If you go
What: Immigration exhibit at Tracks and Trails Museum
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, closed noon to 1 p.m.
Where: 129 E. Main St., Oak Creek
Steamboat Springs Annabelle Petranovich's Yugoslavian mother thought bananas were peeled sausages. Mike Yurich's Croatian father wandered for days in Chicago because cleaners cut the colored string off the streetcar he took home.
Decades ago, these immigrants made their way across an ocean and through the United States, working their way to settlement in Oak Creek. Many wound up in the mines, working for the railroad or farming. Artifacts and stories from their lives now are on display at the Tracks and Trails Museum in Oak Creek.
Yurich, the town's historian, and museum Curator Laurie Elendu built the exhibit. Elendu credited much of the exhibit to Yurich.
"Mike really wanted this to happen because he's been collecting different stories, different people's pictures," she said.
The exhibit includes information about Routt County's first Rossis, Iacovettos and Lombardis, for example. Yurich cobbled it together from stories he knew and information others shared.
"I'm really excited about opening it because it had such a diverse population," Yurich said about the exhibit and the Oak Creek area.
By his estimate, at the peak of the area's coal mines, about 1,500 or 2,000 people lived in Oak Creek. The mining settlements within a five-mile radius, such as Keystone, Haybro and Juniper, increased that number to 4,000 or 5,000, Yurich said.
"In the '20s and '30s, it must've been a fantastic place to have been," he said with a grin.
Yampa and Steamboat Springs were ranching communities, so they didn't have the diversity of Oak Creek, he said. The town also had large black and Hispanic populations.
The Mount Harris mining town, between Steamboat and Hayden, also had a large black population, Yurich noted.
Immigrants also arrived from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, India, Japan and Lithuania.
"A lot of them, they didn't come directly to Oak Creek," Yurich said. "They came to New York and had relatives in Chicago, so they kind of hopscotched across until they came to Oak Creek."
Many Japanese workers helped build the Moffat Railroad a century ago. The rails originally were meant to link Denver and Salt Lake City. When they stopped in Craig instead, Yurich said, many Japanese workers came to Oak Creek.
The Indians worked in lettuce and spinach fields near Toponas. Yurich said he has struggled to find information about that group. He rustled up a newspaper article about Indians leasing ground on Trout Creek to farm lettuce.
"Nobody that I've talked to really remembers them being here, but it would have been in the '20s or so," Yurich said.
Newspaper articles have helped him get a sense of which ethnic groups came through, as did records from the mines. The coal mines also helped ramp up diversity - in a backward way. Recruiters met immigrants coming off the boats and brought them to the mines.
"If they weren't happy with the conditions, which they usually weren't, they went on strike," Yurich said. They "were moved out of the houses, and (the mine would) bring in a different group that spoke a different language."
The exhibit includes tales about Yurich's own father, Frank. When he arrived in Chicago, Frank Yurich tied colored string to the streetcar he took to and from work. When the car went in to be cleaned, the string was cut off. Yurich wandered the streets for a couple of days with his shovel, pretending to work, until he found his way home.
The Croatia native died in 1947, when Mike Yurich was 12 or 13. The younger Yurich started collecting histories then.
"There was a large Croatian population, a lot of single guys who lived here from the same area," he said. "They always came to the house, and I was always asking questions about the home country."
Yurich encouraged people to stop by the museum, at 129 E. Main St., to share their own family histories. He welcomes tales from across South Routt. People can loan artifacts to the exhibit - Yurich's father's certificate of citizenship is there.
"Anything we get will really add to the immigration story," Yurich said.