Historical Society works to restore mural in Oak Creek

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— When the Colorado Bar in Oak Creek was destroyed in a gas explosion, a mural hanging next to it was taken down so that it might be preserved and used again.

Twenty years later, the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, which is gathering items for a museum in the old town hall, would like to see the mural restored. There is only one problem no one has seen the mural in years, even though many people believe they know where it is.

The mural was painted on several eight-foot plywood panels and told the pictorial story of Oak Creek's mining, agricultural and railroad past. "Welcome to Oak Creek, Elevation 7,397," it read.

Most people believe the mural still exists and is being stored in a boarded up A-frame cabin owned by John Yurich. But if Yurich has it, he isn't saying.

"I don't particularly want to talk about it," was all Yurich would say when contacted about the mural.

Oak Creek Mayor Cargo Rodeman said she asked Yurich to return the mural to the historical society earlier this fall.

"We would like to see it back on Main Street," Rodeman said. "We'd like to put it up in its original location."

Rodeman said Yurich responded by sending her a bill, citing a verbal agreement he said was made when the mural was originally saved. "He wants $1 a day for all the time he stored the mural for the town," Rodeman said.

The original artists have offered to repair the mural if it is returned, Rodeman said.

"I don't think that one individual should have it," said Lee O'Neal, one of the four artists who worked on the mural. "We made it for the town."

Newspaper photos from the day of the explosion show only minor damage to one panel of the plywood mural. The next day July 25, 1982 Mike Yurich and O'Neal pulled the mural from its location between the Colorado Bar and a barbershop so that it would not be completely destroyed during the gutting and restoration process. Mike Yurich is the town historian and John Yurich's brother.

Originally, the mural was stored across the street in a former toy store, along with several items salvaged from the bar by then owners Betty and Walter Hunter.

Nine months later, according to articles in the Steamboat Pilot, the Colorado Bar reopened with a new building on the same footprint as the old one. At that time no one asked about the mural.

The mural was commissioned by the town of Oak Creek in 1977 and paid for with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Rodeman said.

The Lions Club donated the paint, artist Mary Deppe said.

The mural was the work of four women O'Neal, Deppe, Jill Andrews and a woman the artists can only remember as "Kim." O'Neal said she drew the original sketches, which were approved by the town board.

The mural was designed to replace another "Welcome to Oak Creek" sign that had filled the same spot since 1955. The 1955 sign had been severely damaged when someone ran into it with a car, Mike Yurich said.

The original sign was funded through the same government job program after most of the mines closed down and people were leaving town en masse.

The 1977 mural was stored in the toy store until the late 1980s when the town put several liens on the property, repossessed it and tore it down.

There's no record of what happened to the mural when the toy store came down.

When John Yurich asked for several thousand dollars before he would return the mural, Rodeman refused to pay the bill. Then she asked various business owners on Main Street to keep their eyes on the A-frame and, last month, she filed a theft complaint with the Routt County Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's department investigated the claim.

"We decided that it is a civil matter," said Sheriff John Warner. "It is my understanding that they had a verbal agreement. It was not a theft."

John Yurich is a lifelong resident of Oak Creek, but his dealings with the town have not always been friendly.

He served as the town's public works director for 16 years before he was dismissed in 1983.

A Steamboat Pilot article from 1983 told the story: "Oak Creek Public Works Director John Yurich thought he still had a job when he left the Oak Creek Town Board meeting last Thursday evening. In fact, he still thought he had a job Friday morning when he went to check on the town's Rich Ditch. What Yurich didn't realize was that after he left the meeting, the board went into executive session : It was not until three hours after the news of his firing was broadcast over the radio early Friday morning that Yurich was informed."

John Yurich later sued the town of Oak Creek over his termination.

What those interested in the mural will do next is unclear.

Historical Society member Donna Peters said that the mural is not a top priority.

Mike Yurich agreed.

"If the town is truly interested in bringing the mural back," he said, "it would be better to bring it out in five years when Oak Creek celebrates their centennial."

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