The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Friday, February 11, 2011

How do I love museums

First, thank you, Amazon, for removing the crazy review. Nuff said.

Last May, for my birthday, my husband asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, "Go to the Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper." (Helper's a small town at the mouth of Price Canyon, about 14 miles from where I live.) I am a cheap date.

We went to the museum, and I started volunteering about a month later. What a cool place. It's a museum housed one of the old hotels (1914, I think), with a new annex. This winter, I've been doing research for the museum on an exhibit we're building called "The Shady Side of Helper."

Helper was a mining and railroad hub, with an active life between 1900 and 1950. And I do mean active. Miners came from all over the world to work the mines in Carbon County. Helper even had a Japanese boarding house, and Kabuki Theatre was performed when traveling troopes went through. Kabuki in Helper: hard to imagine.  There were Poles, Slovenians, Italians, Cypriots, Welsh of course, Greeks (many) - a whole United Nations of miners in Helper and Price, and the numerous coal camps.

Helper was a hard-living town, with brothels and bordellos catering to the male population, many of them single men far from home. The main street was lined with hotels, many of which had brothels on the second floor. In fact, the last brothel in Helper was shut down in 1976.  Saloons there were aplenty. I've been researching the prohibition era, and the law of the land doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on Helper.

In the interest of research and the museum, the director, Stephanie Fitzsimons (neat, neat lady), and I went to that former brothel (second floor, of course) and took photos. The building now belongs to the E Clampus Vitus Society - not sure what they do, but there seems to be alcohol involved and considerable conviviality - and the owner kindly let us see the second floor. Some of the rooms have been restored, with vivid wallpaper. Others still sport their original, rather garish paint of the Pepto-Bismal variety, or a flamboyant green that made me wince. I think there were some ten rooms on that second floor. The last madam's name was Babe, and she was a respected businesswoman in Helper.

A wicked past dies hard in conservative Utah. In 1965, when I was a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, the tame side of the state, we were advised not to cross the mountains to Carbon County and Price or Helper, because of the "evils" there. Oh, well. I really like living in Carbon County. There air is crisp and clear here, and I like summer's desert climate. Of course, humidity is so low that alligators have soft skin, compared to mine.

Helper was such a lively little town in former days. There are still plenty of mines in the area, but the ones closest to Helper have closed and been reclaimed. Now Helper is trying to reinvent itself as an artists' colony, and doing rather well. There is an annual artists' event in the summer that attracts those who paint and sculpt and those of us who buy, or wish we could (this would be moi).

I'm writing the copy and labels for the Shady Side of Helper exhibit. Last week was prohibition, and this week will be the "sporting ladies." Then it's on to saloons and gambling.  Gee, I guess Carbon County is corrupting me, after all. I volunteer once a week at the museum, and call it good.

In cause you're wondering, Helper was named after the helper engines: additional engines put onto a train - front, back and in the middle - to help the coal trains get over Soldier Summit, altitude 7,400 feet. Even today, it's quite a sight to see four engines in the front, six or more in the middle, and another two on the end of a coal train, all engines revved up and schlepping coal from one side of the state to the other.

If you're around and visit the museum, be sure to ask for your gift: a lump of coal. We have them neatly bagged with a little history about the area. I think some folks collect them for stockings, right before Christmas.

Actually, Carbon County is one of Utah's well-kept secrets. I like it here.

No comments:

Post a Comment