[This second edition includes memories of my mother’s cousin, Dorothy, provided by her daughter Kathryn. Page numbers from the original PDF file have been discarded.]
My mother was born Frances Nevada Channing in Goldfield, Nevada on October 26, 1910, the year of Halley’s Comet. She died on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2008. She was 97 years old. A few years before her death, she told a story from her childhood, how she fell out of a tree and hurt her back. And when she ran to her father, instead of showing sympathy and comfort, he became angry and gave her a sharp rebuke. The point of her story was that she learned to keep her feelings hidden, so that even her own family didn’t really know her.
It turns out that there was much more to her story – a family outing that resulted in a car crash and injury. When I was very young, on a family visit with relatives in Colorado, I vaguely remember the adults talking about this incident. But I cannot clearly recall the details of that conversation. I hoped my mother’s memory would supply all the facts.
Like most the stories she told, she seemed to begin with one thing in mind, but then go on to something else. Then, for a time, her story languished without direction, like a stroll through a large garden. She spent as much time as she liked, savoring those things which delighted her, without the slightest clue that we may not share her delight or be as engrossed. I think she wanted to say so much that once her spigot was opened, it remained open until all content had drained.
As long as I can remember, she had told her family stories like that. As a child, her stories overwhelmed me with too much disconnected information; people, places and situations I didn’t know. Asking questions only made it worse. Perhaps she felt I could instantaneously take in everything she said. For when I did ask questions, she would quickly, even dismissively answer me, then continue to add even more twists and turns, embellishing so much I would lose the point of what she was trying to say. The more questions I asked, the more confounding her stories became to me. Perhaps I was a poor listener or just too young, but early on, I tuned her out.
But this time, I really tried to listen. After our visit, Emily and I talked about some of the things Mother had said, and I determined to record her story, if for nothing else, just to save it for posterity. In the months and years that followed, I wrote down questions I had about her story and would ask them when we talked on the phone, hurriedly taking notes while she quickly flitted from my partially answered question to some other information and memories.
My brain became clogged with the minutiae of her life story. She kept adding information relevant to her memories but not germane to the story. I called her several times, because when I tried to read my scribbled notes, I found my questions either hadn’t been answered or her answers had produced yet more questions. In the end, The Berthoud Pass Incident evolved into a form resembling one of my mother’s own circumlocutory meanderings. I simply must accept that fact.
I had wanted to complete this project before my mother’s death, so that she could make needed corrections. I’m sure she would have appreciated reading it. But that didn’t happen. The thing that I found myself doing was trying to put this story into some historical perspective. I wondered that so long ago, an incident had occurred that impacted my mother in such a powerful way; that long after the people were gone and the world they knew no longer existed, she still struggled with sharing her feelings. I began to want to find out more about that bygone world.
Bertha and Frank Channing
They were married July 31, 1907. Date of photo is uncertain.
Understanding And The Perspective Of Hindsight
Today, when I charge my smart phone, I am reminded how much the world has changed in my own life time. I was born during WWII, which is so long ago, students today confuse it with WWI and even the Civil War. It’s just boring history to those who think the world begins and ends in their own lifetime. To them, everything is now. If it’s new, it’s normal. If it’s old, it’s irrelevant. But if you live long enough, you begin to grasp how living today is just a continuation of all the living yesterdays of the past.
When my mother was a child, the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War were fairly fresh memories. American involvement in WWI was from April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918. Less than two years later my mother’s story took place.
History becomes boring either because bare facts are reported out of context to their significant setting or without reference to personal, human experience. When we hear a story of what happened in the past, we tend to reinterpret it into the familiar setting of our own time, place and world view. The problem is that time changes everything, not just physically, but in how we see ourselves and society, and how we think about life and the world. Understanding the past is almost an other-worldly experience, as if entering a realm where we need a translator.
Who we are and how we understand our lives largely depends upon what we remember. So many things are forgotten in a lifetime. Looking back at how things were is not the same as having been there. And those who do their best to record history can’t help but add their own perspective. In the end, we have lots of tiny glimpses of a much larger picture, and we are faced with the task of digging out the truth from piles of opinionated half-truths.
The Bible isn’t too encouraging about this. Ecclesiastes 1:11 says, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” So, in spite of the best attempts to record “history”, one generation loses track of much of the previous generation.
The story of a little girl falling out of a tree and hurting her back is not really history. However, the relationship she had with her father — their expectations, reactions, what they did and what they said — is part of “family history”. Their “present circumstances” were rooted to their past and grew into their future. Both developed from the same stuff: gifts of heredity from parents and what they learned from their upbringing and surroundings. Each generation develops from the previous one. So, for good or bad, we all are offshoots of an evolving family history.
Both genetic traits and learned traits contribute to family dynamics. We all begin life with a certain range of possibilities and probabilities. We spend the rest of our lives developing some and letting others atrophy by the many choices we continually make. The elements of my mother’s story which I have been able to document don’t explain the inner workings of her heart. Like all of us, she wore “masks” around others to protect herself from perceived “attacks”. We all choose when and with whom to share our innermost confessions.
We learn that if we aren’t wise in those choices we can be hurt, so we only let ourselves be vulnerable when it feels safe. Some of us are hurt more easily than others. So while we are being careful to protect ourselves, we may carelessly hurt others. Unfortunately, that’s how life is. It can get quite messy. Though I will never know the inner workings of my mother’s heart, I have come to have a real respect for her life. Her story takes us to Berthoud Pass.
Edward Berthoud (1828-1908)
Eduard Louis Berthoud began his life in Switzerland, where they pronounced his last name “bare-too”. As a child in 1830, he moved with his parents to the United States, settling in upstate New York along the Mohawk River. There he became Americanized. The spelling of his first name was changed to Edward and the pronunciation of his last name became, “burr-thud”.
In 1849 Berthoud graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Engineering from Union College in Schenectady, New York and in the early 1850s was a surveyor on the Panama Canal. In 1860 he and his wife moved to Golden City, Kansas Territory, which became part of the Colorado Territory the following year.
There are different versions in the particulars of how the discovery of Berthoud Pass came about. But in 1860 the federal government commissioned an expedition for the purpose of establishing a mail route from Denver to Salt Lake City. Berthoud and his six companions, including the famous trapper and scout, Jim Bridger, discovered the spectacular pass on May 12, 1861.
July of that same year is also given for it’s discovery, but that’s most likely because warmer weather and the absence of snow allowed for actual surveying to occur. Berthoud reported that the pass wasn’t suitable for a railroad but could accommodate a wagon road. The first portion of the road was completed in 1863 as a “military crossing” implying the military may have actually built the road, or at least paid for its construction.
In 1862, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Berthoud joined the 2nd Colorado Volunteer Infantry. Captain Berthoud served with distinction, returning to Golden in 1866. He became Speaker of the Colorado Territorial Legislature, where he helped authorize the founding of the Colorado School of Mines. He was the college’s first registrar and on the Board of Trustees. He also served as the librarian of the Colorado Territorial Library in Golden from 1867 to 1868. He was the chief surveyor of the Colorado Central Railroad during the 1870s, County Surveyor from 1875 to 1878 and served as Mayor of Golden in 1890.
Berthoud Pass is along the route of U.S. Highway 40, north of its junction with Interstate 70 in Clear Creek Canyon. It is the most convenient road access to Winter Park and Steamboat Springs from Denver and the Colorado Front Range. However, it is one of the most notoriously difficult passes in Colorado for motorists, based on its elevation and the many switchbacks on its southern side.
Berthoud Pass is at 11,307 feet. Over the years the actual placement of the road bed has changed, resulting in different recorded elevations. A mile being 5,280 feet, makes the pass over two miles high. There is snow on the pass for eight months out of the year. It’s cold, hard to breathe and the combustion engine of a car struggles for lack of oxygen.
The pass sits on the Continental Divide, about 40 miles west of Denver. Today, taking Interstate 70, you pass through Idaho Springs and turn onto Highway 40 at the town of Empire in upper Clear Creek Canyon. From there, Highway 40 takes you over the pass on the way to the upper valley of the Fraser River in Winter Park, which was originally called Middle Park.
Taken in 1917, the sign reads, “Continental Divide, Berthoud Pass Elevation 11,330 feet”.
After the initial “military crossing” was finished in 1863, construction continued until 1875, at which time the route over Berthoud Pass into Middle Park was completed. Some years later, possibly after 1893 when Frank Maxwell made his survey notes, improvements were made to the old wagon road, such as widening it to ten feet. During this time it was used as a toll road known as the “Midland Trail”. (My internet research proved fruitless at this point because there is a famous Midland Trail on old Highway 60 in West Virginia and it hogged the search engine.)
It wasn’t until 1919 to 1923 that major construction improved the road. It was widened from between 20 to 24 feet and grades were substantially reduced. This construction project revolutionized mountain highway construction by the use of power equipment and led to other major highway projects elsewhere. During 1925/26 a national system of highways was begun and the Berthoud Pass road became part of Highway 40, which went from coast to coast. However, the road wasn’t paved until 1938.
Today this area is primarily noted for snowboarding and skiing (skiing having been introduced to the area in 1937). As the Interstate highway system created new freeways across the nation, portions of Highway 40 were decommissioned in favor of the faster Interstates, leaving it broken up into sections and no longer a coast-to-coast route. Interstate 70 replaced the westbound Highway 40 from Denver, but turning off at Empire brings us back to Highway 40 and Berthoud Pass.
According to Dorothy’s recollection, the Berthoud Pass incident happened in the summer of 1920. As mentioned above, this was when major improvements were being made on the road (1919 to 1923). Before, during and after that period, my mother’s family often drove to this area to pick berries. On this occasion, whether they were driving on the older, unimproved sections of the road or on the new, improved road, it would have still been unpaved, and narrow by today’s standards, not to mention the treacherous switch backs.
The car my mother rode in was a Harroun. Ray Harroun, who built his first car in 1905, made history by winning the very first Indianapolis 500 Sweepstake in 1911. He designed the Marmon Wasp (Marmon was the fellow who financed it.), which was the first car ever to have a rear view mirror.
He was in the 28th starting position on the outside of seven rows. He averaged 74.59 mph and finished in 6 hours, 42 minutes, 8 seconds — 5/8 of a mile ahead of second place Mulford. The purse was $27,550.
Harroun manufactured automobiles from 1917 to 1922 in Wayne Michigan. The car had a 4 cylinder engine. In 1917 and 1918 Model A-1 was produced, with a three passenger roadster, five passenger roadster and sedan offered (although the photo of the 1917 touring car below confuses that issue). The price for the sedan was $850. From 1919 to 1921, a touring car and a 3 passenger Military Roadster were offered, both at $1995. In 1922, only a touring car was offered at $995. My mother described the seats in the car as “bench seats” with room for 3 in the front and 3 in the back. “Bought brand new”, she described its “touring car body”, “canvass top” and said the windows “pulled across”.
The other car used in the family outing (which I am gradually leading up to) was an “old” car, made sometime around 1910. It’s rear seats had been removed, creating a space used for hauling, like a small pick up truck. My mother described it as being “made over like a bathtub used for hauling”. Dorothy remembered this second car as being a Model T Ford, which makes sense. Model Ts were produced from 1908 to 1927.
Photo of 1910 Model T Ford. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society.
Who Needs A License?
The State of Colorado began issuing license plates for cars in 1913. Before then, each city issued license plate numbers to the car owners, who had to make their own plates. By the time of this story, the family car would have been replete with state-issued license plates. On the other hand, there was no such thing as a Driver’s License in Colorado yet. The first state to issue drivers’ licenses was Massachusetts in 1903. California began issuing driver’s licenses in 1913 but didn’t require applicants to take an exam until 1927. Colorado’s first driver licensing law didn’t come until 1931 and they didn’t require an examination until 1936! Still, they were ahead of Nevada, where the State didn’t issue drivers’ licenses until 1941. Before then, each county issued its own.
My mother remembered going on family outings to pick Black Currants. This had been a regular activity for her family since before the turn of the century. Supposedly, they grew profusely at a location near Berthoud Pass, which her father knew about. But apparently that location wasn’t common knowledge. The berries were quite large, about “half the size of a grape”. She remembered this distinctly because the job of washing them fell to the kids, so she handled a lot of them. Upon bringing them home, they would put the currants into large wash tubs full of water and skim off the floating leaves and twigs, then rinse off the berries for cooking and canning.
I recall my mother looking for Black Currant preserves in shops when I was young, only to be always disappointed in her search. She would remark how big the ones were that she picked as a child. Her father was “famous” for the wine he made from these Black Currants, and in addition to “putting up” preserves, her aunt Mabel’s Black Currant pies (baked in her wood-burning oven at the 8,496 feet elevation of Central City) had a notable reputation among friends and neighbors. Their family physician, Dr. Fraser of Denver, loved these currants and said they had a medicinal value (still recognized by herbalists today). So every time they canned a batch, they would give him a couple of quarts.
Eventually these berry-picking junkets came to an end. My mother went to High School in Denver and then moved to California where she finished high school, attended college, married and raised her own family. Years later when she asked relatives in Colorado about the Black Currants, she was told that by the late 1940s they could no longer be found.
I was curious about this loss and contacted the Herbarium staff of the University of Colorado in Boulder, asking them if they knew anything about these Black Currants. Here is the reply to my inquiry:
What I find interesting is that the “experts” were not aware of the berries that grew in a location well-known by my mother’s family. Whatever variety of Black Currants they were, they once had been there, and then disappeared, about a decade after the Berthoud Pass road was paved. The University of Colorado Botanists don’t know anything about them. Were they destroyed by fire, disease or parasites? Were they dug up by someone and transplanted elsewhere?
Then I made a discovery. On the Black Currant Foundation web site, dedicated to Black Currants native to the British Isles, I saw a photo of a person holding a bunch of Black Currants.
They sure look about half the size of a grape to me! Here is a plausible solution to the mystery. Of the many immigrants from Britain who settled in this part of Colorado (including my mother’s grandparents) it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all to think that one of those immigrants may have planted their beloved currants from the old country near the Berthoud Pass road. It’s possible. And, as a non-native species, it would be vulnerable to disease and parasites, which would explain the eventual demise of these mysterious berries. In any case, the wonderful Black Currants proved a substantial motivation to drive on a dangerous dirt road at a high elevation to obtain them.
Dating this incident
In a DVD recorded by granddaughter Lisa ten years before my mother’s death, Frances said she lived in Black Hawk from the 4th grade to the 8th grade. When I asked her how old she was at the time of the currant-picking incident, she was unsure. If it happened in the summer of 1920 as Dorothy remembered, my mother would have been 9, a few months before her 10th birthday.
According to Dorothy, she and her mother, Mable had joined Frank in Blackhawk in the Spring of 1919 but that Frances and Emzaella weren’t there yet. It’s likely that the sisters joined their father, Mabel and Dorothy in Blackhawk in the Fall, at the start of the new school year.
Dorothy, born November 13, 1914 remembered telling the story of this incident to people when she was visiting in Missouri at age 7, saying it happened the previous summer. That would make it the summer of 1920. Years later, Dorothy wrote a poem about this incident, in which she said they made their annual berry-picking trips in the fall.
I had hoped to discover a newspaper article about it, which would nail down the date, but Dorothy’s daughter, Kathryn, thinks this type of incident wouldn’t have been considered that big a deal. In those days most people were self-sufficient and simply did what they had to do to take care of themselves when accidents like this happened.
It could have been as early as July, when currents first ripen, or as late as Labor Day, after which the girls would be returning to school. And yes, they did have Labor Day back then. The Colorado legislature declared it an official holiday in 1887, one of the first states to do so.
A Background Of Characters
On June 21, 1911 Bertha Channing died, leaving her two daughters motherless. Emzaella had been born on February 13, 1909 and Frances on October 26, 1910. The girls were without a mother until their father married Catherine Sproul, on January 11, 1923. They were sent to stay with various relatives while they were growing up, and only got to see their dad once or twice a year. On his trips back to see the girls (usually at Christmas) he would bring them presents which he had packed into one of his two large trunks. When he returned from California, those trunks smelled of exotic fruits: figs, dates and pomegranates.
I suppose something should be said about the “various relatives”, although they don’t play directly into my mother’s story. Of her father’s three sisters, the one she most fondly remembered was “Aunty” (Sara Jane Drake), the mother of her cousin Edith. Edith was 16 years older than Frances and was in many ways a surrogate mother to her. (Later, when I entered the picture, I recall feeling as if Edith and her husband, Jim Wilson, were like grandparents. They had no children of their own, and since my mother’s parents had both passed away by the time I was around, it seemed quite fitting.)
Mother told me that Edith, “Aunty” and her dad’s mother were very loving. Her other aunts on her father’s side (“Mamie” and Mabel) were less nurturing but civil. But she described her mother’s mother and her three aunts from that side of her family as “mean”. At age 7, her father took her and her sister Emzaella to stay for a year with one of her mother’s sisters, who proved to be “not very loving”.
According to granddaughter Silver Parnel, Emzaella called their mean aunt “Old aunt Mag”. That identifies her as Maggie Bennet. Emzaella had said Mag was so mean she didn’t want Emzaella to practice her piano lessons! Frances called their stay with their mean aunt as “the bad year” – a time in which she missed her Aunty and Edith. Despite that, she stayed in contact with her mother’s side of the family her whole life. “Family”, as dysfunctional as it was, was important to her.
When I was attending a Wesleyan church, my mother sent me a note about her father’s maternal grandfather, John H. Oliver. Born in 1827 in St. Feock, Cornwall, England, he was a Wesleyan Methodist minister. Called “Methodys” (her word), many of them emigrated to America to escape religious persecution. She wrote, “It always puzzled me why all of this old boy’s daughters, who came to a new country each embraced a different faith – one a Baptist and one a Seventh Day Adventist – and the children of these daughters (with the exception of Aunty – Edith’s mother) were not involved with any church or religion.”
Though her father wasn’t religious, his second wife, Catherine, was an Irish Catholic from Boston. “He was a real Mason and she was a real Catholic, but they made it work.” (Because her dad was a Mason, she was a Daughter of the Eastern Star, continuing to pay her dues many years after leaving Colorado.)
Frances remembered step-mother Catherine advising her and Emzaella, “Now, if you don’t go to your own church, you’ve got to go to mine. You’ve got to go to church on Sunday.” The girls, “…always went to the Methodist Sunday School.” Frances even earned a gold star for not missing a Sunday in three years. (That was probably “Aunty’s” church.)
When the girls were living with Edith and Jim, their evening entertainment often consisted of playing the piano and singing, mainly church hymns. Later, when I was a child, there were “holy rollers” who would meet at our neighbor’s house, the Marshal’s. From across the street, you could hear their spirited singing of the old gospel choruses. Though my mother was not a “believer”, she would sing along with them. She knew every word.
In 1876, the year Colorado became a state, Frank J. Channing was born in Lake Gulch (“You won’t find it on any map.”) somewhere near Russell Gulch, above the timberline, on the way from Central City to Idaho Springs. At this point, the mists of time begin to cloud our vision because, indeed, I can’t find it on the map — although Kathryn said she’s seen it, so I know it exists.
As a young man, Frank placer-mined for a while. Later, he bought up “quick claim deeds” [quitclaim] and hired men to work for him. He primarily mined for gold, and some copper and silver. He moved from mine to mine throughout Nevada, Colorado, and California. He was accomplished and respected by his peers.
On the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology web site is a 1990 report by Joseph V. Tingley of the Bureau of Land Management, Carson City District for the University of Nevada at Reno. On page 132, it says, “Tungsten ores were discovered at the site of the present Nevada Scheelite mine in 1926 by Frank Channing.” Upon news of his death on May 13, 1941, fellow miner, I. Carroll Barr wrote Frances, “I admired your father very much, while he followed a business which called for men of courage and action, he was remarkably gentle and kindly at all times. Men liked him and worked loyally for him.”
Frank was a tough, but “civilized” mining man. From an article in The Weekly Register-Call, a Central City newspaper, dated January 1920, Frank Channing and William Shaffer were, “…the lucky parties who bagged two mountain lion” (sic). They were paid $35 by the Denver Post, which had put up a bounty because of livestock which had been killed between Black Hawk and Golden (“several hogs, goats and a horse”). Generous and gregarious (“We always had a bunch of people at our house for dinner.”), Frances worshipped her dad.
Unfortunately, I never met my grandfather. He passed away four years before I was born.
The Bad Year
The girls had been staying in Arvada, between Denver and Golden, when their dad “came home” from California, driving his new Harroun. I am fairly certain that Arvada is where their aunt Maggie lived. So the “bad year”, as she called it, was likely 1917 to 1918.
On May 5, 1917 a front page article in the evening edition of The Daily Camera of Boulder read, “Nederland Man Shot Dead By Robber Who Escaped”. The article began, “At Nederland last night four bullets were fired into the body of Willis Miller, an employee of the Mint pool hall, by an unknown man who has apparently made good his escape.” Willis Miller was was none other than Mabel’s husband and Dorothy’s father. He had been murdered.
My mother remembered him being shot after having won a lot of money in a friday night poker game. He had left to go home about 1:00 am and was already gone when Mabel called the pool hall to ask him when he was coming home. She asked George, Frank’s younger brother, to go look for Willis.
It was a gruesome murder. One article from that time said he was shot four times, another said six times. But the cause of death may not have been the gunshots, but a blow to his head from a pickaxe handle. A Boulder Tribune article from May 11, 1917 said, “The murder occurred shortly after 12 o’clock as Mr. Miller, who had just completed his shift at the Mint pool hall (which is kept open all night) was on his way home.”
My mother said Willis was a pharmacist, which is consistent with this, from the same article: “He was employed for a while in the Star pharmacy and later as one of the night men at the Mint pool hall. He was employed at one time in the Franklin pharmacy in Denver.”
According to an article in the November 2, 1917 edition of the Boulder Tribune, “The body of the slain man was found near his home shortly after he left the poolhall at midnight for home. It contained six bullets and his head had been broken by a cudgel.” Apparently, “Miller was first struck with a club, kicked by a boot, then shot and left dead on the trail”.
An unidentified man had been seen hanging around the pool hall, but he disappeared and was never found. The first person to discover the body saw a man running from the scene in the direction of George Channing’s cabin. George became the primary suspect, was arrested and convicted of murder in the second degree on circumstantial evidence.
He had blood on his hands (likely from cradling Miller’s head in his arms when he came upon his body), but he was not the first on the scene. The bullets were the same caliber as the gun he owned. And there was other problematic evidence. My mother said his own sister, aunt Mamie (Mary Drake) testified that George disliked Willis because he was mean to Mabel. George Channing was sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary on May 14, 1918. He served 7 years before being pardoned in 1925.
After he got out of prison, either he shunned the family or they shunned him. He never married, but lived an unassuming, solitary life. I only met him one time. He was an old man living in a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah. He gave me and my sister silver dollars. I liked him.
At some point during this “bad year” Frank Channing had sold his house in California, where mining had been “going great” to come back to Colorado to help his family. He covered his brother’s court costs (being the “deep pockets” of the family) and moved into a house in Blackhawk.
Mabel took Dorothy and stayed for a while with her in-laws in the township of Mexico, Missouri, about two hundred miles east of Saint Joseph. Somewhat well-to-do, they lavished their granddaughter with all the things money could buy. But Mabel, uncomfortable with their affluent (and staid) lifestyle, decided to come back to the mining country of Colorado. That is how they came to move in with Frank, probably in the Spring of 1919.
My mother remembered seeing them when they arrived by train. She said Dorothy was dressed like a little princess, even wearing white gloves. From that time on she and Emzaella were told to be extra nice to Dorothy, who was, according to her, spoiled. Frank’s decision to have his girls move in with him also allowed him to spend more time with them. But my mother once commented, “Dad took better care of his little sister than his own kids.”
Considering everything he and his family had gone through, and trying to imagine how tough things had been for everyone, it’s hard to hold that against him. I don’t think she did. I think she was just nursing her childhood jealousy. She and her sister learned how to use Dorothy’s favored position to their own advantage. Whenever they wanted a cookie, all they had to do was have Dorothy do the asking, while they stood behind her. It worked like a charm every time.
I only knew Mabel as an older woman, though I recall how beautiful she was in a photo, wearing her wedding gown. I have fond memories of her showing me how she cooked on her wood-burning stove in Central City (elevation almost 9,000 feet!). The most important thing was to cut all the wood in uniform sizes and use the same kind of wood. When a recipe called for a certain oven temperature, she knew exactly how many pieces of wood to put in and how often to replace them. She used that same old stove for most of her life.
Back to berry-picking
The only people my mother clearly recalled being in the berry-picking party were herself, her sister, her father, her aunt and the Shaffer couple. She thought there was another man, who was a miner, and only one small toddler she was unable to name. But Dorothy said both she and Melvin (about the same age) went along on that trip, and that there was no third man.
I am prone to think Dorothy’s recollection is more accurate and detailed because she lived her whole life near the area and in close proximity to those most familiar with the story, especially her mother, Mabel. Over the years she likely heard the story told and retold many times.
So, I am fairly confident the berry-picking party consisted of Frank Channing, his two daughters, Emzaella and Frances, his sister Mabel, his niece Dorothy, and his friends Harley and Nina Shaffer and their son, Melvin – four adults and four children.
The group of eight took two cars: the Harroun, driven by Frank, and the Model T, modified for hauling (in which they placed the large metal tub used to carry the collected currants) driven by Harley.
Starting early in the morning, they left Black Hawk (just below Central City) and drove past Russell Gulch on a narrow, winding road which took them to Idaho Springs. This road was so narrow that if they encountered on-coming traffic, they would have to back up until they came to a spot wide enough to pull over and let them pass. From Idaho Springs, they picked up the road to Berthoud Pass.
My mother had no idea of the overall distance they traveled, but said the drive took over two hours. Based on my own estimate, I originally determined this entire drive (one way) was 30 miles at most, but that the road conditions made it take over two hours.
Dorothy recalled that it was about 60 miles to the berry-picking place. She also said that Frank Channing was “the terror of Gilpin County, driving his car 30 miles an hour on the tiny dirt roads”. 30 mph will take you 60 miles in 2 hours, so that sounds about right.
Once they reached their abundant berry patch, everyone joined in to fill the wash tub with the prized currants. They wanted to pick a lot of them because “Mabel and Nina canned them by the gallons.” This was a routine thing for the two young women who had given birth about the same time, and had been part of the long-standing friendship between the Channings and the Shaffers.
A picnic as well as a work party, they made this an enjoyable outing by bringing along lunch and refreshments. It was a family outing in the countryside. I imagine the children were expected to help with the currant-picking, but I also imagine they were allowed to play. I have to imagine this because I wasn’t there.
Part of my mother’s memory is that she was swinging on trees. She said she went off by herself, away from the others, to climb trees and hang precariously over great heights, something for which she had earned a reputation as a child. In this instance, she was likely “swinging” on a Quaking Aspen, not unlike Robert Frost’s “Birches”, from which I’ve taken these lines:
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
She would have looked for a tree young enough to bend nicely, allowing her to swing above the ground as it sloped away from the tree. It’s pretty fun, for a dare-devil child. Whether she lost her grip, banged into something or the tree just snapped, Frances fell and hurt her back. For a while, she hid, more afraid of getting in trouble than for her injury. But eventually, she had to tell her father, and when she did, instead of comforting her, he became angry with her.
She may have done this before they started for home, not after the accident, as she recalled. But it is safe to say the sun was pleasant and they were having a good time. In all likelihood the adults were doing some drinking. And if that was the case it would explain Frank being curt with Frances for hurting herself. It might also explain why they got off to a late start on the drive home.
As my mother remembered it, when it came time to pack up and go home, Harley was in no shape to drive. Mother said Harley was “a sweetheart of a guy, but he couldn’t keep a job”. Frank had given Harley a job at his mine. What actually made Harley sick is up to debate.
My mother said that both Harley and “the other man” were both too sick to drive. My mother’s vague recollections included allusions to “altitude sickness” and swallowing chewing tobacco. Going by my mother’s memory, this was when it was still daylight.
Dorothy’s memory was a bit different. She remembered them being on the way home after dark, when the Ford ran out of gas and Harley had to siphon gas from the Harroun. In the process, Harley swallowed some gasoline mixed with his chewing tobacco! That definitely would explain what made him ill and unable to drive.
In all fairness to their common sense, I think it is reasonable to assume that running out of gas when it was dark doesn’t mean it was already dark when they set out to go home. Knowing beforehand that they would have to drive for two hours on steep, narrow, switch-back roads, why in heaven’s name would they wait until dark? Perhaps that justifies the theory that they had been imbibing spirits.
The simple fact that they ran out of gas shows that Harley wasn’t being very responsible. Even if his Model T didn’t have a gas gauge (an optional accessory at that time) all you had to do was poke a stick down into the gas tank to see how much gas you had.
Apparently, Frank was OK to drive the Harroun, but someone else had to drive the Ford. That job fell to either Mabel or Nina. The fact that neither had a driver’s license didn’t matter because in those days no one did. (In those early days, learning to drive was pretty much a matter of just doing it. Even years later, when Frances wanted to learn how to drive, she just took her dad’s car out and drove it without his knowledge. She said it took a while before she learned how to get it out of first gear.)
Of the two young women, Mabel was the more sensible and tentative. My mother said that Nina threw caution to the wind and insisted that she could drive. I imagine the Ford belonged to the Shaffers. Harley, though “sick”, sat beside her to give her “pointers”. One wonders how he could have been any help to her if he wasn’t able to drive himself. It’s my guess that Nina had no idea of what she was doing.
I always liked Nina. She was a genuine character. She lived fairly close to us when our family lived in San Diego and we would get together from time to time with Melvin, his wife Louise and their daughter Delores. The one striking thing I remember about Nina was that anytime we were driving anywhere, if she rode with us, she never had the slightest idea of where we were or how to get wherever we were going. Because of that, she never, ever drove. Someone else would always have to take her. Even in familiar surroundings, she couldn’t tell you which way to turn or anything. In a car, she was just plain lost! I think now I understand how she got that way.
A Turn For The Worse
Nina was piloting the Model T with the currants, Harley by her side, and behind them was the Harroun, with everyone else. Frances was sitting in the back seat. For a while, all went well. But suddenly, as they were rounding a curve, they saw Nina’s car upside down in the middle of the road! My mother said the currants had spilled out and were all over the road but she didn’t see Nina or Harley.
Frank jumped out of the car to see what he could do. “Dad was able to take care of emergencies.” As far as what exactly happened to upend the Ford, I can only surmise. The turning range of the front wheels of those old cars were such that a quick jerk on the steering wheel could easily compromise the vehicle’s stability. Had Nina’s nerves gotten the better of her? Had Harley grabbed the wheel? Whatever caused the car to flip over, it is easy to imagine that as Frank got out of his car, he probably said something like, “You kids stay here!”
Mabel may have asked Emzaella (the oldest child) to help keep an eye on Dorothy and Melvin (the youngest). When Emzaella grew up she became a registered nurse, probably influenced by the fact that her step-mother Catherine had also been a nurse. Perhaps this event and Nina’s need for medical care played a part in her decision to pursue a nursing career.
Nina had been seriously injured. Her jaw was broken and she lost all her teeth. Beyond that I don’t know what the full extent of her injuries were, or whether Harley was injured. (It is sadly ironic that many years later, Nina was killed in a car accident on her 80th birthday. Her son Melvin was driving drunk. When I was a kid, I knew Melvin as a salty, hard-drinking, WWII Navy veteran. When he told me to, “Pipe down!” – in my own home – I piped down. It took the tragedy of his mother’s death to get him to stop drinking, but to his credit, he did.)
My mother said the big problem facing them was that they could not move the overturned car, which made it impossible to drive past it in order to take Nina to the hospital, which she thought was in Denver. All they could do was hope someone would drive up the road from that direction. So they waited.
But Dorothy said the closest hospital was in Idaho Springs – not nearly as far. According to what Kathryn said of her mother’s recollection of events, “…they took Nina and Harley into the doctor in Idaho Springs in the Haroun, leaving Emzaella, Frances and Dorothy sitting on the mountain by the roadside on a seat taken out of the Ford with a big flashlight.”
This puts a very interesting twist on things because if they were able to drive past the wrecked Ford, then they wouldn’t have had to wait for another car before they could take Nina to the hospital. But because there wasn’t room for them all, the three girls did have to wait for their parents to come back for them.
Dorothy had written, “It was a big adventure waiting there in the night. Emzaella and Frances told stories and this time they weren’t scarey ones. We sang songs, and they didn’t make fun of my singing. Finally, Mother and Uncle Frank came back, picked us up, and close to morning we got home again. Nina had a broken jaw, cuts and bruises.” Kathryn suggested, “They probably went and hauled the Ford in with the help of friends the next day.”
Dorothy later wrote this poem about the incident:
A Berry-Picking Trip
by Dorothy M. Walton
Uncle Frank made the finest wine
of anyone around
From the wild black currants
That covered mountain ground.
When a new batch was ready
The neighbors would drop by
To sample it, lick their lips
And praise it to the sky.
So, every fall we had to take
A berry-picking ride
To where the best black currants grew
On a secret mountainside.
One year, we started out again
To make the usual haul;
Before Time would tell the bears
That they must eat them all.
Our neighbor friends went with us.
They took their Model T.
We left in Uncle Frank’s Huroun
As happy as could be.
(Our neighbor friend was Harley
And Nina was his wife.
It’s easier to use their names
In these stories from my life.)
It was a special berry year.
We picked and picked all day
And when it was too dark to see
We started on our way.
The Model T was carrying
Full to the very top
A big washtub of currants—
Too bad we had to stop,
But it was dark, and it was late,
So we left without a care,
When, coming round a bend we found
With wheels up in the air,
The Model T and scattered all around
All the berries we had picked
Spread out upon the ground.
It was hard to see the currants
Scattered far and wide
But worse to see our Nina’s face
All crooked on one side.
They’d have to find a doctor.
That meant the nearest town.
And they couldn’t take the Model T
‘Cause it was upside down.
Uncle Frank took the Ford’s backseat
And set it on the ground
Way up on the mountainside
With the dark night around.
He told us kids we’d have to wait,
But we had a place to sit.
And Mother must go with Nina
Until she was feeling fit.
They took off in the Huroun
And we sat down to wait.
I wasn’t at all sleepy
Though it was getting late.
And my cousins sat down too;
They hadn’t much to say
But thinking I might be afraid
They thought up games to play
And then they told me stories
So it seemed like no time when
Uncle Frank and Mother came
To pick us up again.
Nina had a broken jaw
But whatever they had to do
The doctor had taken care of
And she would be like new
When her face had time to heal.
So they stayed in town
To see about their Model T
Still out there upside down.
And as for the currants
That had made such a big load
I guess bears due to hibernate
Would clean them off the road.
That year’s wine was a lost cause.
The Grown-ups had to drink
Leftovers from the year before.
But, for us kids, I think
It was a great adventure
To put in our memory store
Of early days in Black Hawk,
The town that is no more.
The details of this poem put my mother’s recollections in a doubtful light, because according to her, while they were all waiting for a car to come up the road from the direction of Denver, she went off by herself and was “swinging” on trees. Considering what had just happened, I find it hard to believe she would have done this in the dark. And even if she had, her father wasn’t there to get angry with her. So, it is more likely that she did her tree-swinging earlier in the day, before they began their drive home.
The most painful part for my mother to recall seemed to be her father’s critical response to her hurting herself, not the car wreck or Nina’s injuries or being left to wait in the dark on a lonely mountainside. For her the primary impact of her whole story was that her otherwise heroic dad was not someone she personally could turn to for comfort when she was hurt. Her young mind was absorbed by the immediacy of her own needs. Even though she was an adult when she told us this story, it was the child in her who told it.
To emphasize her dad’s brusqueness, she added that on another occasion, during a dinner-table conversation, she had chimed in with her opinion on whatever was their topic of discussion. Her father told her, “What do you know? You’re just a kid. You don’t know anything.” (My sister remembers it as being, “You’re just a girl. You don’t know anything.”)
My mother also told the story of her father referring to her as a pissant. Growing up, my sister and I were frequently reminded by our mother that in her day, “Children were to be seen, not heard.” I was never sure if that meant the rule was no longer in force or that it might be re-instated if we didn’t mind our Ps and Qs.
What is sad about the moment she went to her father for comfort was that so much was riding on it. She didn’t have a mother. If she had, this incident would have been completely different. Her father hadn’t much parenting experience. Even in the best of circumstances, his efforts to comfort his daughter would have been clumsy. He had always left “parenting” up to his relatives. And they didn’t do this for free. He paid them all well for their services.
I suppose his family expected him to provide for them in consideration for rearing his children. If memory serves, Frank had “made his fortune” (become a millionaire) at least three different times. But each time, he reinvested his profits in new mines. Between those reinvestments and providing liberally for his family, he died with relatively little money.
At the moment of Frances’ need, her only parent was ill-equipped and constrained by circumstances to focus on her. Whenever this incident occurred, she allowed the hurt to close a door to her heart, a door that remained shut for the rest of her life. And to the degree that it prevented trust or intimacy from getting through, it affected all her subsequent family relationships.
Frances loved her father. And Frank loved his daughter. But perhaps because he was tough and independent, she thought she had to be tough and independent, too. She was his namesake. Yet, there was a missing dimension to their relationship which Frances kept at arm’s length, thinking she was protecting herself. This self-defense posture/defense mechanism became the pattern for her relationships. Though she was loving, she could not let herself be vulnerable, which is essential to trust and intimacy.
Instead, she chose to hide her pain and hold it in. There it would fester and grow, until it could no longer be contained, when it would uncontrollably gush out. She could not be consoled. She would not be vulnerable. These times were of great distress to her family, especially her children who because we had a mother, we didn’t understand her lack.
It’s difficult to imagine the inability to be comforted, without thinking of “crack” babies, whose normal emotional response was destroyed in the process of their own fetal development. Even I have moments when I am so angry that I will not be consoled. But the barrier I put up is only temporary. When I cool off, I can be vulnerable. It seems quite normal and natural to let down one’s barriers from time to time, and feel like a small child calling, “Mommy”. But this was foreign to Frances. She couldn’t do it.
I think that in a sense, every time my mother went into one of her long, reminiscing family memories, she was trying to explain something she didn’t understand. Though she told and retold certain stories, in spite of being a writer, she never wrote them down in one, cohesive picture of herself. The part of me who isn’t very good at research, has angrily asked, “Mother, why didn’t you write this story yourself?!” I wonder if she ever asked her family members what they remembered about this incident? I wonder how many people told this story, in their own ways, from their own perspectives? How many of those who have heard this story still remember it, or are even still alive?
Much has been said of the ripples caused by the stone thrown into the pond. But long after those ripples subside, the stone remains hidden in darkness, slowly buried in silt. With enough passing time, the significance of everyday living that gave impetus to our lives begins to fade into blurred generalities.
I have looked, as if for a treasure map to find that hidden stone, only to feel I came quite close. I have not unearthed a newspaper article that gives a specific date to this incident. Nor have I found photographs from that particular time. But I know the people, place and incident were very real, in spite of the enigmatic barrier of time.
* * *
Thanks to Lisa Jennings for putting me in touch with Silver Parnell, who sent me the photo of Frank Channing with his toddlers and filled me in on some factual info. Thanks also to everyone who took the time to look through your boxes of stuff. This project has really taught me how difficult research is. Special thanks to Emily, who discovered lots of vital tidbits and gave me good editorial advice, as she always does. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologize. Memory was never my strong suit.
© Michael D. Day April 28, 2010
My cousin Mary Frances (Emzaella’s daughter) suggested the mysterious Black Currents were actually Choke Cherries. Though I recall my mother also talking about “putting up” Choke Cherries, they were much more tart and had large pits. Choke Cherries are a native plant, grow throughout the area and are easily found, not like the elusive Black Currents.
She also asked me if I remembered the mountain lion rug they had when they lived in Auburn, CA. It was another lion our grandfather had shot. Then I remembered seeing it as a child. It still had the skull with its real teeth but with glass eyes.
I’m also very grateful for Kathryn Adams who shared information from her mother Dorothy’s memoirs that was significant enough for me to rewrite this second edition (in particular Dorothy’s poem, A Berry-picking Trip).
© Michael D. Day December 9, 2016