The most Important mine employee – the cook |

The most Important mine employee – the cook

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionMidnight Mine cook house in the 1930's: cozy living, great food.

A mine could not operate without a blacksmith. A good engineer made a mine functional. Mules eased the burden. Knowledgeable managers and leaders separated the profitable mines from those that went bankrupt. But if you asked miners who was the most important employee, their answer would always be “the cook.”

Many Aspen-area mines were too far from town for miners to walk to work. Even after mines became accessible by car, single men chose to live at the mine rather than commute. Mines provided boarding houses for the employees as part of their pay. Bachelor miners spent most of their lives as resident boarders. Meals were also part of the pay. In bad economic times, room and board was the only pay. A mine’s cook, therefore, was indispensable for attracting the best workers. Good food meant good miners, and the overall institutional climate was established in the kitchen.

Aspen’s Midnight Mine employed three different cooks from 1932-1933. Mrs. Hathaway kicked off that year, a tough one. The 1932-33 winter was one of the worst, with frequent snow slides closing the Queens Gulch road. The mine crew carried in supplies. Silver prices dipped to a new Depression low, and ore shipments were stalled by winter road conditions. Camp morale malingered at its lowest.

Mrs. Hathaway, having lived through bad times before, cheered up the men with her aged wisdom. Her favorite activity during the day was to feed the camp robbers who ate right out of her hand. She could enliven any meal by recounting the day’s interactions with her bird friends.

The cookhouse radio was a primary source of evening entertainment followed by long discussions. Ranting about President Hoover and praying for Roosevelt to make a difference predominated. One miner carried the conversation into the workday and his continuous criticism of Hoover annoyed the other miners. Mrs. Hathaway eventually banned Hoover as a topic in the cookhouse, easing the tension.

Male miners’ conversations could be crude and, in other settings, considered vulgar. As tough as they thought they were, miners cowered before elderly female cooks. Mealtime was the most genteel time of the day.

Mrs. Hathaway experienced difficulty working at the Midnight’s high altitude and battling the bitter cold. She bought a house in town and retired. A male cook replaced her, one with far inferior cooking skills. Morale sunk to serious levels. Meals during Mrs. Hathaway’s time had been the highlight of each arduous day. It didn’t take long for the crew to begin grumbling directly to the cook. After only a few weeks he departed.

Sadie Henricksen, another elderly cook, took over feeding the disgruntled camp. Along with the discovery of a new rich silver vein, her better food and pleasant disposition improved camp spirits immediately.

During the Depression the Midnight often employed tramp miners, men who drifted through town looking for enough work to finance further travel in search of long-term employment. A young man named Johnny appeared, showing signs of starvation. F.D. Willoughby, the mine’s manager and mayor of Aspen at the time, fed him and allowed him to sleep in empty jail cells. The mayor hired him on at the Midnight as a mucker, to shovel rock into ore cars.

Johnny was nicknamed Johnny the Grub Gobbler because of the enormous amount of food he consumed each day, especially eggs. He easily ingested a dozen eggs for breakfast. His story came out soon after he began work. His mother had remarried and he recognized that his stepfather would be happy if he wasn’t around. Johnny left home and had been riding the rails with other hobos, unsuccessful at finding enough work to keep himself fed.

Her first day on the job, Sadie introduced herself to the men, asking each of them how they liked their eggs – sunny-side-up or turned over. When she asked Johnny how he liked his eggs he responded, “by God, I like ’em!”

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