Crist Cunico

Crist Cunico was a veritable piece of work. At this writing, he was ninety-five years of age. The old guy could read the fine print of a newspaper with the eyes of a young hawk, and, with the aid of a shiny stainless steel walking cane; he would easily ambulate around his home on Buena Vista Street in Trinidad. His long-term memory was impeccable. The old wine-loving fella emanated an effervescence that was highly contagious. Wine, and life, and his family, over the years, was obviously real good for Crist Cunico.

He was born to the marriage of John Battista Cunico and Marie Borgo. Poppa Cunico was from Asiago, Italy. Asiago is nestled in the northern hills of the country near the border of Switzerland, not far from the Baltic coast. Mom was Maria Borgo, born in a small village only ten kilometers from where John Battista was nurtured. The couple met in Asiago. Asiago, so it is said, was reminiscent of the tiny coal mining communities of Cokedale and Sopris, or Primero. They married, and soon thereafter moved to America, that appealing nation of vastness, democracy, and endless opportunity.


Crist & Marie

They moved way back in 1902, then shuffled around the Trinidad Valley and northern New Mexico for a time. He readily found employment in the coal mines, and occasionally working additional hours in various liquor establishments. He worked in the coal mines at Cokedale, Primero, Tercio, and Raton and other communities in northern New Mexico before finally settling in Sopris. And he and Marie were very pleased, at least in the beginning, that Sopris and the surrounding coal camps, in so many ways, resembled Asiago.

The Cunico’s had a bundle of kids during the time they moved around the coal camps in search of a permanent home. Tony, the second child, died of pneumonia in Raton, New Mexico. Catherine, who later married Tony Maccagnan, was the first daughter born into the family. Annie, who would marry Felix Lira, came next. Angelo, born in Italy on Christmas Day, was the second surviving brother. Another child, named after Tony, also perished of pneumonia in Italy.

Annie, the future bride of Felix Lira, came next. Then there was Louis, better known by all who knew him as "Binda." Growing up as a kid in Sopris, this writer never knew his name was Louis. I knew Binda real well, though he always used to give me candy. Free candy!

Binda married Angie Incitti. Together they managed John Battista's Cunico Grocery in Jerryville, like, almost forever. They conducted their business in Jerryville until the construction of the Trinidad Dam swallowed the entire communities of Sopris, and Jerryville, and Piedmont, and St. Thomas and Longs Canyon. Then Esther came along. She married Gerald Sebben. And finully Julia, the baby of the Cunico brood, married Mike Butero. All the new spouses of the Cunico clan were from old Sopris town. Crist, the eldest, was born in Primero in the summer of 1903, soon after mom and pop settled in the community.

There were good times, and there were bad times in those early formative years of Crist Cunico. He studied diligently through the sixth grade, though not all of those school years were experienced in America. He began his academic career in the elementary school in Sopris. Then, barely in his sixth year, mamma Cunico, unknowingly pregnant with Angelo at the time, gathered her four children, Crist, Tony, and Catherine and Annie and returned to Italy. Angelo was born in Italy, and young Tony died there of pneumonia. Papa Cunico, at this time, was working in the coal mine near Raton, New Mexico, and intermittently running a bar business, so he remained in Sopris. The paycheck was not much, but it was an income. "Mom went back because she didn't like it here," mused Crist Cunico Jr. who was conveniently visiting his father at the time of this interview.

"He used to send us a twenty dollar bill every month," added Crist Sr. "There were five of us and we had to make the twenty-dollar bill do. We called it the golden paper. You could live good with twenty dollars in Italy in those days."

Maria yearned to see her mother, and she had great hopes that John Battista would soon follow her to Italy. Four years later, John was still in Sopris. It was apparent that nothing was going to dislodge him from his new hometown that much resembled Asiago, neither Maria's absence, nor an atomic bomb. "She complained that she was having a kid every year," added Crist Jr., "and she said to Dad, 'If you loved us you would come to us in Italy,' but that didn't work He wrote back that he didn't care for her or the kids, so she came back."

So mamma Cunico packed the bags and she and the four remaining kids headed back to Sopris. Crist was now ten years old, and after four years in Italy the little fella could not speak one word of English. Back to school he went, sans the English. He was ten years old and still in the first grade! He was quite physically imposing among his peers, like the great giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Julia Talentino, in the sixth grade at the time and fluent in Italian, was brought in to serve as an interpreter. "So I got in there and Mrs. Santino was my teacher," said the elder Cunico. "She didn't speak Italian. She told me to sit down and I didn't understand her. The Talentino girl said, 'She wants you to sit down.' I didn't have a chair, I was too big. I was already grown up, so she got her chair from her desk and brought it back to me and I had to sit there in the back of the room. She started with arithmetic and she said, 'Go up to the board and see what you can do.' She wanted me to write the numbers from one to twenty. I did that and kept on going, and she said, 'You've done it so you can stop,' but I kept on going. She asked me where I went to school and I told her that I attended school in Italy, so the next day they sent me to the second grade. From kindergarten to the second grade!"

Crist remained in school until the sixth grade. During the cold winter months he would walk to school along the active coke ovens between Jerryville and Sopris to keep warm. "Then they made me take a seventh grade examination," said the old feller. "Mr Moran asked me where I was going to school next year and I told him that I didn't know because I failed my test. I didn't have any knowledge. And by that time I was too old and I didn't want to go to school anymore."

Many of the men of the Trinidad Valley were employed in the coal mines. 't was now time for Crist to now seek gainful employment, but he was too young to work in the mines. The minimum age for hiring at the mines was sixteen, so the fourteen-year-old took a job with the C & S railroad on the section gang. He worked ten hours a day for $1.60. A buck fifty plus ten for the whole day! He gave mamma all of his monthly paycheck and he was gratuitously rewarded with one or two dollars.

And it was during these years that he remembered the way it was during the great southern Colorado coal strike that led to the historical Ludlow incident. "I clearly remember one experience with the militia strikebreakers," said Cunico. "There were armed militia in Sopris. A drunk militia man came by Dad's bar on a Sunday when it was against the law to sell alcohol and he insisted that my dad open the bar and sell him some liquor. Dad refused and he pulled out his pistol on him. Dad fought the militiaman and knocked him down and cut the back of his head. The man didn't say much, just got up with the back of his head bleeding badly, got on his horse, and rode off. Shortly after he came back with seven or eight other militia soldiers and they forcibly arrested Dad and took him to St. Thomas where they were headquartered. They jailed the drunk guy that dad fought, and then held a mock kangaroo trial. Dad was put on trial. Jack Daldosso sided with us. I can remember all the children crying. They finally let Dad go home."

He remembered yet another dramatic incident of his youth. "One time I was bucked off a horse on old man Daley's place," reminisced Cunico. "Jim Daley was the only black man to live in Sopris. I was on a wild horse with Fidel Martinez. Fidel broke his leg and I hurt my ear which was bleeding badly. Daley took Fidel home in a horse and buggy and I was taken on the trolley to see Dr. Ritchie, an eye, ear, and nose specialist in Trinidad. He said my eardrum was busted but it was okay. I guess it was. I can still hear pretty good."

Both John Battista and his son Crist were eventually employed by the old Colorado Fuel & Iron Number 2 Mine in Sopris. They were working there at the time of the big explosion of March 22, 1922. Crist was a very young fifteen-year-old man at the time. "I had to lie about my age because they wouldn't hire me, "explained Crist, "you had to be sixteen." Crist worked in the mine for only a single year, and it took only that one-year for him to see the "big one." Seventeen miners killed in the explosion of 22, three of which were the Cunico's immediate neighbors. Crist had just exited the mine after completing his work shift and was at home where he had bathed himself and changed into clean clothing. He, luckily, was one of the last of the miners to exit the mine. Poppa John was walking toward the main entrance to begin his shift. Crist crossed paths with his poppa by the church on his way home. Meanwhile, John Battista continued heading on course to pending disaster. He hesitated for a few moments, waiting for old man Bonato to catch up to him. A most fortunate circumstance, for those few interminable moments of waiting spared his life. The brutal force of the explosion blew him clear out of the mine entrance. It wa.s John Battista's second major experience with a mine explosion. The first was in Tercio. The second one, in Sopris, would be his last.

Crist remembered.

"I got home and I saw a big puff of smoke up there and I told my mother. She said there was an explosion. She knew my father was up there so I put on my damn dirty clothes again and went up there. Another guy and my uncle were taking my father back. His face was burned. When I got half way up there, there was my Uncle and that other guy leading my father. The blast burned his face. They had a coat over his head so the air wouldn't hit him, so he opened the coat up and I said, 'You all right father?' He said 'Ya, I'm all right. Go on home.' I kept on going because I knew they wanted me there. I was on the safety squad and would have to help them with the injured and killed."

Crist and the safety squad were there to do their job. So was Dr. Paul Carmiachal, who set up a field hospital. Crist and his fellow squad members wore safety helmets and respirators as they dredged through the debris in search of the injured and the dead. He helped carry out the two dead Valencich brothers. Fifteen more bodies were yet to be removed. They worked all through the night, until all the bodies were outside the mine, placed in grim neat rows near the field hospital.

The horrendous explosion convinced John Battista that coal mining was not exactly a healthy enterprise. The Number 2 mine was shut down temporarily, .so it was easier to convince son Crist that there were better ways to make a Jiving, at least temporarily. Poppa John bought Sam Brunelli's original grocery store situated in the heart of Jerryville, a small spoke on the wheel of Sopris. It was a new era for the Cunico's. Crist would work with his pop at his new store from 1922 to 1926.


That huge puff of black smoke at the entrance of the old Sopris coal mine was a big wake-up call for a then very young coal miner. Those seventeen bodies Crist helped tow out in the aftermath of the blast in 1922 were a stark reminder of the potential dangers of working in the hole. Transporting blown up friends and neighbors out of a coal mine was neither an entertaining thought, nor a productive means of earning a living. At least not in the volatile and highly dangerous mine in Sopris, a mine that perpetually smoldered in highly volatile coal dust. Even though he had come all the way from the Alps in Italy to work for fellow Italian and then Superintendent Jack Daldosso in the Sopris mine, poppa John Battista changed his mind and bought the old Brunelli grocery store. Working in the friendly neighborhood shop in the very heart of tiny Jerryville seemed the most viable option at the time.

And that's what Crist did for the next four years. "Dad said he had a chance to buy Brunelli's store, but he said he needed help to go around and deliver the orders in the afternoon," explained Crist. "He said to me, 'Are you willing to do that?' I said, 'Well if you don't want me to go back into the coal mine, that I can do for a living.' So he and I got into the store business, but he was the owner and I was an employee."

From 1922 to 1926 he did a little bit of everything in that old food store, toiling from the wee hours in the morning until late into the evening. He clerked, and swept, and he wiped the store to a glistening shine. Then lie delivered groceries with poppa John in the afternoon, remaining briefly at almost every abode they delivered a bag of groceries, to visit with the friendly folks of Sopris, and to sample the delicate home made wine and beer found in many of the hamlets of the little community.

Meanwhile, back in 1922, just about the time that Crist began working in poppa's little grocery store, the Cunico's moved into a home right next door to the Ferri family. And there, in that little Ferri dwelling, right next door to the newly arrived Cunico clan, resided a pretty little lass named Mary; Mary E. Ferri to be exact. Pretty young Mary was born in that very home, as were most of her siblings. For several years they lived not a stone's throw from one another, yet nothing really ever occurred to spark an interest between the two. Crist didn't pay much attention. Neither did Mary. Then sometime during that year of 1926, a most significant phenomenon took place. There was a big Saturday night dance at the old Sopris Clubhouse situated near the slack dumps on the East Side of town. Crist went to the dance alone that eventful evening. Pretty Mary went with a group of younger kids, including Crist's younger brother, Angelo. It was to be the mother of all inter-relational happenings.

Their dialogue about that eventful night went something as follows:

Crist: "I'm never up to dancing and I never asked her to dance. She went to the dance with my brother (Angelo). As soon as she seen me, she said, 'Who is that?'"

Mary: "No Crist, that is not right. Let me tell how that happened. You don't remember because you were always a little tipsy. We had been dancing and they started to play 'Good Night Sweetheart,' and I said to him, 'Do you have your car here?' He said, 'yes,' and I said 'My feet are hurting. Can I get a ride?"

Crist: "That was a poor excuse. She made the move on me."

Mary: "So we drove home and he asked me to go riding the next day, and from then on..."

Crist: "I had a brand new car to ride through town."

So Crist picked up pretty Mary in his spanking new 1926 Chevrolet two-door coach. And they were both deeply smitten. And in spite of some interpersonal flak early in their relationship, they remained together in a most intimate way.

Here is the rest of the story.

"I didn't think too much of him before that dance," mused Mary. "He was just a friend to me. I thought that he used to drink too much. We had outhouses back then. Mom used to see him when he went to the outside privy and she would make comments about what a nice guy he was. She said, 'If I was a young girl like you I would like that boy.' I didn't like him because I thought he drank too much and he had a little potbelly. And my brother John liked him as a friend, but he didn't want me to go out with him. But I went with him anyway. I thought I was very popular. The other girls would ask, 'Who was that that you were out with last night'" I felt like was advancing and getting ahead of the other girls. He would drive us around with one hand and put the other arm around my neck."

And two years later Crist put a ring around Mary's delicate little finger. They married in Sopris on June 30, 1928.

Young Crist, now with the responsibility of a new wife, who liked to dance, returned to the coal mine. Besides, soon after Crist and Mary were married, there were pending children to think of. After leaving the store he found employment with the Robinson Number I coal mine just west of Walsenburg. Then there was a short spell in Rouse, just to the south of Walsenburg. In 1927 he went to work in the Colorado Fuel & Iron Mine in Tollerberg for one year, then on to Bon Carbo. He remained at Bon Carbo for another two years. The Jewel mine in Aguilar was next on the employment agenda. Here he toiled for four more years. The occupation was long and arduous. All the work in the hole was with a pick and shovel. They dug it out with a pick and loaded the ore with a shovel onto coal cars, most often pulled by mules. Many of the mines were constructed with shafts so low the miners had to dig the coal on their hands and knees.

Meanwhile, those pending kids came along. Edna Mae was born first. Then came Crist Jr. Edna Mae was born in November of 1929. Crist Jr. came along two years later. Crist was born in Sopris while poppa Crist was working in the coal mine in Jewell. He took temporary residence with his sister Annie and brother-in-law Felix Lira who lived, at the time, in Jewell, a tiny eight-abode suburb of Aguilar. Edna went on to attend Trinidad State Jr. College before taking employment in the community. Crist Jr. also attended Trinidad State and earned an A.A.S degree in engineering before transferring to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, earning his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering. Edna Mae eventually married George Kelloff. The Kelloff's currently reside in Phoenix and commute to their Movie Manor business in the San Luis Valley. The Kelloffs have two children.

Crist manied Nora Hinkle, a cute little fraulein from Germany. He met her while he was stationed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Deutschland. They had four children. Crist, now a retired corporate manager from General Electric, lives in Pettaluma, in northern California. Poppa Crist Sr. and Mary are the proud grandparents of six bambinos.

Then came the depression. The big stock market crash of 1929 shut down all the mines, and, for that matter, economically crushed the entire country. By this time Crist had moved back to Sopris for the final time. He bought a home for an astounding $100.00, an old house formerly the property of the CF&I from which he took the materials to build a new home for Mary and the two kids. With the help of friends Bill Zanotelli, John "Putts" Ferri, Pete "Nino" Ferri, and Charlie Verga, they patched up an old adobe hut and added four more rooms with the materials from the CF&I home.

In the interim, he found employment with the Works Progress Administration program (WPA) for several years. He sold his Chevrolet two-door coach automobile that he used 10 pick-up Mary and bought a sturdy Ford truck. Later he would buy an International. Both vehicles were purchased from Barney Iuppa on his word. "No collateral was involved," explained Cunico, "just a shake of my hand." In the new Ford, and later with the International, he hauled workers to and from WPA projects, moved dirt, and worked on bridges and roads. Did a lot of blasting with dynamite on the roads too, sometimes as many as one hundred blastings a day.

The Great Depression finally ended in the mid 30's. The economy and the mines were revived. This time Crist took a job at the CF&I Morley Mine that had reopened on Raton Pass. The year was now 1936. Time had passed, but the job description hadn't changed. Miners were again mired in a haze of coal dust, working with a pick and shovel loading the black gold onto cars that were still pulled by mules.

Occasionally the miners had to help drive the mules out of the portal while the stubborn beasts were pulling those cumbersome coal cars. And those mules were the most obstinate of all God's creatures. It was those old coal miners who first voiced that well-known adage, "stubborn as a mule."

"They would make me so mad sometimes I would bite their ears," mused Cunico. "I would get a mouthful of hair from biting those long shaggy ears. There were about two hundred mules that were used to pull those cars in Morley. The portal was on an uphill slope, and we used to hang on to their tails or hook a chain around them and hang them on the way out."

The energetic Crist also worked as a "trapper." The trapper opened and closed the curtain doors of the portal entrance to allow the mules pulling cars of coal to pass through. The curtain doors were designed for controlling ventilation and remained closed until the coal cars exited the mine.

Miner's were also assigned the job of "nipper." The nipper's tool was a small canvas bag with short pieces of wood attached. The mules and coal cars were located in various places on the sloping track inside the mine. While moving downhill. the mule drivers would have to wait for a nipper who would slip the short piece of wood into the spoke of the wheel to brake the car. The nipper would 'spragg' the wheel stopping it and acting as a brake. The shaft was quite hilly and it required a great deal of athleticism to scamper a]ongside the coal car on precarious slopes to insert the 'wooden sticks into the spokes at just the exact moment. It was usually the younger, quicker and more athletic miners who were assigned the job of nipper.

Crist worked at the Morley Mine until it was shut down in 1956. There were only five men working there when he was terminated. Leone's Construction Co., he remembered, bulldozed the entrance shut. The Allen Mine was his last stop. He held employment here from 1956 until 1967 when he retired. "There were more safety laws and much better equipment at the Allen Mine," explained Cunico. "Everything was mechanized, and they had better ventilation systems and safety measures and equipment. It was a lot easier working there."

He also clearly remembered his growing days. and he lavishes the memories and achievements of his beloved children.

"We used to do a lot of crazy things when I was a kid," mused Crist. "Frank Talentino, Lewis Mandrill, John Ferri, and myself would hide out in the hills at night and watch the bootleggers hide their moonshine and their wine and grappa. Then when they were gone we would go dig it up and take it away and drink it. Dad used to bootleg too.

"And I can remember riding around town delivering groceries with dad. Those were good times. I have read books about people who were no better or worse off than myself. I never spent one day in jail and I'm thankful for that. I have some good friends. I used to work in the mine with Isadore ("Gallo") Cometto. He's my neighbor and best friend and comes over to visit often. And I'm especially thankful that my wife and family have done so well, and that my kids are okay. Those memories of my kids growing up make me smile"

Crist and Mary Cunico will celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on June 30, 1998.

"It's been a good life," concluded Crist with wistful gleam in his highly sagacious eye. "I am just so grateful that my family is still with me. Not much more one could ask for."

Crist Cunico, a good hard-working family man, passed away on October 15, 1998. He lived a quiet and sedentary life. And his family and all his friends from Sopris will miss him, for they are all grateful for having known him too.