Oak Creek’s cornerstone Labor Day celebration returns fully to celebrate the South Routt town built by mining | SteamboatToday.com

Oak Creek’s cornerstone Labor Day celebration returns fully to celebrate the South Routt town built by mining

Betty Koler, then Betty Stewart, sits on a float after being crowned Coal Queen in 1962. l Tracks and Trails Museum/Courtesy photo

OAK CREEK — In her 75 years of life, Betty Koler has only missed two Labor Day celebrations in Oak Creek. The first was because of a family emergency, the second was because the entire event was canceled last year due to COVID-19.

Koler grew up in Oak Creek, then moved to Montrose when she was 56 years old, but the 233-mile drive each year is more of a requirement than a chore for Koler, who takes great pride in Oak Creek’s history as a coal mining town.

“It’s what Oak Creek is about,” Koler said. “Oak Creek is a little town with not very many people, and I remember in the ‘50’s, there was quite a few more people and it was the main holiday for Oak Creek.”

Those wanting to partake in the centurylong tradition of Labor Day in Oak Creek have several options for doing so.

Timeline of events for Labor Day festivities in Oak Creek.

Saturday, Sept. 4

• Pancake breakfast, 8 a.m. at Main Street Park

• Cribbage tournament, 10 a.m. at Oak Creek Tavern

• Fishing Derby, Decker Park at 10 a.m.

• Pet parade, Moffat Avenue at 10:30 a.m.

• Oak Creek Library Chalk Drawing Contest, Decker Park Basketball Courts at 10:30 a.m.

• Free Family Fun Day, Decker Park at noon

• Pizza Eating Contest, Decker Park at 2 p.m.

• Hula Hoop Contest, Decker Park at 2:30 p.m.

• Oak Creek Coal Royalty Crowning, Decker Park at 3:30 p.m.

• Chicken Sh!t BINGO, Decker Park at 4:30 p.m.

• Comedy Show, Colorado Bar at 7 p.m.

• Music by Tres Womack & Friends, Colorado Bar at 9 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 5

• Pancake breakfast, 8 a.m. at Main Street Park

• Softball Game, Soroco High School Ball Field at 10 a.m.

• Live Auction, Colorado Bar at 1 p.m.

• Music by Whiskey Stomp, Lupita’s Cantina at 2 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 6

• Sign up for No Fun Run, Oak Creek Town Hall from 8:30-10 a.m.

• No Fun Run, Oak Creek Town Hall at 10 a.m.

• Parade line-up for judging, Soroco High School at 10 a.m.

• Parade, Main Street at 11 a.m.

• Field games, vendors and art show, Decker Park after parade

• Soroco Jr. Class Concessions, Decker Park after parade

• Corn Hole tournament, Decker Park at 1 p.m.

• Horseshoe tournament, Decker Park at 1 p.m.

• Wife Races, Decker Park at 3 p.m.

• Bingo, Oak Creek Fire Department station from 1 to 5 p.m.

Remembering then and celebrating now

The centurylong tradition of honoring workers on Labor Day in Oak Creek began in 1913, a day when coal miners chose to party and show unity among workers and their unions, said Nita Naugle, director of Oak Creek’s Trails and Tracks Museum.

In the early days of the celebration, the different local unions paid for and sponsored all the events, including a big picnic, Naugle said.

Because Oak Creek’s history is so closely tied to coal mining and unions, Labor Day is celebrated heavily in the town of just 959 people.

“Oak Creek is a labor town,” said David Bonfiglio, owner of Bonfiglio Drug. “Labor built South Routt, so it was very important in those days for Labor Day to celebrate most of the people here, because most of the people here were laborers.”

The U.S. Department of Labor describes the holiday as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the U.. The holiday resulted from a series of strikes by workers across all trades protesting brutal working conditions, such as 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in grueling, manual labor.

Those conditions and history bring memories for Koler’s family, as her father, husband and uncles were all coal miners in Oak Creek.

“Everyone comes out for it and it was started because of the coal miners, that’s what started the whole thing,” Koler said. “Coal mining has always been a part of our lives.”

Koler, then Betty Stewart, was crowned Coal Queen in 1962, a title she still holds dear.

Retired miners sit on a float at the Oak Creek Labor Day celebration. l Tracks and Trails Museum/Courtesy photo

While the tradition has changed a bit over the years, Oak Creek still honors the tradition of crowning Coal Royalty each year.

“There are a lot of things that have changed from year to year, but it’s really there to still honor the laborers in our community,” said Oak Creek Mayor Nikki Knoebel, chair of the Labor Day planning committee. “It’s over 100 years of celebration that we do in Oak Creek.”

While the celebrations were modified due to COVID-19 in 2020, Knoebel said community members are excited to return to some form of normalcy, though most events are outside and would be considered COVID safe, Knoebel said.

“We want everyone to still be careful, but we’re just looking forward to seeing everyone,” Knoebel said.

The celebration revolves around honoring Oak Creek’s coal mining legacy, but also invites visitors and locals out to support local businesses.

“We just really feel it’s important to keep honoring each other and the friends and family and businesses,” Knoebel said.

Naugle said the event is also a way to bring people back together as she felt people are often pulled in several different directions with social media and the busyness of modern life.

“One of the beautiful things about the past was gathering together as a community on a broader level,” Naugle said.

The community also raises money throughout the weekend, which they use to fund Soroco High School prom and award scholarships to graduating students.

“I look at it as more of a giving back to the community and joining the celebration than anything,” Bonfiglio said. “What’s fun about it from my standpoint is that I get to see people that I haven’t seen in a while, like kids that grew up here and moved away.”

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