Learning from the past

South Routt residents keep Historical Society going strong

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— It was flint hitting stone and a spark that lit a lifelong fire into a young Mike Yurich decades ago.

A woman came to Yurich's seventh-grade class to tell the story of her life as one of the first residents of Oak Creek.

Yurich left school that day inspired to keep the town's history alive.

"Before that, there were a lot of people in town that took pictures, but no one that I know of who saved and organized them," he said.

Yurich started collecting photos of the early mining days, the railroad, the residents and the buildings that were here one day but became history the next.

"It's the photos that really interest me more than anything," Yurich said.

But that's not all he collected.

He gathered oral histories, stories and newspaper clippings.

"During breaks from the Peace Corps (Yurich served six Peace Corps terms since retiring), I wrote down everything I could remember from growing up," he said. "I wish everyone would do that."

No story is too small to pique Yurich's interest.

If it happened in Oak Creek, Yurich would know about it.

"There would be a lot lost if it weren't for Mike," said Renee Johnson, president of the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg.

Officially, Yurich is a retired schoolteacher, but everyone in town refers to him as the town historian.

Over the years, Yurich's passion for Oak Creek's past gathered others with similar interests.

Four years ago, the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg became an official nonprofit entity.

The first year drew 12 members.

This year, 96 members were listed.

In November 1998, the last 50-ton coal bucket from the P&M Edna Mine was purchased and placed in a vacant lot next to Old Town Hall on Main Street.

Since then, the Historical Society has slowly built on Bucket Park, adding a coal miners' wall filled with the names of mine workers and the story of the town's mine beginnings.

This year, the group focused its attention on the Old Town Hall, built in 1927, as the site of an Oak Creek history museum.

The building has been deteriorating since November 1994, when town government offices moved into a new building on the other side of town.

The town's fire and ambulance crews rent half of the building and another room is home to the LIFT-UP Food Bank.

In September, LIFT-UP signed a one-year lease with the town for $1, with the understanding that the Historical Society is searching for grants to restore the building, and the food bank may need to eventually find a new home.

Pen has yet to meet paper for any grant proposals, but the Historical Society has been fund-raising in other ways.

Throughout the week, members made gift baskets and elaborate chocolates to sell at an arts and crafts fair in Yampa.

When the Historical Society receives the $200,000 needed to convert Old Town Hall into a museum, it plans to restore two old jail cells in the back of the building and repair the large amount of water damage to the ceiling and floors.

In the meantime, the group meets at 10 a.m. every Wednesday in the Old Town Hall to sort and archive photographs.

The eventual goal is to have every picture scanned into a computer database.

"We should be ready to start scanning in February or March," member Donna Peters said.

"Our photo library is really our heritage, more than any artifacts," she said. "Thanks to Mike."

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