Only one got hurt was Dr. Lesher. He was a major in the militia. Stopped here at the house and my dad told him, “Doc, don't go out there. Those boys will kill you. If you go out there, take that uniform off.” “Oh,” he says, “I'm a major, how can they kill me?” Said, “If they see that uniform, they're gonna shoot you.”

MR: That was a vicious old strike. I didn't know anything about it. I wasn't here.

SC: Where were you from?

MR: Sterling.

SC: Where is that?

MR: East of Denver.

RR: Yes, about 140 miles east of Denver. Next to the Nebraska line.

SC: And when did you come here?

MR: When we were married? No, take that back. 1921.

SC: Did you have chores to do when you were growing up?

RR: Chores? Lets see, on the ranch I had a couple of crops, rye. Help take care of the cattle. Come down here. Opened the dairy. Milked 16 cows every morning, every night and I had to milk half of them. My father got half and then my father got sick and I had to milk all 16 and deliver the milk to the high school. Get up every morning at 4 o'clock…

SC: Then did you run the business?

RR: No, my father was just sick is all. Went to the hospital and was operated on for an ulcer and he was sick about 6 weeks. Something like that. Couldn't do anything for 2 months. My mother was here and she took care of the milk. All I had to do was milk and deliver the milk.

SC: That was enough. Can you remember games you played as a boy?

RR: Played basketball and baseball. That was all we had in those days. None of the stuff like they have nowadays.

SC: Can you remember what it was like growing up in the mining camps?

RR: Oh, they were just mining camps is all. Had lots of saloons. Men went to work at 7 o'clock in the morning and got home at 6 o'clock at night. When I was a kid my dad made $2, $2.25 for 12 hours work. And they saved money at it. That's what gets me!

SC: Yes, he saved money for this ranch?

RR: Yes, when you get to think of the wages they was making and they could keep a family and still save money.

SC: So, he bought this ranch up here?

RR: Yes.

MR. And they bought all of this and owned all of…how many houses was it they owned down that way?

RR: Five.

MR: Two, three of them. That's what you call saving. We can't even save a dime seems like. Course in those days a dollar was a dollar, too.

RR: Eggs was 10 cents a dozen and now they are 85. Bacon was 15 cents a pound. Now it's $1.65. Sack of flour cost you a dollar and quarter, dollar and a half.

SC: Yes, it's really different. What would people do for entertainment here in town?

RR: Had a picture show. That was it. Sometimes a traveling company would come in and put on a show. Outside of the saloons, I think there were 20 or 25 saloons in Walsenburg. It was just the same as any other little town in those days. Didn't have much entertainment.

SC: Are there less people here now?

RR: There was a lot of people here then. There was 3 or 4,000 people working around these mines. It was really a busy town. This town had more payroll when I was a kid then the town of Pueblo had. On account of the miners, see?

SC: Were there businesses that aren't here now?

MR: When I came here when we were married…there aren't any of those businesses here now. OD Store, Krier's store, Kelmes' store, Windwor's, Allison's Confectionary. There are just a few stores downtown now. When we were married I thought this was…well, it was a booming town! And Walsen camp up there at a big truck house. They used to have big parties.

RR: CF & I had a club house.

MR: It was really a booming place. Main Street was just full of business places. They weren't lacking for business. When the mines went down, that's when the town went down.

SC: When you were growing up here was the church active?

RR: Church? Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. When I was a kid…

SC: Was the church more active?

RR: About the same as it is now. I think they had more church members then they have now, for the amount of population.

SC: Who were the political leaders when you were growing up?

RR: Jeff Parr was the big shot here for about 20-25 years when he was sheriff. Then there was Adolf Unfug, Jim Gates, Bob Young,…as kids growing up, George Dick and I used to make all the rallies.

MR: That's the young George Dick.

RR: Republican Party was a big party then, see. And then they lost that ballot count and they was all kicked out of office and the Democrats came in. That was fellow by the name of Galey, East and Foote, the two attorneys,…gee, I don't remember the rest of it.

SC: Were you a Republican then?

RR: Yes, yes.

SC: Were you involved in politics yourself?

RR: No, no.

MR: He just egged them on!

SC: After you got out of high school, did you go to work then?

RR: I went to the great university and come on back. The war was on. I tried to enlist and they turned me down on account of my left leg. It was shorter then my right leg on account of being shot. Then I went to work over at CF & I engineers…well, when I was going to school I worked for them two summers and I worked a year after I come back from college. Then I went to working around town here. Then I went to New Mexico and worked in the coal mines there and come back and worked out here for a couple of years in the coal mines and went down here to the coal company's general office and worked there for 35 years.

SC: What company was that?

RR: The called it the Huerfano Agency. They had the sales for Gordon, Turner, Merit, Dick's Jewel, and Mill Valley. And I kept the books.

SC: Big job.

MR: It was a big job and they had places on the outside of stations where they sold coal in Pueblo and Denver and Dodge City and Alamosa and he had all those to take up. Had to go every three months and audit those books.

SC: Did you have children?

MR: No. We raised a little girl and boy till they were 10. 8 and 10 I guess it was. That was a niece of mine and then their mother decided she wanted them back again.

SC: Why did the mines close?

RR: Well, on account of…

MR: Unionists!

RR: Gas came in and took the business. And then the union wages got up to where there was no profit. All the coal companies was losing money. And then the mines just got that much deeper and there was more expense to get the coal out. There is a lot of coal left. All kinds of coal left in this district but it is deep, it will cost a lot of money to get it out.

SC: Do you think they will start mining here again?

RR: I hope so. I'd like to see that slurry go through.

MR: Get some payrolls in here.

RR: Payrolls started.

MR: That's what we need.

RR: You get 50 or 60 men on steady pay it would help the town out to beat the dickens!

SC: Did you stay with the coal company up until you retired?

RR: Until they started closing all down. When I left they was just operating the one mine there. That was Gordon Mine.

SC: So, what are the main changes you have seen here?

MR: Well, since we was married I can see a change in…was a boom town and now it is boomed out! Our population is only 6,000. Used to be, gee, I forget how many people...

SC: Did the rest of your family stay here, your brothers and sisters?

RR: Well, one of my sisters married a fellow that lived in Iowa. She passed away in Iowa. My brother passed away here. And my older sister, she passed away in Missouri.

MR: They lived here.

RR: Yes, up until 4 or 5 years…the one in Missouri until about 4 years…

MR: Yes, she went to her daughters. His brother died right next door here. His father died right here and his mother was living up with her daughter and she was taken to a nursing home in Pueblo and then she died. That was just a couple of years ago. His mother lived to…

RR: 93. Papa was 86.

SC: Was your father…where was he from before Missouri?

RR: He come out of Ireland…Maryland… I don't know. He met mom in Vancouver, Washington.

SC: That was a long way to go in those days.

MR: Your grandmother and grandfather were living in Washington, weren't they?

RR: Yes, they came on one of those immigrant trains. They had a railway train where you loaded all your furniture and everything else and that's how they went to Washington out of Missouri. My grandparents and my mother, and her sisters and brothers and all.

SC: How did you father happen to go there?

RR: Working the coal mines. See the miners, in those days, they followed the coal mines to where there was any work. If they'd hear a mine was working in Wyoming, they'd go to Wyoming. Same way back there in Missouri. My grandfather got a job as superintendent of the mine there in Washington. That's how they got out there. I don't know…my dad, he was in Maryland and there the mines all shut down then. I think he went to Kentucky and worked there for a little while and he heard about these mines all working out in Washington and he went out there. They had to follow where the work was in those days.

SC: Did you work in the mines?

RR: Yes, I worked in New Mexico in the mines and I started out here at Gordon Mines. When I was working over there union started forming at Turner Mine. I refused to have anything to do with the union. That's when I went to the general office.

SC: What was your reception when you decided not to join the union? Were people mad at you?

RR: I couldn't see any idea in my paying money to some guy to tell me what to do and what not to do and he didn't work. That was the whole idea against it. The idea of the union was perfectly all right but I'd be a son of a gun if I would keep some guy in Denver living at the Grand House Hotel and me out here digging coal. I just couldn't see it. Had a couple of Wops come out there and start telling what you had to do. Making $7.75 and go down to $5.25 go the union.

SC: How do you mean?

RR: Well, that was the scale we had. The CF & I and the union got together and they cut the wages to $5.25. And of course I was digging coal and cutting coal and I was making more than that, but that was the scale, see?

SC: So what strike was that when you were working out there?

RR: 1921. Well, it was no strike there, they just formed the union. It was the strike in 1923. Wobblie Strike. No, 1924.

MR: That was a doozie! I didn't know anything about mines or strikes. I didn't know what a mine was, I was scared to turn around.

SC: What was the result of that strike, the Wobblie Strike? Were there any changes?

RR: There was a bunch of trouble here in town. Never changed anything as far as the men was concerned. They got a few radicals in here and caused quite a bit of trouble. But, they never got the miners organized. The just caused a bunch of trouble.

SC: Was it difficult to work during that period? You just kept working…

RR: Oh, yes.

SC: But the miners struck?

RR: Some of the mines went out but our mines kept operating. We had a few arguments. State police came in and closed the mine and then they got in trouble about that. State police can't do that anymore. State police then and they change it to the Colorado State Patrol after that.

SC: What patrol?

RR: Colorado State Patrol. Originally was the state police.

SC: So you were worried during the strike, Mrs. Riley?

MR: All I could think about was getting shot or looted, I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't go outside.

SC: Was your father in the union? Did they have a union then?

RR: Yes. I forget the name of the union. He was secretary out there for a long time. Gee, I forget the name of it.

SC: Was he glad to get out of the mine when he got the ranch?

RR: Oh, yes!

SC: Did they keep the dairy for a long time?

RR: I guess about 15 years, something like that.

SC: I can't think of much more. That is a pretty good rundown. I do have some forms……

SC: About yourself Mr. Riley, you said you couldn't go in the army because you had been shot in the leg?

RR: Yes.

SC: So how old were you when by began to work at the mine?

RR: I was about 21, 22.

SC: When you were working in the mining camps or living there, how did people from different countries get along?

RR: I think there was every country in the world working in these mines here. Every nationality. Japs, Italians, Chinamen, Slavs, Englishmen, Cornishmen, Germans, Mexicans, just a conglomeration!

SC: How did people get along?

RR: Fine. We never had, far as racial troubles…It was like there was…they had what they called the Nigger Camp at Walsen, special row of red buildings where all the niggers lived. I never remember any real trouble. Only they had some trouble in here in town at the bowling alley, pool hall down on Main Street. Some niggers decided they was going to go in there and play, and Mr. Sweet said they wasn't and so they said they were, and they come along back. Supposed to been Orange and they was shooting past them and there were three Negros killed. But that's about the only racial troubles I remember. Might have been fights amongst them, same as any other nationality. But they never had any other racial trouble. Blacks went to school with us in the basement. Those days they had to talk English. They said they'd teach you how to talk English. (Laughs)

SC: You weren't in the camp you were in this house during the 1913 strike. Do you think that strike changed anything?

RR: Caused the mines to sign up with the union.

SC: Do you remember any holidays when you were growing up?

RR: We had New Year's, Washington's Birthday, Fourth of July, Declaration Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. That was it for school. Summer holiday.

SC: How did you celebrate them?

RR: No big celebrations.

SC: What would you say was the biggest holiday?

RR: Fourth of July. That's the most celebration I remember as a kid was the Fourth of July.

SC: Was there a parade?

RR: There'd be a lot of firecrackers and a parade and everybody's go down here and take their lunches someplace, nearly all parties. Actually in the town not a whole lot went on in the town.

SC: Do you remember the depression here?

RR: You mean the last one we had? (Laughs)

SC: I mean the one in '29.

RR: Yes, I remember it. I was at the coal company office and went to the bank and drew out a whole bunch of money. The day before the bank closed. Course the fellow that was working for us was the president of the bank. But we never had any troubles and was able to take care of our men. It didn't effect us a whole lot. I think the bank was only closed down 3 or 4 days. Something like that. I don't think this part of the country was hurt half as bad as the east. Sure, work was bad. Lot of men was out of work. Then we had the WPA which took care of nearly all of them that was out of work here in town.

SC: What projects around here did they have?

RR: Paving the sidewalk projects. Built those stone buildings and things down there at the fairgrounds. They riff-rafted the Cucharas River. They really done a lot of work around here. They put sidewalks in. All you had to do was pay for the concrete and they would furnish the labor and the sand and everything if you would pay for the concrete. They got a lot of work.

MR: They were good workers , too, in those days. They worked!

SC: What kind of medical care was there?

RR: We always had pretty fair doctors here in town. Each camp had its own doctors. Doctors were at the camps each morning. They'd go to the office each morning and pick up the sick list and go call at the home. We had camp doctors and we had doctors here in town.

SC: What diseases did people fear most when you were a child?

RR: Had all the diseases. But I never had one, couldn't even catch the smallpox! Measles was the worst for shutting down schools and a couple of times we had smallpox epidemics. For years and years we had shut downs every winter on account of measles.

SC: Were there special home remedies people used?

RR: I don't know. Never used any remedy on me. (Laughs) I never did have any kids sick.

MR: I think most in those days used home remedies. They didn't trust…I mean they didn't have doctors that could come way out in the country and places like that. I remember my mother had a great big doctor book. They would go by that big old book. Many times it was castor oil and if you had a cold you put a mustard plaster on your chest. So I think they went by doing their own doctoring in those days an awful lot…and they'd swear by those books. And to this day if they've got those books, some of these younger women…

RR: They were just doctors. They weren't specialists. (Laughs)

SC: Do you remember World War II here?

RR: Oh, yes.

SC: Was the community very affected?

RR: Yes.

SC: Was life different after World War II?

RR: Not a whole lot.

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