Old coal mine camp slowly disappears beneath housesadmin
The drive on a two-lane road going north from Waukee makes Mary Ladurini’s stomach queasy.
Along the roadway, new houses are popping up daily around the intersection of 280th Street and Alice’s Road ”” about two miles north of Waukee. Ladurini, 71, of Grimes, predicts the subdivision will replace the small square four- and five-room houses that once made up the Shuler coal camp ”” the community where Ladurini spent her childhood.
“There’s nothing much there anymore,” Ladurini said of the crossroads where she grew up. “When you drive out by there, it just doesn’t feel the same.”
In 1921, the Shuler Coal Co. opened a coal mine on Alice’s Road about two miles north of Waukee. The mine employed more than 450 people, who were assisted by more than 30 mules.
The mine closed in 1949.
But the intersection north of Waukee was more than just a place coal was mined ”” it was a community. More than 25 families lived at the camp during the 1930s and 1940s. Ladurini’s family was one of those families.
Pat Ramsey, 68, also spent her childhood at the camp. As the new development surrounds the camp, her memories are beginning to mean more to her, she said.
Ramsey and her parents moved to the camp from Waukee when she was 2. She didn’t move away from the camp until 1979. Ramsey and her sister still own the camp house her parents bought in 1948. Her father, uncles and grandfather were all miners.
When Ramsey, now of Des Moines, returns to the camp to check on the house, she takes mental pictures of the area where she grew up. Ramsey knows that developers soon will begin building new houses and tearing down the old ones. Today, fewer than 20 of the original camp houses remain at the intersection north of Waukee.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Ramsey said. “It’s sad because it’s going to be a memory that is gone. And it’s not going to be long before the land is sold out.”
Poor but proud
Ladurini, 71, now of Grimes, shares the sentiment. Ladurini was born in a small brick house on a side street of the camp. Her father was a native of northern Italy who moved to the United States in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines. Her mother was from Missouri.
Ladurini has vivid memories of the Shuler camp. She said life was tough for just about everyone, but everyone had each other.
“Our families were poor, but we found things to do,” she said. “I would like to go back to those days.”
The good memories will always stick with Ladurini, but there is something else that won’t leave her ”” the sound of the mine siren.
“A siren blew whenever there was an accident,” Ladurini said. “You just knew from the sound of the siren that there was a huge accident.”
When the siren blew on Aug. 18, 1942, Ladurini said her family instantly knew something was wrong. They soon learned that Ladurini’s uncle, Americo Nizzi, had been killed when a pile of slate fell on him.
“I remember sitting on the front porch, and my mom and aunt went running, hollering like they knew it was someone from the family,” she said.
All that is left of the mine is a hill of grass, dirt and the random piece of black coal.
When the mine opened, most of the houses were built along Alice’s Road, an area often referred to as the first camp. Eventually, houses were built south of the mine in an area called “second camp,” Ladurini said.
Despite two different names, “everybody knew everybody, and everybody helped everybody,” Ladurini said.
‘Best years of my life’
Life in the mines was hard. While the men worked in the 387-foot shaft loading several tons of coal a day, the women worked at home and took care of the children. But life at the camp wasn’t all work. Children played games, men played bocce ball and women chatted.
Larry Phillips, Waukee’s police chief, spent the first 10 years of his life at the camp. His father mined, as did his uncle and his grandfather.
He too, described the camp days as the “best years of my life” despite the fact that there was no running water in the houses and people took baths in tubs outside. He remembers life at the camp, especially the gardens all the families had.
“I remember my grandparents’ garden. They had a variety of tomato plants,” Phillips said. “They had a certain tomato for ketchup, one for tomato paste and another for eating. Everyone had gardens.”
The camp, home to Italians, Croatians and Swedes, included two restaurants, a general store, a bar and dance hall.
The most popular place at the camp was probably Alice’s Spaghetti Land restaurant, which closed a few years ago. The stone building sits empty now, but the memories are very much alive for anyone who ate at Alice Nizzi’s restaurant.
“I was weaned on Alice’s spaghetti,” Phillips said. “I ate there until they closed.”
Things from milk to ice to mail were delivered to the camp. But, for heavy shopping, Ladurini said, the families traveled to Waukee where the children attended school.
Coming back together
Most of the mining was done in the winter. And, in the summer, many of the miners worked for farmers so they could provide for their families. When the mine closed, Ladurini said, most of the miners either went to work for farmers in the area or moved to find work elsewhere.
It’s estimated that about 35 of the original camp residents still live in the Des Moines-area. And, only two of the original miners’ wives still call the camp home.
For the past four years in September, more than 100 former camp residents have returned to Waukee for a reunion.
Ramsey, who attends the reunions, called the time she lived at the camp “pretty special.”
“It was a wonderful place to grow up. What a childhood.”