Parading on: Pandemic doesn’t stop 110th Labor Day celebration in Oak Creek | SteamboatToday.com
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Parading on: Pandemic doesn’t stop 110th Labor Day celebration in Oak Creek

Oak Creek is putting on its traditional Labor Day holiday celebration on Saturday with some changes to keep the public safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The day's festivities include a pancake breakfast, parade, drive-in movies and more.
Derek Maiolo

OAK CREEK — As the end of summer neared and the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, it was unclear if Oak Creek could host its annual Labor Day celebration.

This was a major concern for the South Routt town. The holiday is the biggest public event of the year in Oak Creek, with activities typically including a parade, cookouts and lighthearted competitions.

“It means a lot to the community,” Mayor Nikki Knoebel said of the weekend.

Organizers got creative to keep the proverbial torch aflame. Instead of an entire weekend of festivities, all public activities will take place Saturday with safety protocols in effect to ensure people follow health guidelines. An updated schedule of events keeps some of the longtime traditions — yes, there will be a parade — while introducing new ideas Knoebel hopes will be popular enough to continue in future years.

“Its’ been a tough summer on businesses and community,” the mayor said. “We are hoping this can bring a little cheer to everybody this weekend.”

Schedule of events
  • 8 a.m. to noon Oak Creek yard sale throughout downtown
  • 7 to 9 a.m. Pancake breakfast, 103 E. Main St.
  • 9 a.m. Sidewalk chalk art contest judging begins
  • 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Check out Oak Creek Mountain Park
  • 10 to 10:45 a.m. Parade line-up at Soroco High School
  • 11 a.m. Parade from the high school through downtown
  • 7 p.m. Burger stand benefiting the high school junior class
  • 7 p.m. Parking begins for drive-in movie, high school athletic fields
  • 8 p.m. Prize drawing
  •  8:30 p.m. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” begins
  • 10:45 p.m. “Happy Gilmore” begins

Email info@oakcreeklaborday.com to reserve a spot for the drive-in movies

Labor Day history

What does Labor Day represent, and how has it become such a big deal for Oak Creek?

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 our country.” The federal department does not mention the dismal working conditions that precipitated the holiday.

The late 1800s marked the height of the Industrial Revolution, a period of tremendous growth for the nation but grueling workdays for its citizens. The average American laborer worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week to eke out a living.

During the first Labor Day parade, held in New York City in 1882, about 10,000 people marched from City Hall to a giant picnic at an uptown park, according to an article from The New York Times. Because Labor Day was not a recognized holiday, many risked their jobs by participating in the celebration. Large crowds reportedly gathered to cheer them on.

New York Times, Sept. 6, 1882

“The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization,” reported the New York Tribune.

Demonstrations for workers’ rights in other parts of the country turned violent, such as the notorious Pullman strike in 1894 that killed as many as 30 people.

The controversy surrounding the movement strikes a similar chord to the protests over racial justice and police reform currently embroiling cities across the country.

Their demands, much like those of recent protestors, were for systemic change. The New York parade became a symbol of support for the growing labor movement pushing for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions.

Marchers displayed signs and banners bearing messages like, “The laborer must receive and enjoy the full fruits of his labor” and “Less Work and More Pay.”

A crowd gathers to watch the horse races at the 1913 Labor Day celebration in downtown Oak Creek.
Courtesy of Tracks & Trails Museum

The first Labor Day in Oak Creek occurred in 1910, 16 years after President Grover Cleveland made it a federal holiday, according to Nita Naugle, curator at the town’s Tracks & Trails Museum. It arose as a show of unity among overworked miners fighting to have their labor union chapter recognized.

Mining has always been rough work, Naugle said, but it was particularly dangerous back then. Not only did miners face the implicit hazards of working underground, from cave-ins to lung disease, they had to fight for fair pay and shorter hours.

Tensions between union members and mine owners eventually became so hostile that state militia had to intervene, according to museum archives.

Labor Day emerged as a peaceful way to honor miners, farmers, railroad personnel and other hardworking people in the county.

“Labor Day was and still is a common ground for all walks of life in the community,” Naugle said.

In the early days, coal was a major part of the Labor Day celebrations, as it was also a primary economic driver for the town.

The weekend included such events as a “coal heaving contest,” and a “mine mule slow race,” according to newspaper archives. Starting in the 1940s, the town also crowned an annual “Coal Queen.” During World War II, the crown went to the girl who could sell the most war bonds, but the selection later switched to a popular vote. 

Coal Queen Rene Hunter, center left, sits on a float with attendants Darla Kuntz, Debbie Shaffer and Carol Miles on their float during the 1968 Labor Day parade in Oak Creek. Crowning an annual Coal Queen became a tradition starting in the 1940s, but it has since stopped.
Courtesy of Tracks & Trails Museum

Traditions old and new

Those traditions have since disappeared, but new ones have taken their place. This year’s Labor Day weekend poses some unique challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but organizers are making the best of the circumstances.

Saturday begins with a grab-and-go pancake breakfast downtown. The money goes to the Soroco High School’s junior class to put on next year’s prom. Then at 9 a.m., the town is judging a sidewalk chalk art contest.

After that, it is time for a drive-around-town parade starting at 11 a.m. The procession will begin at the high school and loop around the downtown area.

Throughout the day, Mayor Knoebel encourages people to visit the Oak Creek Mountain Park, a public hiking and biking trail system the town purchased last year.

“It has been very popular,” she said of the park.

The day ends with a double-feature drive-in movie night at the high school athletic fields. The first show, the new “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” movie, starts at 8:30 p.m., followed by “Happy Gilmore” at 10:45 p.m. 

Admission is free, but the drive-in event is limited to 175 people, with individual group sizes limited to 10 people or fewer. To reserve a spot, email info@oakcreeklaborday.com.

Silver Buckle Saloon will be open all weekend and offering to-go specials for the drive-in movie, along with happy hour deals every day. 

Labor Day usually marks the last weekend when customers can enjoy street-style Mexican fusion dishes from Lupita’s, the seasonal taco shack along Oak Creek’s Main Street. Fortunately for the restaurant’s devoted fans, owner Lawrence Joconetta said he is going to open for one more run next weekend before closing for the winter. Come January, he and his family head to Mexico for their usual winter vacaciones.

Knoebel expressed her appreciation to the community for supporting the Labor Day festivities, particularly the people who put a lot of work into making it a safe event amid the pandemic. 

“Next year, it is going to be bigger and better,” she said.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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