By Mark Esper
A lot of water has gone under the Cement Creek bridge since Joe Todeschi was born in the old Dalla boarding house in Silverton on Dec. 4, 1915.
But Joe, 93, and now the town’s oldest resident, insists Silverton itself really hasn’t changed all that much over the years.
“The town hasn’t changed,” Todeschi said. “The people have. It’s a new brand of people.”
Joe Todeschi was born to Emma and Albino Todeschi. Albino was a blacksmith who was born in Italy in 1881. “Bino” came to Silverton around 1905. Emma Maria Dallavalle was the daughter of a miner killed in an 1897 explosion.
Joe had an older sister, Cecelia, and a younger one, Erma, as well as a younger brother, Fury.
“I’m the only one left of the whole damn clan, and I haven’t got much longer,” he said.
A life in Silverton
He graduated from Silverton High School in 1934, but not before getting an education outside the classroom too.
“Everybody gets the idea that this was a wild town,” Todeschi said. “It hasn’t been that unlawful. We had our wild times of course, like anywhere else.”
Todeschi, now living on lower Empire Street, doesn’t have to point too far to where the town got its rowdy reputation.
“Two blocks up (where Empire becomes Blair Street) — that was what they called the Red Light District. It was an all-night venture.”
But growing up in Silverton, Todeschi said he and other youths got along well with the fallen doves of Blair Street in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I hold no malice against any of them,” Joe said. He said that he and other boys in town earned some spare change by helping the women with chores, including errands to parts of town where they weren’t welcome.
“We’d buy what they needed, carry their coal. But we were not allowed to frequent the joints,” Todeschi said.
He said he and other kids in town would make a point of hanging out in some of the establishments that were not on the “up-and-up”— for good reason.
“We went around there and they’d give us 50 cents or a dollar to get lost. They’d throw you a dollar and throw your butt out,” he laughed.
In the 1920s, Silverton kids would also make some money by cleaning up some of the flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore on Blair Street — empty liquor bottles.
“We’d pick up whiskey bottles. Quart bottles were worth a dime and we’d get 25 cents for a gallon jug,” Todeschi said.
Going to work
After getting out of high school, Todeschi worked many jobs over the years, in addition to his stint in the Army.
“My dad died (in 1934 from heart failure at age 53) and then I went to work for the Denver & Rio Grande (railroad),” Todeschi said. “I didn’t stay long with that,” being “too light” for such work.
He worked as a “gandy dancer,” replacing ties on the track.
“In my day, laborers worked the mines. Now it’s a different story. People come and go for the summer months,” Todeschi said. “The mines kept it (the town) stable. Families lived here. It kept the town going.”
The area’s mines are something Todeschi knows a little about.
“I worked all of them around here,” he says, rattling off the list. “The Sunnyside, Shenandoah, Kittimac, Treasure Mountain, Idarado …”
He says the best job he had was at the Shenendoah-Dives, “where I was in charge of the upper end of the tram.”
He worked for John Gustafson in those days.
“Forty-three minutes from mine to mill,” Todeschi recalled of the tram. “We sent down 1,500 buckets a day; 1,200 pounds a bucket. But we couldn’t keep up with the mill. They needed a thousand tons a day.”
Todeschi also worked as a “cat skinner,” operating a bulldozer to build mining roads throughout the county.
“We did all the roads around here,” he said with pride. “That’s the reason we have all those jeep trails.”
Among the projects Todeschi is most proud of is the massive “avalanche splitter” he helped build in 1938 for the Shenandoah tram.
The unusual structures were built above tram towers to prevent avalanches from knocking them out, which could cause a chain reaction and knock down other towers, putting a tram out of commission indefinitely.
“We used 45-pound rail to hold the rocks in place,” he recalled. “That’s rugged country up there.”
Strike at the Mayflower
Joe recalled a bitter strike at the Mayflower Mill over working hours in the late 1930s.
“The wage and hour law had just gone into effect,” Joe said. “They (the mining company) decided to cut us (mechanics) back to seven and a half hours, while the miners got eight.”
Joe said “I don’t know how, but I got the job — I was the flunky who did the talking for the mechanics crew. Well, there were only four of us there.
“I told ’em we wanted eight hours,” Joe said. “In the course of events a lot of us decided to go on strike, which we did. Eventually things got pretty tight.
“I worked the midnight to 6 a.m. picket,” Joe said. “They’d give you bacon and rice. I had two sisters and a brother at home. Things were getting tight.”
Joe said businesses in town stopped “carrying” the striking miners and he had to make ends meet somehow.
“That strike was a bad situation. It broke the whole town up — people who had been friends all their lives,” Joe said.
The situation for the strikers grew worse.
“I got out of picket duty and went to pick peaches in Palisade,” Joe said. “I’d come home with a bunch of peaches and vegetables.
“As it turned out they did settle the strike but not to everyone’s satisfaction,” Joe said. “Eventually we got our eight hours.”
Joe later took a job mucking at Treasure Mountain, and also worked at the Highland Mary.
“All I was trying to do was earn a living,” Todeschi said. “I worked at any job you could get. I survived.”
Joe married Teddie Pearl Carley on Sept. 11, 1941 while Joe was working in the local mines. Teddie, a nurse, came to Silverton from Kansas to work at the Miners Union Hospital. Shortly after that, Joe entered the military. Their daughter, Sharon was born in Kansas while Joe was in the service. He served stateside, including in Alaska.
“I married her, then had to go to the service,” Joe said. “She was an RN. I finally made corporal — $33 a month.”
Joe sometimes thinks of the opportunities he had over the years to leave Silverton behind.
“I coulda gotten outta here,” he said. “I had an opportunity to run a filling station near Colorado Springs. But there’s something about these mountains. Maybe it’s cause I was born here. But I always come back. And I was always fortunate enough to be able to find a job when I did come back.”
Teddie died on Dec. 3, 2006 at home in Silverton.
Joe recalled a close call underground in the Mayflower Mine in 1955 or 1956. He was working as an electrician doing salvage work.
“We were going up to 1,350 to salvage some wire,” Joe said. “The company was in bad shape then so they were salvaging anything they could.”
Joe said the crew was some 4,400 feet from the portal when a huge counterweight and 1-1/4 inch cable gave way in a shaft and came crashing down.
“That old cable was supposed to have been replaced. Cable in a shaft gets lots of moisture and dirt and debris and it finally gave.
“Well, rail, timber, rock and everything came down. The hoist man called and asked if anyone was hurt,” Joe recalled. “As it turned out nobody was.”
With the road crew
Joe later went to work for the San Juan County road crew, where he became a fixture and “stayed till I was 70,” he said, working for many years as supervisor.
Joe says that according to Fire Chief Gilbert Archuleta, he is the oldest fireman in the county.
“Whether that’s so or not you’ll have to take up with someone else,” Joe said.
When Patty Dailey asked Joe to ride on the fire department’s float in this year’s Fourth of July, Joe said he was a bit reluctant, preferring to stay out of the limelight. But he agreed to the honor.
“She does me favor — brings old timers’ their meals on Thursdays. Beats my cookin’ all to the devil.”
Joe’s hearing isn’t so good these days and some of his memories aren’t as clear as they once were.
He says former Standard editor and Silverton historian Allen Nossaman “recorded a lot of my malarkey.”
He says he tries to be honest in his recollections, “though from time to time I might handle the truth carelessly.”
“As you get a little older, you fade out. That’s the way it goes,” Joe said. “We all go through that phase.”