Requiem For A Small Town

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One peppery resident of Sopris, eighty-two-year-old Frances Furia, sat in her living room one afternoon near the end, surrounded by framed photographs of her huge family. She had lived in that house for fifty-five years, the wife of a miner-shoemaker-barber now dead and the mother of twelve children. Shaking her head, she snapped, “They spend millions on that dam. What advantage is it? Flood control they say. Well there is a house down there on the river bottom where they raised fifteen kids and I said to the engineer how come it didn’t float away? But what you going to do? Fight? Kill ‘em? Then you go to jail. You argue with them they give you less money for the house.

“This was a pretty camp. A band every Saturday night. I’d go outside and listen. It was like a city—two coal mines, a coke oven, and a streetcar until they took it out and we had to walk to town like nanny goats.

“Oh, maybe no dam will ever come. I think they are all pazzo,” which means “crazy” and is accompanied by an appropriate gesture.

Crazy or not, the people who like the dam say that it will save the town of Trinidad from floods and enhance the area with a twenty-five-mile-long lake for recreation. But others say that the last two times Trinidad was flooded the water came from a tributary downriver from the dam; that the mountainous slag heaps left over from the mines will dissolve fish-killing acid into the lake; that the Purgatoire’s water is muddy and fit only for junk fish; and that an eighty-six-foot seasonal drawdown will expose an ugly bathtub ring of mud flats to further discourage recreation.

Now that the decision is final and the dam is imminent, the last wish of the Sopris people is that the dam and reservoir be named after their town instead of Trinidad. “After all,” said Joe Terry, sitting in the house his wife’s grandfather built and drinking some twelve-year-old muscatel his wife’s grandfather made, “Sopris has lost its life, and there is Trinidad with its name on the tombstone.”

But in the end Sopris will surrender to progress with dignity and without self-pity, perhaps because for eighty-five years Sopris, lacking progress, has survived on laughter and love and close ties with large and extended families and compari , those for whom one feels fraternal responsibility.

When a Sopris tavern burned down one Thanksgiving Day, the owner’s compari had him back in business by New Year’s Eve. When a man was out of work for six months, loaves of bread appeared on his table. The Sopris grocery stores stayed almost broke feeding their own.

The modest houses were built mostly of adobe or wood and stucco, and they grew as the families grew, with a plot reserved for vegetables and flowers and another for the brick ovens where the women baked the pane .

Some men died in the mines or were crippled, and many got black lung from breathing the coal dust, so they coughed and spit and were forever out of breath. In the old days a man got three dollars a day for digging sixteen tons of coal with a pick and a shovel, and he did not see the light of day except on Sundays. The men worked in the mine alongside their mules, and if his mule died in the mine, a man was fired on the spot; but when a man got killed he was left on the crosscut until the shift ended.

The poverty was endless, but they did not know until they grew up how poor they were, because they had the hills to climb for pinon nuts, the streams to fish for trout, the slag heap to ride a shovel down in winter, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains thirty miles west to hunt for deer. And they had each other in an unself-conscious sort of way.

Beneath the houses the men established their wine cellars, and every fall when the grapes came from California each man made the wine in his own way, some with sugar, some without, some adding heat and others letting the mash ferment in its own good time, some crushing the grapes with their feet as their fathers had done in the old country.

The wine was important to them. Even when the men cut up tires and fastened pieces to their children’s shoes to replace the worn-out soles, there was somehow always money for grapes. They say in Sopris that as long as they had the wine they felt lucky, and they drink a toast that goes, “A hundred years and then you die,” and they insist that three glasses are a minimum and that a drop spilled is a drop you do not get to drink.

Because making the wine and drinking it together are secular sacraments to them, they are very careful with it. Joe Terry, at twenty-nine, is the only one of his generation making wine. In the cellar of his Sopris house are about one hundred gallons of muscatel and zinfandel quietly aging in the oaken barrels used by his grandfather. “The one thing I hate about leaving,” he said, “is that my wine barrels have to get stood up.”