Even amid a hardscrabble existence, there’s ample room for humor and adventure. Lifelong Gunnison rancher Richard Guerrieri proves as much in his book, written with daughter Cara Guerrieri, called “The Spaghetti Gang: Memories of a Crested Butte, Colorado Coal Miner’s Son.”
The book chronicles life in Crested Butte during the Great Depression and World War II and his family’s transition from mining to ranching. But in its pages is both an invaluable piece of history and a lesson for generations to come — that experiences in youth offer a foundation upon which character arises.
The title is in reference to Richard, now 87, and his gang of friends, mostly of Italian immigrant families, who grew up together in the former coal mining town — sneaking away to secret swimming holes, causing mischief and narrowly averting disaster. Or, in some cases, colliding headlong with disaster but living to tell the story.
But the book is much more than tales of freeranging youth and hilarious hijinx in a time long gone. There’s also plenty of tribute, including dedication of the work to Richard’s resilient grandmother, Rosario Potestio Guerrieri, who didn’t speak a word of English but cared for countless community members in Crested Butte as a respected midwife and healer.
“Her story is the story of our family, but it is also the story of all immigrants, and of America itself,” the book states.
Complete with 130 photos and a map of Crested Butte in the 1930s, “The Spaghetti Gang” offers a journey to a time when living was hard, people were poor and providing for family and community was paramount.
Richard had written a few poems and short stories prior to embarking upon the book, but he was encouraged by family to expand upon his musings. When family members became involved in the effort, the work blossomed.
“The book took on legs of its own and we were galloping to keep up,” Richard quips.
A daughter’s assistance
At first, Richard handed daughter Cara several notebooks chock full of hand-written, single-spaced stories that included a fair number of tangents midstream. Cara, who graduated from the creative writing graduate program at Western State Colorado University in 2012, served in a multitude of capacities in seeing the book to fruition — not the least of which was editor of her father’s work.
“I was a big cheerleader too because I don’t think he saw the bigger value in his stories,” Cara says. “He had the heart, the inspiration and the memories, and I had the logic and the writing background to organize it and pull it off.”
As Richard began to put pen to paper, the stories simply flowed, one after another. Long-forgotten names came to mind. Memories re-emerged.
While plenty of historical material has been produced about life in a small mining town such as Crested Butte, Richard hopes his first-person account offers something unique.
“We had freedom to go and do,” he says. “There are a lot of stories out there from a lot of different people that came from that particular generation. I hope that somewhere along the line, somebody will jot down a few of those things before we lose them.”
In fact, reflection upon youth seems to be contagious. When approached about the book by friends, Richard says discussion quickly turns to those friends’ tales of their own upbringing — a byproduct of the book in which he sees tremendous value.
“If I know my youth, that should stay with me, and I should be able to call on that throughout my life,” Richard says. “You still have roots, and that’s a valuable thing.”
‘You might say I was bred to work’
After Richard finished eighth grade, his family moved to Gunnison. Upon graduating high school, he worked a few odd jobs before marrying wife Phyllis. Together, they started ranching on the land north of Gunnison his family has occupied for 67 years. Together, Richard and Phyllis have raised five children — whose summers were spent helping tend to cattle up Mill Creek and who were instilled with the same values of hard work and responsibility as Richard and Phyllis.
“I love to work,” Richard says. “You might say I was bred to work.”
It’s quite a departure from the entertainment-driven culture in which we now live, but Richard notes — and the book details — the hardscrabble existence that once defined a coalmining community inhabited heavily by immigrants gave rise to America’s Greatest Generation.
“We came up poor,” he says. “But these people still had the gumption to move up and not be pushed down.”
Copies of “The Spaghetti Gang” are available at GuerrieriWorks.com, Amazon.com, The Bookworm, Townie Books, and Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum. Additionally, a book launch and reading is planned — with Richard’s wife, Phyllis, and her new book — May 26 from 4-5:30 p.m. at the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum.