Oak Creek Labor Day celebration remembers the old, celebrates the new
For Dennis Fisher, the annual Labor Day celebration in Oak Creek isn’t just a parade and a community gathering; it’s a tribute paid to his family members.
Fisher, a 79-year-old Steamboat Springs resident, spoke softly as he pointed to names on a wall outside Oak Creek’s Tracks and Trails Museum. Each name had a unique story attached to it. Stories of mining for coal, building up Routt County and remembering Oak Creek when it was a much larger, booming town.
“This ain’t the same place it used to be,” Fisher said of Routt County.
Fisher believes it’s important to attend Oak Creek’s Labor Day celebration each year, both as a way to honor his ancestors and to celebrate younger generations.
“Every year, I get to see a lot of people that I knew in the past and meet new people,” Fisher said. “It’s a lot of fun for me.”
Fisher stood among hundreds of people Monday, some from Routt County and some from other parts of the state and nation, as they clapped and cheered during the Labor Day Parade.
The longtime tradition of honoring workers on Labor Day in Oak Creek began in 1913, a year when coal miners wanted to show unity among workers and their unions, said Nita Naugle, director of Trails and Tracks Museum.
“We plan for endless hours, and it can get stressful, but then you get here, and you see everyone talking about how great it is and how much they love the community,” said Nikki Knoebel, Oak Creek mayor and chair of the Labor Day Planning Committee. “That’s what keeps us going.”
Knoebel said she enjoys seeing former Soroco School District teachers being reunited with their students and the children and grandchilden of coal miners honoring their relatives by coming from around Colorado to celebrate the town.
“It feels like an old school type of celebration when you were a kid,” Knoebel said.
The parade itself showcases several local groups — the Soroco High School band, Oak Creek police and fire departments and the Coal King and Queen, an honorary award given to two South Routt students.
“It’s what Oak Creek is all about,” said Betty Koler, a coal queen from 1962 who has attended all but two Labor Day festivities since she was a child.
Ed Hang, a former teacher at Soroco High School who now lives part-time in Routt County and part-time in New Mexico, said the celebration gives him a chance to reconnect with his former students and brings a sense of stability and tradition.
“I think its a great tradition because people look forward to it,” Hang said. “They know it’s going to happen, and it brings lots of people. It’s a guarantee.”
And while the celebration happens every year, it was modified in 2020 due to COVID-19, which Vanessa Woodford, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Oak Creek, said made Monday’s parade particularly special.
“The thing with all of this is that COVID is going to pass because hard things always pass,” Woodfurd said. “What will endure is the heart of this small town.”
Mary Jean Paxton, a born-and-raised Oak Creek resident who now lives in Missouri, said she tries to make the trip back to Oak Creek on Labor Day every year to honor the legacy of coal mining and miners unions in her family.
“It’s just fun to see friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time,” Paxton said. “With the changing times, it makes me sad to see the coal industry potentially going away.”
“That has really affected Oak Creek a lot,” Woodford added.
Jared Kennedy, a firefighter and public information officer for the Oak Creek Fire Department, said while the celebration is meant to honor Oak Creek’s mining history, it also provides recognition for Oak Creek’s fire fighters, who have fought two large fires in Routt County and are currently helping fight the Caldor Fire in California.
“It’s certainly been a long summer, especially with Muddy Slide in our district and with Morgan Creek up in North Routt,” Kennedy said. “It’s really nice to be able to come out and do something fun and just hangout with everyone.”
While the transition away from coal has hurt many in Northwest Colorado, Woodford said she believes the transition is necessary and communities like Oak Creek are resilient and adaptable.
“The transition is always going to be the hardest part,” Woodford said. “But I think there are a lot of people who are looking at where we go from here.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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