Grass Valley in the early 1900s was a metallic medley of thundering stamp mills, roaring furnaces, hammers, horse-drawn carriages and new-fangled cars. Empire Mine was in operation 24/7.
Under the supervision of George Starr, the mine was thriving — and enjoying its reputation as one of the largest, most prosperous hard-rock gold mines in North America.
Empire Mine State Historic Park docent Vince Seck has portrayed Starr for over 15 years.
Visitors often meet him in the grease grit of the mine yard or welcoming guests to elegant Bourn Cottage.
“George Starr was both a hands-on leader and a sociable ambassador,” Seck explained. “His local legacy began in 1881 when he was hired as a mucker.
He was a fast learner, and in 1887, Starr was appointed mine superintendent.
“He was not a formally educated man, just observant, resourceful and fair. The miners respected him as well, particularly the ones from Cornwall. Starr admired their expertise, and relied on them for solutions as well as innovations. He saw them as mentors.”
Empire Mine State Historic Park welcomes around 100,000 visitors from all over the world each year, including Cornwall, England.
In a significant way, Starr’s influence remains an integral part of Nevada County’s prosperity today.
Living History docents who portray Starr do so with flair and integrity — much like the man himself.
Seck took the docent training in 1996 and was “absorbed by the character of George Starr,” he said. “The longer I portray his character, the more fascinating he becomes.”
Acting from history and the heart
In his black period costume, complete with wire-rimmed glasses and walking stick, Seck is an impressive, authentic figure — right down to the twirled mustache.
“Starr was a man I’d have respected, too,” Seck said. “I admire the way he learned from experience and used that knowledge to become an effective leader. His vision was the basis for many state-of-the-art technical advancements. He was a genuine people person, too, known for handling problems in a methodical, considered way — often relying on others’ expertise, as well his extensive mining and engineering books.
“No airs or graces about the man — just a determination to do a good job and build a strong team. Now that’s a man I can relate to. It really is an honor to portray him and encourage others to learn more about Starr, the Bourns, and the huge impact Empire Mine’s history has on our current history.”
When he’s not bringing George Starr to life, Seck coordinates the Mine Yard Living History Program. He is also on the Adit Operations Committee, and involved in the annual Miners Picnic.
In fact, Seck has helped create the popular Mine Disaster reenactment that’s become a Miners Picnic highlight — complete with explosions, emergency bells, horns and drama.
Seck comes from an established Grass Valley family that owned Lake Olympia from 1950 to 1959.
His law enforcement career with Grass Valley Police Department spanned from 1958 to 1987.
Although he’s not a trained actor, seeing him portray George Starr is an unforgettable experience — and although he’s too modest to admit it, I suspect that Starr and Seck share many traits.
Visitors are encouraged to meet both the man and the legend at Empire Mine State Historic Park’s Open House Nov. 24 and 25.
With Santa and Mrs. Claus, entertainment, hot dogs, ice cream, coffee — as well as free cookies and cider in housekeeper Katie Moriarty’s Christmas kitchen, it’s a festive day for children and adults.
There’s also Living History in the mine yard, with demonstrations in the blacksmith shop — and a chance to relive the days of grease, grit — and gold!
Bourn Cottage will be open, and Mr. and Mrs. Bourn will be welcoming guests, and inviting them to sample some of Katie’s Christmas cookies.
With lavish, turn-of-the-century costumes, decorations and live music, it’s a great place to take your Thanksgiving guests for a memorable experience. For children, it’s a good way to talk with Santa – and discover the magic of our golden history.
Empire Mine State Historic Park will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with festive activities scheduled from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Entry is $7 for adults, $3 for children 6-16, and children under 6 free. For further information, call the visitor center at (530) 273-8522 or visit www.empiremine.org.