HARTVILLE-SUNRISE—Their numbers are dwindling. The life cycle is taking its toll on those who can remember. But for those who remain, the memories are as bright and as fresh as can be--the stories they tell take us back to a time when their whole world fell within the boundaries of the hills surrounding the small Wyoming towns of Hartville and Sunrise.
This past weekend, a public gathering was held to commemorate the people who came to the area nearly 150 years ago. Descendants of those early years as well as friends and present-day community members spent this weekend recalling the time when these two small towns were a place to work, raise families and for many, create a better life than what they left behind in Europe.
Copper was the initial draw for miners to the area in the late 1800s but it was iron ore that was responsible for the permanent establishment in Sunrise. It was a company town, built to accommodate the employees of the Sunrise Mine, home to the richest iron ore deposits owned by Colorado Fuel and Iron based in Pueblo, Colorado. Operating between 1898 and 1980, it was also the company’s highest producing mine. As the operation grew, the company invested considerable funds to provide not only housing but other amenities in their attempt to make it a “model community.”
In 1917, a YMCA was built that provided numerous amenities, including bowling lanes, gymnasium/theater, card, billiards and pool room, barber shop, sewing machine, and reading room stocked with magazines and books. A company store and eventually a school made Sunrise a complete and self-sustaining place to live.
The diversity of ethnic groups in the area was substantial—early on, Sunrise had primarily Greek and Italian workers but were later joined by immigrants from England, Lebanon, Japan and Scandinavia through the use of a padrone system--a contract labor system utilized by many immigrant groups to find employment in the United States, most notably Italian, but also Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans. Americanization classes, including speaking the English language, were provided by C.F. & I. to help them make the transition to living in the United States. A walk through the Hartville cemetery speaks to that diversity and a grand circle of flags from every country has been added to honor it and their descendants carry on the legacy of those countries still today.
The historical significance of the area is considerable. In 2005, application was made and granted to list the Sunrise Mine Historic District on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Hartville is the oldest incorporated town in the state of Wyoming and established in 1862, the Miners & Stockmen’s Bar, the oldest in Wyoming, remains in business year round.
As a result of the mine, Hartville thrived as well. Miners were not allowed to own their homes in Sunrise, so some came to Hartville and Guernsey to build. A grocery/mercantile store, bars, and a bakery served both communities. Also not allowed in Sunrise was the sale of alcohol, so Hartville also became the place the miners would go to kick back and tip a glass. As was often the case in mining areas, prostitution was alive and well in Hartville in the early years but was subsequently outlawed years later.
The mine’s production peaked in the early 40s, primarily due to the need brought about by World War II and continued to operate until labor strikes in the late 50s left a lasting effect on the industry. As demand lessened, jobs were cut and by the mid-60s, the population had dropped and the Sunrise school district was forced to consolidate with Guernsey.
The mine closed for good in 1980 and most of the equipment was cleared by C.F. & I. The majority of the town’s housing was razed but a few homes, including the superintendent’s remain and are still currently occupied. The mine’s closing also had an impact on Hartville and both communities have now become quiet and largely residential.
While the physical appearance of Sunrise and Hartville has changed from those days, the people who remain, residents and descendants alike, share a fondness and a deep connection that is papable when they come together to reminisce.
“It will always be home,” says Kathy Troupe, who was raised in Sunrise, now lives in Hartville and was one of the primary organizers of this weekend’s reunion. On Saturday, she and her sister Nancy stood on the front steps of the old YMCA building, sharing stories about growing up in Sunrise. They recalled many baseball and softball games they played as kids in the field across the street. Despite a very tongue-in-cheek demeanor, they said they “could not recall” just who it was who hit the ball that broke the YMCA’s front window, now directly behind them. “I just don’t know who did that,” said Nancy. “Me either,” added Kathy. The culprit remains unnamed.
Ron Martinez, another child of Sunrise, said he tells his own children all the time how special and lucky he feels to have grown up in Sunrise. “We had everything we needed. It was great—the company store was our version of Walmart. You could find anything there.” And although mining put food on the table for him as a child, Ron made up his mind early on that mining was not for him. “When I was a junior in high school, they took some of us down into one of the mineshafts so we could see what it was like. I knew right then and there, I didn’t want any part of it. But, Sunrise was a great place to grow up.”
On Sunday, a group of around 50 gathered in the Hartville Cemetery for a short presentation regarding some of the historic graves. Seated in an impromptu circle of folding and lawn chairs, more stories came out regarding the people who lived and worked in the two communities during the mining days.
David Dearcorn, whose great-grandfather served as the Marshal of Hartville, shared some of his family’s history and although David did not grow up in the area, it iwas quickly evident at how much it means to him. “I want my kids to be able to know and appreciate where we came from. I think it’s important our young people know as much as possible.” Dearcorn’s family ranched north of Hartville and is the source of the name for Dearcorn Spring Creek.
Marian Offe, now in her 80s, fondly recalls growing up in Hartville. Her father, Dante Testolin, owned and operated a mercantile in Hartville. She and her husband Darrell renovated and now live in the back part of the building where the store was originally located. She recalled playing Kick the Can many times as a kid growing up in Hartville.
Marian’s sister, Dee Orr also recalled working in the store and along with siblings, having to go out and sell watermelons for her father. “He sent us out and told us now to come back until they’re gone.”
The weekend was likely over too quickly for those who came and there will be other reunions to come. But one of the most poignant and touching moments came on Saturday afternoon on the side of very steep hill overlooking the site where the Sunrise High School once stood. As is customary in many small communities, the school’s pride and loyalty is often on display on a local hill by a formation of rocks placed in the shape of the first letter of the school’s name. So on that steep hill in the 1930s, Sunrise students set rocks to depict the letter S and kept them a bright white by painting them each year before the football game with rival Guernsey. Over the years, former students have attended reunions and have made the trek up the hill to again whitewash that huge letter S to make sure that although their school is gone, it is certainly not forgotten.
On Saturday, those that were willing were invited to make the climb and help repaint those rocks again. Some who felt they could no longer make the climb invited their grandchildren to do so on their behalf. But at least one Sunrise grad was not about to give up her role in the tradition.
With determination, a pair of boots and a walking stick, Dee Orr made her way to the fence line below the hill and it was obvious this was going to be a challenge, despite her desire to get there. As she stood there looking for a way up, Troy Reichert, a teacher and coach at Guernsey-Sunrise, came to her aid and together, the two of them ascended that hill, a few slow but sure steps at a time.
With a solid grip on Troy’s arm and a will to get to the top, Dee did indeed get there to help paint that beloved S. For those who watched, it was one of those moments not easily forgotten. For anyone who’s been raised in a small town, it is instantly understood.
And perhaps more importantly, it was a clear message of just how important your connection to your past can be.