The story never ends: Yurich dedicated to preserving Oak Creek history
December 14, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Oak Creek’s Mike Yurich sits on a rickety wooden stool in a cramped room no bigger than the size of a walk-in closet. He’s quiet, taking a brief moment to ponder his surroundings.
Stacked around the 80-year-old man are dozens of binders, and inside those binders are hundreds of carefully typed pages. The binders, many labeled with the names of longtime families, contain Yurich’s vast collection of the tiny town’s history — much of it unknown or untold.
And inside this tiny room in the middle of Tracks & Trails Museum on Main Street is where Yurich has devoted hundreds of hours to his life's work of chronicling the history of Oak Creek.
It's the place where Yurich feels at home.
His home away from home
Yurich was born in 1934 in Oak Creek, a town rich in mining, ranching and railroad history.
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As a young boy, Yurich remembers Main Street — the roughly mile-long stretch of road that takes just seconds to pass through when traveling Colorado Highway 131 — as being lined by homes. Yurich said the houses typically were two stories and not constructed to last, which is why downtown looks almost entirely different now than it did seven decades ago.
Those original homes were lived in by families who moved to Oak Creek from across the country and world to help keep Northwest Colorado’s booming mining and railroad industries afloat. More than 20 mines dotted the area in the early 1900s, according to Yurich’s historical records, attracting a labor force that represented one of the most diverse ethnic pools the state has ever seen.
Yurich was hooked on the town's history from the start — enthralled by the mines, captivated by the stories and inspired by the idea that the railroad system rolled through town in late 1908 and a group of tough workers decided to call Oak Creek home.
In large part, Yurich is the reason the Tracks & Trails Museum was renovated more than seven years ago and now serves as home to artifacts and memorabilia representing the town's rich 106-year history.
The building itself at 129 E. Main St. was built before Yurich was born, once serving as Oak Creek’s town hall before being left vacant and practically condemned. The structure was saved in 2007 by grants from the State Historical Fund, Museum Advisory Heritage Fund and the Boettcher Foundation, totaling around $200,000 for interior and exterior renovations.
The museum quickly became Yurich’s home away from home, a safe haven where he can stow away hundreds of pages of notes, dozens of donated artifacts and stories that need to be told.
"If someone is walking around in here, of course my little spiel is I can tell you anything about Oak Creek — the good stories and the bad and the people who lived here," Yurich said.
The story collection started with long walks along the same streets that exist today but are surrounded by much different buildings.
Yurich began collecting stories about the town when he was 10 years old and kept out of school with an illness for a long period of time. To make the days go faster, he and his mother would take walks — "therapeutic walks," as he calls them — and she would point out what she thought to be important moments or places in Oak Creek history.
"We’d just go around town and she’d point at things, say ‘This is so-and-so’s place,’ and she’d tell me a story about it," Yurich said.
In 1952, Yurich graduated from Oak Creek Union High School at a time when all 12 grades were housed under one roof in the present-day Soroco Middle School. He attended the University of Colorado and then transferred to college in Grand Junction before settling on the Army.
While stationed in Germany, Yurich married and moved back to his hometown. His four children grew up in Oak Creek and graduated from high school there.
He eventually became a teacher in Oak Creek before entering the Peace Corps for six two-year tours, mostly serving in Africa.
Between college, military service, the Peace Corps and odd jobs here and there, Yurich left town but never abandoned his Oak Creek roots. He always returned to town, no matter where he was in life, and his reasoning is simple.
"What always drew me back to Oak Creek was the history thing," Yurich said. "When I worked at the grocery store in town, I got to know a lot of people who were here in the beginning of Oak Creek. They were already elderly, but they liked to sit down and talk about it. I just got hooked on it."
A never-ending chase
The requests that end up on Yurich’s desk at the Tracks & Trails Museum usually start with a routine phone call or email.
The questions come from all over the world — places like Japan and all European territories.
Typically, the questions are posed by a family member in a distant location, someone eager to fill out their family tree. Typically, they have brief knowledge that the person they are researching — a grandfather, a grandmother, a lost family friend — may have spent time working in Oak Creek. Maybe the person they are researching was even buried in the Oak Creek Cemetery.
Just give Yurich a name, and he'll usually find the answer.
"I’ll always answer their requests," Yurich said. "And what happens is, I can always come up with something. I don’t know what it is. I’m getting old and I’m losing a lot of that information, but if somebody gives me a name, immediately I can pull up something."
Joe Maestas is one of those people.
Maestas, an 82-year-old Hispanic-American now from California, wrote Yurich seeking more information on his family, one of the many working-class families that spent significant time in now-defunct coal mines.
After Yurich uncovered the information Maestas was looking for, Maestas returned the favor and penned Yurich a three-page, single-space memoir of what Maestas remembers during his time as a teenager in Oak Creek.
"He graduated from high school here and right away he went to work in the coal mines at Hayboro," Yurich said. "His description of going down into the coal mine is so good. I never had anybody write it and give it to me in that manner."
Maestas’ story will get archived like so many others in the binders in the Tracks & Trails archives closet. Yurich will make multiple copies of the three-page letter and place them in binders marked Hispanic, in honor of Joe’s father, Roberto.
The Maestases also will be included in Yurich’s mining history binder as another first-hand story of laborers whose names are etched onto the Miner’s Wall just outside Tracks & Trails Museum. The wall includes hundreds of names of laborers who worked in the mines that once surrounded Oak Creek.
Yurich estimates two or three similar requests come in each week from overseas. With the help of online newspaper archives from the Steamboat Pilot & Today and microfilm of the Oak Creek Times in storage, he’s on a mission to ensure no request goes unanswered.
"I’m forever chasing down something," Yurich said.
The latest project
As much as Yurich loves to see his lifelong home remembered, he can’t stand the thought of historical records being disorganized.
"Fouled up" is how Yurich describes the Oak Creek Cemetery records before he inherited that project — his latest in a long line of tasks that never seem to end.
Walking grave by grave, Yurich is writing down the names on the gravestones. With each name comes a story, an answer to a family’s future question that may float through his telephone or email.
"I’m just going through almost grave by grave," Yurich said. "Those people have such an interesting history. A lot of them immigrated here, died here, and no one even knows who they were or where they came from."
As old school as it gets, Yurich uses index cards and writes down all the information he can find on the names of those buried up on the hill. He’s spent hours — days, even — poring through old newspapers and whatever was left in the cemetery’s jumbled-up records, making sure those who died and were buried in Oak Creek are never forgotten.
The Oak Creek Cemetery records will be handled like all the other information Yurich has collected and stowed away in the Tracks & Trails closet. Once he has what he believes to be an accurate and full collection of information — whenever that may be — he’ll neatly file those notes away in their own binder, one that will be slotted next to dozens of others that record unique moments in Oak Creek history.
Caring about his hometown history is one thing, but why does Yurich care so much about the names — enough to go grave by grave on long walks through the cemetery only to return to the museum and burrow into a corner for more research?
"I kind of believe a person still exists on Earth as long as somebody is around to remember your name," Yurich explained. "If that ceases to happen, then you’re lost to eternity."
A new kind of New Year's Resolution
At 80 years old, Yurich can’t help but notice that he’s slowing down a bit, mentally and physically.
He doesn’t own a car, but in a town the size of Oak Creek, getting around from his home at the senior apartments by foot isn’t all that difficult. He walks gingerly through the creaky museum halls, but a youthfulness comes to his aging body when a stranger walks through the doors.
This is his life, and sharing his life’s work with an interested patron even for 10 minutes keeps Yurich coming back as a volunteer historian day after day.
"I do get a lot of people coming in," Yurich said. "I get excited when I can pull out some information and give it to them. They’ll often say something like ‘Oh, my great uncle used to live here.’ And they’ll say the name, and right now, I can still recall all these names in my head."
In addition to revamping the Oak Creek Cemetery’s records, Yurich has been working on another project for quite some time, one that’s less likely to increase foot traffic at the Tracks & Trails Museum and more for himself and others who have stuck around in town for decades.
A few New Year's ago, Yurich made a resolution. Noticing his aging body and mind, Yurich pledged to himself that he’d write one page per week on anything that came to his mind regarding Oak Creek’s history.
Of course, one page sometimes — and oftentimes — becomes two or three. By the end of the first year, Yurich had a giant binder filled with stories, usually spurred by his daily walks around town. Some of Yurich's writings are based on facts, while others are his interpretation of the way things used to be in town in comparison to modern-day Oak Creek.
"To other people, things like this aren’t important," Yurich said. "But to me, it’s there for me, and I try to write as much as I possibly can. It’s just a page."
He also solicits others to help him with his resolution. Sometimes, he’ll make a trip to the Ladies Aid Hall in Yampa with a topic in mind and ask the women to share their thoughts.
His original binder of stories has doubled in size. "My Oak Creek" are the words written on the binder's cover and spine.
"I kind of just write things down, even if a lot of it isn’t true, or probably not true," Yurich admits. "My brother is four years younger than I am, and we always have a difference of opinion on what took place here. But this is about the beginning of getting it recorded."
All in good time
It may be only the beginning for Yurich, but for a man eight decades old, he can’t help but look to the end of his life.
He admits he’s a bit scared that someday he will pass and no one will be around to pick up the pieces where he left off.
But he’s also quick to change the subject, because there’s little time to waste. He’s always chasing down something, after all.
Yurich has plans for the renovated but still rickety Tracks & Trails Museum and the Historical Society building across the street, which the museum purchased a few years ago with plans to turn it into an archives research center.
He hopes to empty out that jam-packed closet and get things stowed neatly away in the research center. Soon, the now-extinct Oak Creek Times will be archived online like the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and Yurich salivates at the idea of having access to even more historical items.
At the Tracks & Trails Museum itself, he wants to hollow out the basement and turn it into a makeshift underground mine, complete with fake rocks, sound effects and a television-guided tour.
"I can see it all in my head," Yurich said.
He’d also like to commemorate the strong women who are part of Oak Creek’s 106-year-old history with a wall of their own, much like the Miners Wall adjacent to the museum and the railroaders monument in Phippsburg.
"I mentioned (this) to the ladies, and they said ‘We have enough projects,’" Yurich said.
Yurich also has his eyes on the Oak Creek Inn, formerly Reidy’s Resort, which was the site of Oak Creek's brothel.
All in good time, he thinks, even if there isn’t a lot of it left.