By Diane K. Halverson Cahoon
Nestled in Price Canyon was the town where my grandmother was born and raised. My grandmother, Ellen Vernetta (Helen) Nielson Houghton, lived there forever in a little white frame house, the same one she was born in. The house had followed her, though, from her birthpace in Winter Quarters, near Schofield, to Castle Gate and, eventually, to Helper. Such a tiny little place; I don=t know how they ever really lived there with six children.
The memories of that house are so clear I can touch them. I can hear the Price River as it bubbled furiously just 100 yards away. I would lie on a makeshift bed of sofa cushions and listen to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad whistle in the night. The door was always unlocked; I would feel great satisfaction in knowing that I could sleep securely in the little mining town without the fear that accompanied a locked door at home.
Each morning I would sit upon my improvised bed and watch the glowing embers in the old coal stove. I would carefully balance my usual breakfast of cocoa and toast upon my lap, a delicacy that was only truly experienced in Castle Gate. It never tasted the same anywhere else.
My grandma=s little house was never tidy. The kitchen counter was always loaded with bread sacks, coffee mugs and dirty dishes. The floor was never sparkling; proximity to the coal piles precluded that. The ancient living room carpet was stained and un-vacuumed. Yet there was never a place where I was more comfortable or where I felt more important.
As soon as my breakfast was consumed, I would quickly dress and run out into the usually chilly morning sun. The high walls of this Castle Gate were high rocky hills that protected the tiny valley town from warming up too quickly, dispelling the magic of the frost morning air.
Grandma=s cupboards were filled with food she swore she never liked; some of which always make it into a sack to go home with us. When I was in college, she would load a small box with food everytime I came to visit, because it would just go to waste if I left it there. Her twin-sized sheets never seemed to fit her bed; they always made their way to my apartment, even though we both knew she just had to give things away to be happy. She always seemed to have bought an extra book of stamps which she was sure she would never be able to use and so she sent them to me.
My grandma was the epitome of service. From the time she got up until the time she went to bed until the very day she died, she always looked for a way to make someone else=s life easier. I remember all the days she would stop by Annie=s, her best friend in the world, to make sure she was okay. She=d pick up her mail or take her something from the store. Annie was crippled up from tuberculosis and it was difficult for her to get around, yet ironically, she lived in the house at the top of the highest stairway in Castle Gate. Grandma never thought it was too hard to get there or to do anything for Annie. We loved going up those steep stairs to see Annie, but I didn=t realize until I was older how difficult it would have been for Grandma to negotiate those stairs all the time. Annie had a little dog she loved dearly and when Annie=s house caught fire, it was Grandma who went in after Annie=s dog, getting her lungs filled with smoke in the process. But others always came first for my Grandma and the people of the town loved her sincerely.
My two youngest uncles always kept life exciting for all of us in Castle Gate. Pat was closest to my age and was always very kind and gentle to me. I spent hours with him playing on the rocks or in the wash tunnel or blowing up rattlesnake babies using firecrackers in Mrs. Snow=s garden! I remember the time we tried to help a bunch of baby chickens hatch out and what we though was help actually killed them all. We loved to read Mad Magazine and hike up to see Loretta McGann and just kind of run around the streets. Sometimes Edgar Johnson would let us swing on his porch swing up Barn Canyon. We loved to sit and talk or just listen to the sounds of Castle Gate.
What I remember about Castle Gate: Town Hall where the soda fountain and drug store stood. Grandma always gave us a quarter to buy a bag of penny candy. You could get a great big bag for a quarter in the 60's. The Hall was a quaint, comfortable place with a soda fountain at the far end. There was a big glass case where the penny candy was. Vi worked there and was always patient and friendly with us. The linoleum floors were always shining and the chrome stools gleamed.
On one side was the general store-type merchandise and on the other was drug-store stuff. I also remember the punch board, but we were never allowed to play them; that would be Agambling@, Grandma would warn us.
Carmella and the Post Office. She used to let me come behind the counter and see the stamps and mailbags and stuff. She always called my Grandma to come help out and it really helped my Grandma financially.
Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mary=s house. They lived by the Post Office and we would go see them sometimes. Uncle Charlie was my grandpa=s brother and was always very kind and loving to us and Grandma, Kent and Pat. He was a very handsome man and was well-loved in Castle Gate. My Aunt Mary was nice, but she seemed to be very protective of Uncle Charlie and seemed jealous of any time he spent away from her.
The flagpole by the Post Office. We loved to play on it.
Town policeman, Tuffy McGann at the old gas station. He=d sit there in his car and sleep a lot. He seemed to always try to blame Kent and Pat for everything. He was means and nasty. I never liked or trusted him.
The old miner=s company hotel my Grandma cleaned. We would go there and help her clean up. The rooms were large and lit by one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, except for the dining room and lobby. I remember a lot of hardwood floors and yellowed porcelain in the bathrooms and kitchen. I couldn=t believe my grandma would go into that place alone and clean it, but she didn=t seems to mind the spookiness at all. It always smelled of mice and was very dark and dingy.
The must library in the town hall. It was at the end of the longest, darkest hallway in the world. I loved the library, though. Grandma kept it so neat and orderly and the shelves seemed to go on forever. I have always loved to read and I think that is where I first learned to love it. The room had large, heavy tables and chairs and there were also small chairs for children. I remember them painted in bright primary colors. There were tall shelves which lined the walls and many of the books were very old volumes. Many of the books were found to be rare and valuable when the library was moved later on. I have a couple of old books from there. The library was in the basement of the Hall, so we had to look up to see out of the windows. I spent hours there with my grandma.
The dance hall upstairs. I remember going to a few parties and dances there. ARockln= Around the Christmas Tree@ is one song that always reminds me of the Castle Gate Christmas dances.
The gun club across the hall from the library. I never saw the door open. It was always padlocked shut and my imagination would go wild trying to figure out what they did in there.
The power plant at the end of town was always a busy place. It seemed so modern sitting there next to all the antiquity of Castle Gate.
The Chinkin= Pile. Grandma said that=s where she=d throw us if we weren=t good. We liked to go there and find all the junk people would throw there, especially these little metal coins that we loved to collect. I can=t remember what they were for.
The Wilstead=s hound dogs. I have never seen uglier dogs in my life and they always frightened me when I would walk by. They seemed to be always barking at someone.
The Hospital with Bernice Leo as the nurse. I remember going there a few times when I was sick. Bernice gave me a shot once and hit a nerve or something because I remember just about passing out. It smelled of alcohol but looked like one of those wonderful old doctor=s offices in the movies.
The tennis courts. They were next to my grandma=s house. They were pretty broken up and the nets were always in disrepair of missing entirely. It was there I learned to ride my first bicycle. It seems like someone told me that my Grandpa Houghton had helped to build them. The retaining walls of the older one were made of rock and bordered my grandma=s lot.
The old school building and later, the vacant lot where the building had been. We loved to play there, even when everything was gone. The only playground equipment in town was there, except for Loretta McGann=s swing-set. We used to have some old desks from there, but I guess they were thrown out. I still have some old readers from there.
The tunnel on the highway. We loved to go through it and honk the horn. When they widened the road, they took it out. I remember hating the sound of the dynamite and wishing they would just leave well enough alone.
The wash that ran under the road to the Gale=s house. This was the scene of the greatest spook alleys in the world. We=d get ketchup and put it on plastic skulls and make all kinds of scary noises in there. Grandma would have a fit if we were playing in there and the sky clouded over. The water could rush down the canyon quickly if there was a storm and she was always sure we would be killed.
Clea Davis=s house where I always got my hair cut. Grandma hated to mess with my hair; I can=t blame her. I was always too tender-headed, so she would take me to Clea=s to get my hair whacked off. My Grandma Beth never did like it when I came home with short hair. Clea=s house always smelled of permanent wave solution, but is seemed to be a great social hub for the women in town.
The Taboni=s house where I would sometimes play with Rebecca. They seemed so rich to me. My grandma=s house was very small and humble and the Taboni=s two-story house had grass in the yard and everything!
The water tank on the hill. Kent used to keep his horse up there. I never dared to go there. Grandma would point to the water tank and tell us that there was not enough water in that tank for everyone in town so we could never waste water.
The Johnson=s porch swing. They would let us sit on their porch swing. It was on the way up Barn Canyon. That was about as far as I ever dared to go.
Uncle Johnny and Aunt Josephine=s house. They were always so kind to us. I remember that Uncle Johnny would come over and check on Grandma almost every day and bring her the newspaper. The route really belonged to his grandkids, but Uncle Johnny always did it for them, or at least drove them around to do it. Uncle Johnny slept through church and generally looked tired, but he was never too tired to help his grandchildren or anyone else who needed him.
The old hobo house where I would sneak down to play. There were always Cheerios al over the floor. Grandma had a fit when she found out we had been there playing. I think if I had ever seen some of the hoboes, I might have been afraid, too, but it never seemed to be real, so we loved the mystery of it.
The big garage in front of Grandma=s house. People stored their cars there and offered a little protection from the road.
Larry and JoAnne=s house at the bottom of the hill. They had children close to our ages, Tommy and Vicky and others, and we liked to go play there.
The Watson=s house below Grandma=s. What a junky wonderland! Grandma never had anything good to say about the Watson=s, it seemed. Then her two youngest sons go and marry two of them. Grandma was never very nice to Scarlet and Ilian. I really loved Scarlet, but never got to know Ilian. They were a very colorful family.
Mrs. Snow=s house behind Grandma=s. A very large white home with a great rock garden on the hill in back. That=s where Pat and I would throw the dead baby snakes after we blew them up with firecrackers.
The cemetery with the interesting headstones, in Willow Creek, just east of the power plant. It was kind of spooky and a great place to explore.
Kate and Eva=s house across the road. They used to make handmade articles all the time. They were very kind to us.
The old Jewel Tea man who came by regularly. Grandma always bought something from him. She could never say Ano@ to anyone. I guess that=s where I get it from.
The old brown ice cream truck that used to come by was a favorite of ours. Grandma would usually buy us a treat from it. It was huge, like a delivery van; not the little white Jeep you see now. The ice cream wasn=t that good, but it was the novelty of it all.
Nolan=s Market in Helper. The biggest store outside of Price.
Helen=s Handy Market in Helper, where Grandma worked for many years. The quaintest little store, filled with many fun and interesting things. Grandma would tell us who we could talk to and who we must avoid as they would come to the door. She made a million friends there and foiled one would-be robber=s plans when she wouldn=t give him the money and told him to go get a job. The police really chewed her out for that. She was a feisty little thing. The madam at the brothel next door used to keep an eye on Grandma and she=d come over and chase off the undesirables that came in.
Lucy Martinez=s house just north of the Church. Lucy could drive Grandma up the wall, but I always kind of felt sorry for her. So many sad things seemed to happen to her.
The tipple which spewed out coal onto the piles. Fun to watch the coal come out and stack itself up. This was strictly off limits to us at all times.
The new library that was built in an old house. There was even a bathtub in it! It was a unique library but just never seemed to be as cozy as the old one in the Hall.
The canyon where Gary Martinez got shot. Pat, Kent and friends were camping and somehow, Gary got shot in the stomach. My dad went up to help them bring him home. None of the boys really knew what to do for him, but they managed to get him out and he recovered. I remember being at Grandma=s and being in the back room when Tuffy came to scream at Kent for causing the shooting. I also remember the look on his face when my dad walked out of the back room to set him straight. He left quickly after that.
The old chicken coop on Grandma=s lot. We had kind of a clubhouse in there. It was a fun place to play.
The Ouija Board. Kent and Pat and their friends used to go down into Grandma=s dirt cellar to play with it, and I saw them come out looking scared to death more than once. I never dared to go down there.
Going Trick-or-Treating. I remember dressing up in one of Grandma=s dresses. I would go to different houses and people would say, AOh, Helen, how nice of you to come by,@ or AHelen, aren=t you a little old to Trick or Treat?@ We went to every house in town and when my Grandma found out the places we had been, we got another lecture on the Castle Gate social strata and the kind of people we could associate with.
I remember one of Kent=s friends, Reese Evans, taking me for a walk up the mountainside one day and leaving me on the ledge. He said, pointing in all directions, AThere is a rattlesnake there and there and there and there and if you move, they=ll bite you and kill you.@ I sat on the ledge and cried until Bud Wilstead came to rescue me.
The old flagpole on the top of Castle Gate Rock. I always wondered what kind of fool would climb up the cliff or hike up the precarious back way to put a flag pole up there. Then, one time when Uncle Kent was home on leave from the Navy, I think, a pillowcase flag appeared on the flag pole. As you may have guessed, I got the answer to my question. They only person who would do such a thing was somebody like my Uncle Kent.
The big rock in Grandma=s yard. Grandma had this huge boulder in her yard that was 10 or 12 across and about 8 or 9 feet high. I=m not sure of the exact dimensions, but it seemed huge to me. It was level with the ground in the back so we could run up the hill around the rock to get to the top or we could climb up the face and pretend that we were mountain climbers. Kent or Pat had driven a spike into the rock so we could tie a rope to it and pull ourselves up the front. There were several other rocks in the back that I would use for my house. Each rock was a different room. I had such a great time.
Part of the fun of going to Grandma=s was that, occasionally, we would get to ride the train down or back. I loved the rhythm of the train and I never got bored watching the scenery whiz by as I rode the California Zephyr. I always wanted to eat in the dining car, too, but was never allowed to until I went down as an adult when we had to go get Tyler when he became ill one time when he was there with my parents.
The old Price River was fun to listen to as I=d lie in bed at night. Uncle Kent was always losing his glasses or something in there. My grandma would never let us go there at all, probably because she was afraid of water herself. I was told she never learned to swim.
I remember when the mining company moved the people to Helper--houses and all---to make way for mine expansion. Grandma got to live next door to Annie and they made things fairly nice for them. But Castle Gate was never again to be the exciting place it had been for me as a child. I will always treasure my memories of that town and the wonderful, down-to-earth people who lived there and are a part of my life always.