Mine Company Boardinghouses
An excerpt from the newly-published SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado, 25th Anniversary Edition, by Mary Ellen Gilliland.
In the early-day mine company boardinghouse, miners demanded the best food and plenty of it. If the cook failed to please, his popularity soured faster than his sourdough batter.
At the Boston gold camp in Mayflower Gulch near Fremont Pass, a 17-year old Bill Colsman took the job of camp cook. Bill recalled the indignation of a big Swedish miner:
It was not always possible to keep foods as fresh as we would have liked. Our eggs would sometimes get just a little bit ripe. I had served some bacon and eggs one morning to a giant of a miner, a Swede named Pete. After sampling my wares he took his bacon and eggs and threw it ” plate and all ” out an open window in the cook shack. He then told me, “eff you effer feet me rotting gegs again, aye vill kill yu”
When the doors to a large dining room, such as the one at the Pennsylvania Mine, flew open, dozens of hobnail boots created a deafening drum. Overalls-upholstered backsides thumped onto benches and the clatter of dishes soon gave way to slurping, chewing and chomping. Servers raced to refill platters and bowls. With barely a pause to use a toothpick, the hungry men were in, fed and out. Prepared from scratch with many steps to each task, the meal sometimes took only a few minutes to eat.
It took energy and muscle to do the vigorous work that mine labor required. It also required grit to live in a smelly bunkhouse with dozens of sweaty men in mine-grimed clothing.
The men not only worked in shifts, they slept in shifts, occupying a barn-like upstairs room that had its walls lined with built-in bunk beds stacked to the ceiling. When one miner got up to go to work, another lay down in that same bunk to sleep.
Although these all-male communal living arrangements provided little comfort, company boardinghouses did offer the men a bright light in their day: Mealtimes. Miners honored their cook. Photographs of boardinghouse groups often placed the male cook front and center.
These cooks began the day preparing a big breakfast. Long plank tables bore the weight of big bowls of steel cut oatmeal or other hot whole grain cereal along with platters laden with thick slices of ham or bacon,trays of pancakes, toast or biscuits, arriving hot from the cook stove, fried potatoes, bowls of stewed fruit, called Swedish soup, plates piled with dozens of eggs, boiled or fried, pitchers of syrup, tubs of preserves, bowls of sugar, plenty of fresh butter and condensed milk, hefty graniteware pots filled with fresh-ground coffee.
Miners uniformly complained about boardinghouse coffee, scoffing especially at Arbuckle’s brand. One visitor to old Chihuahua near Keystone scolded a very young waitress, “Humph! Do you know what Arbuckle’s coffee is made of? Brick dust and dried hoss-liver!”
After the tin plates were washed and dried, the cooks started in on the day’s big meal, dinner. This noon meal consisted of soup, meat and gravy, potatoes, onions in vinegar and relishes (no salads), vegetables, homemade rolls, butter and preserves plus puddings and pies, which were often made from dried fruit.
A miner-sized serving of pie measured as large as one-quarter of the pie. And nobody worried about calories.
Mary Ellen Gilliland is also the author of The New Summit Hiker and the local history Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods, released last June.
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