By Pat Veltri
Along with its abundance of flora and fauna, and its varied opportunities for outdoor recreation, Sugarite Canyon State Park, eight miles northeast of Raton, features a historic early twentieth century coal mining camp. Many visible remains of the once thriving coal camp can still be seen in the park, including the rock foundations scattered along the hilly terrain, the mule barn constructed of native sandstone, and the camp post office that has been renovated and put into use as the park’s Visitor Center.
Prior to the start of the coal mining camp in 1909, Sugarite Canyon was active with cattle ranches. Coal mining operations were initially developed by the Chicorica Coal Company but in 1912 management of the coal mining operations in Sugarite were taken over by the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Company. Sugarite Coal Camp, in its beautiful setting along Chicorica Creek, became well known for its production of high quality domestic coal. When the camp first opened, it consisted of scattered tents, but within a short period of time the construction of a full-fledged company town began. Sandstone and coke block houses were built on slopes and terraces along the canyon sides, along with a mercantile store, school, post office, and club house.
The population of the camp fluctuated between 400 and 1000 during its years of operation. Sugarite coal miners were immigrants from Croatia, Ireland, France, England, Spain, Italy, Scotland, Japan, and northern Mexico.
The Sugarite Coal Camp closed in 1941, due to labor issues and the decreased need for domestic coal. By 1942 the company removed or sold most of the residences and the majority of the populace moved to Raton.
Ratonian Mary (Cunja) King was born in the coal camp of Yankee, but moved to Sugarite with her family when she was a toddler. Her family lived there until the camp closed, which coincidentally was the same year that she graduated from high school. When the camp was closing, King’s parents were one of the first families to be asked to leave, due to their opposing political views with company officials. Her father’s job was terminated and the family was essentially turned out of their home.
King’s Slovenian parents, Anton and Antonia Cunja, and their two children Marcella, age eight, and Mario, age two, immigrated to the United States from their home in Ospo, a tiny village nestled under the Austrian Alps. They arrived in New York in June, 1921 under the sponsorship of an American cousin, Tony Novak. The voyage on a merchant ship lasted a month. Two months after their arrival, a daughter Velma, was born.
King’s father, a peasant farmer, had fought with the Austrian Army in World War I. After spending four years as a Russian prisoner in Siberia, he was released, but conditions at home were so terrible, he could barely eke out a living. He longed for freedom from oppression and a better life for his family, and the United States was accepting immigrants.
Soon after their arrival in the United States, the Cunja Family settled in the coal mining camp of Yankee. The family lived in a dwelling that was more like a shack than a real house, and their water supply came from an outside common well. King’s mother took in washing from camp bachelors to supplement the family income. King and her sister Elizabeth were born while the family lived in Yankee. In 1926, the Cunjas moved to the nearby coal camp of Sugarite, and two years later their last daughter, Emma, was born.
King shares these Sugarite Coal Camp memories:
Do you remember the house that you lived in? How comfortable was the house?
We lived in a four room house and it had a long porch on the front and a smaller porch in the back. As you went in the back door there was a little room that was used as a wash room. There was a kitchen, a dining room and one bedroom that my folks slept in and the six children slept in the other bedroom. It was like sleeping in a deep freeze in the winter. When my dad got up in the morning, he lit that round bellied stove, called a monkey stove, and he turned the phonograph on to wake us up. So we’d all crawl out and get around that stove and warm up. We had outside water, but later my dad fixed it so that the water was in the house. We cooked on a majestic coal stove that had a water tank on the side, and that’s how we heated our water for cooking, washing clothes and bathing. We had outside toilets, and for toilet tissue we used pages from Montgomery Wards and Sears catalogs; that was kind of stiff paper so you had to kind of crumple it, but we thought nothing of it because everybody was in the same boat. Our weekly bath on Saturday was in a big round No. 3 wash tub.
What kind of clothes did you wear?
We wore a lot of hand-me-down clothes, and my mom did some sewing. She liked to crochet so our towels and dish towels always had crocheted edgings. We bought shoes from the catalog.
What kind of chores did you do?
We had to hang out the wash on the clothes line to dry, we had to scrub the outhouse with hot, soapy water that had lye in it, we washed and dried the dishes, and we did some sweeping and mopping and things like that, mostly household chores.
Did your family attend church regularly?
We just had a missionary priest out there – Father Nicholas Schaal. My parents were devout Catholics. They observed Lent, so as a Lenten sacrifice my dad wouldn’t eat any dairy products, cream or butter or anything. If we dropped a piece of bread, we had to kiss it before we threw it away because bread was connected to the Eucharist. Father Schaal came once a month. I don’t remember him saying Mass, but he gave the Catholic kids lessons for First Communion and Confirmation. We all came in as a group; there were maybe two dozen of us, of all ages, at a time.
What do you remember about the club house?
The club house was run by a cousin of ours, Carmella Novak, who was married to Andy Marcella. They had a daughter Alice, so we’d play with her.
Every Sunday we got a nickel from our folks. We’d go up to the Club House and we had to decide whether to buy an ice cream cone or five ‘penny candies’. Then we’d watch the baseball games, the competition with the other camps that came and played.
We had a lot of fun at the dances at the Club House. Instead of hiring baby sitters, all the kids were there. People brought their babies in big baskets and laid them on one or two chairs. The babies slept all night to the music of the band.
What did you do for fun? What were your favorite games?
We had a coal shed out in our yard and we played ‘Store’; we had our Pet Milk cans, and other different cans and we played ‘Store’. Other games that everybody played were basketball, baseball, Hide and Seek, Run Sheep Run, Kick the Can, Mumblety-Peg, and marbles. We played Hide and Seek outside almost every night. We played little games like puzzles and checkers at home, to keep us entertained. We had picnics up in Sugarite Canyon, and we went ice skating at Lake Maloya.
How were illnesses and injuries handled?
Our folks didn’t like for us to get hurt; we usually got scolded because they didn’t have the money to pay for the doctor. When we had a cold or something, we went down to see Dr. (Richard) Fuller. He was the company doctor. He had a huge bottle of green cough syrup and a huge bottle of red cough syrup; one was for adults and one was for children, so we got a small bottle of cough syrup. For cuts we got white adhesive tape, but he’d wrap it around a tongue depressor, just a little bit of tape with some gauze. I don’t remember getting medications; we didn’t even know what aspirin was.
Do you remember anyone in your family being sick?
We were less well off than a lot of the miners’ families because my dad sustained several injuries during his years of working in the mine. He had a broken leg, a broken collarbone, and a varicose leg ulcer that never healed. The worst was a near death accident when a cave-in covered him up to his neck in coal. He came extremely close to being paralyzed and he spent nine months in the company hospital in Gardiner, with a broken back. He just missed being paralyzed but I don’t remember my folks saying they were compensated by the company. It was then that the SNPJ* Lodge paid him small benefits, which helped our family survive. Thank God he had all the family enrolled in SNPJ before the accident. After his recovery, he was allowed to work only a half day when the mine worked a full day, and sometimes the mine only worked one or two days a week. So his check for one week was $2.50.
*Slovensko Narodna Podporna Jednota (Slovene National Benefit Society) is a fraternal benefit society offering insurance and financial programs, and dedicated to preserving the Slovenian heritage and culture in the United States.
What do you remember about your schooling?
We went from the first through the eighth grade. Then we came on the bus to high school in Raton. The principal was Loren Malcolm. She was such a dedicated teacher, and strict. My favorite teacher was Lottie Washburn. I don’t remember too much about the other teachers, but they were all good teachers, and they taught everything. We had penmanship contests and spelling bees. All of my life people have told me that I have a beautiful penmanship, because they drilled that cursive writing into us. Once a week special teachers came to the camp. Edith Botsford came out once a week to teach the girls sewing and embroidery. Jessie French taught music. We stood around the piano and if we didn’t hit the high note, she’d pull on our ears. The boys were taught manual training. In his woodworking class my brother made my youngest sister a little wooden duck that she pulled along with a string.
The girls played basketball outdoors. I wasn’t good at sports, but Mrs. Malcolm made me play and I was a guard. The Yankee girls would come and play against us and they were husky farm girls. They played with their high top work shoes, denim pants, and cotton shirts. They threw that basketball from one end of the court to the other and we’d say ‘Yankee Pass’, like they say ‘Hail Mary’ in football.
How did your parents feel toward the company and the mine operators?
My parents, I don’t think, had bad feelings about anyone but they didn’t like some of the things that the company did. My parents were Democrats and it was the time of (Franklin) Roosevelt. They liked Roosevelt and they had a big picture of him hanging on the wall. Company officials visited and requested that my dad take the picture down, but he refused. Around election time company officials came around with a sample ballot to tell my parents how to vote – for the Republican candidate. My mother pretended she didn’t know better and started to mark the ballot as they requested, and they said, ‘No, wait until you go down to vote.’ When they left, my parents laughed to themselves. At election time they went to the polls and voted for Roosevelt. My parents didn’t like to be told what to do, and that was from their experiences in the old country. My dad wanted his freedom.
How did your parents feel about being American citizens?
My parents were thrilled to become American citizens, but they never forgot their Slovenian heritage. They taught us native songs, told us stories about the ‘old county’, and my dad gave us recipes he carried around in his head.
Do you think miners played an important role in American history?
When I think of all my parents suffered in their lifetime, I believe they were ‘Profiles in Courage’, as were so many miners. They came from many foreign countries with every ethnicity, and worked underground in unsafe conditions with not enough pay and not enough concern for their physical welfare. Many lost their lives in mine explosions, serious accidents, and to black lung disease. In my opinion all miners’ courage, dedication, and sacrifice helped the United States prosper. May God bless them!
Vintage photos are courtesy of the Joe Bertola family and Arthur Johnson Memorial Library.