Preserving the past

Volunteers strive to save Upper Yampa heritage

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— Men like Karl Clemens Paznokaitis and Irvin Soash are most likely strangers to most people in Routt County.

Their names appear, nonetheless, with 431 other names on the Miner's Wall in downtown Oak Creek to commemorate the role they played in fashioning the unique history of the Upper Yampa Valley.

Without the persistence of a small group of people interested in saving the history of the towns of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, the contributions of miners like Paznokaitis and Soash might have been forgotten.

When the Oak Creek man who first began compiling old photographs and collecting information about the town's history left to join the Peace Corps, the task of continuing his work was left to a few interested residents.

The Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg eventually formed in 1998 in response to concerns that no local organization existed to promote the preservation of the Upper Yampa Valley's history.

"It's to help preserve the history that we do have here," said Nancy Peckham, who serves as treasurer for the organization. "If you don't, then it fades away."

The people responsible for the society's accomplishments in the community donate their time, Peckham said.

Because the grassroots organization cannot afford to hire someone to research and catalogue its collection of photographs and newspapers, progress depends on the willingness of volunteers to make different projects happen, she added.

President Renee Johnson said the small group has persevered in its efforts, thanks to talented volunteers who care about the society's mission.

"It seems like people come to us at very good times," Johnson said.

Some members helped with securing the society's nonprofit status in 2001, while others assisted with a membership drive.

A few residents simply volunteer to store historical items in their garages.

The Historical Society previously displayed some of its collection at the Oak Creek Library but space limitations forced the organization to house its collection at Town Hall.

The library still houses an extensive collection of photographs and other research materials.

Johnson said the society would like to apply for a grant to store their photo collection on computer.

Scanning and digitizing all vintage photographs onto disks would allow the public easier access to the archives and allow them to obtain copies of photos, she added.

Members unfortunately do not have to time to scan all the photos, Peckham said.

"It's a project bigger than a few of us can handle," she said. "We're just a small handful of people."

Oak Creek resident Donna Peters said she and other members were pleased with a recent membership drive.

Dozens of new members, many of whom are former residents of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, joined the Historical Society.

The new members were encouraged to see that some steps had been made toward preserving the area where they once lived, she added.

Peters said she immediately wanted to join the Historical Society after she took a roadside tour of an underground mine along Highway 131 last summer.

The organization began conducting the tours to raise money for projects.

It's critical that a small community remember its history, she said.

People who missed the membership drive can still join, Peters said. Membership fees range from $10 to $50.

If members of the Historical Society could compose a wish list, it would include a building to use as a museum, new pamphlets and booklets to provide information about its mission and help with reviving Labor Day activities such as class reunions and an old timer's picnic.

Many items on the wish list would need substantial funding.

"We have looked at a few possibilities," Peckham said. "It all boils down to money."

In the meantime, the members of the Historical Society intend to do all they can with their limited resources.

They will continue their commitment to honoring men like Paznokaitis and Soash.

For $25, small plates with the engraved names of miners who worked in mines in the Upper Yampa Valley can be added to the Miner's Wall, which can be found at the Coal Display Area on Main Street, in addition to historical mining photographs and a few pieces of underground mining equipment.

The list of names, though highly visible to the town of Oak Creek, represents just a small fraction of the group's efforts at educating the public about the town's history.

Those who want more information about the Historical Society can write to the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, P.O. Box 1, Oak Creek, CO 80467.

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