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Miners Picnic a happy tradition, but rooted in tragedy

Trina Kleist
Staff Writer

Emily Roberts Brockway pulled the bow across the strings of her fiddle and jumped into “Wee Todd,” a Scottish tune that skittered across the lawn and whirled under the oaks at Empire Mine State Park Sunday.

The happy tunes the 11-year-old from Nevada City School of the Arts played with teacher Heather Grove on guitar matched the mood of the Miners Picnic, where perfect weather mixed with gold panning, bean-bag tosses, cake walks, chili dogs, ice cream bars, gunny sack races and children’s voices on the former work-a-day estate of gold mine owner John Bourn.

Saturday’s events were punctuated by the re-enactment of a most unhappy event: A mine accident, attended by volunteers acting as rescue workers and riding the recently repaired antique fire engine. Such events were tragically frequent, leading to the start of the Miners Picnic tradition.

It started in 1895 by the Mine Workers Protection League to raise money to help widows and orphans of hard rock miners and assist injured and unemployed miners, according to information from the state park.

In the past, the event was held at Lake Olympia, now covered by the shopping centers of Glenbrook Basin, or at the now-disappeared Shebley’s Pond in Chicago Park, at what is now the Nevada County Fairgrounds and at Memorial Park, according to park literature.

Under the guidance of 200 volunteer docents with the park and the Empire Mine Park Association, the event now raises funds for the park — chronically strapped by state budget cuts. It continues with competitive events – but with egg-on-spoon races and old clothes relays instead of the earlier mucking contests, greased pig grabs and baseball games pitting Nevada City against Grass Valley.

As families chatted in folding chairs and people snoozed on blankets, the Good Times Band, of Auburn, played Dixieland jazz and declared, “I ain’t gonna share my jelly roll with nobody.”

Dan Wiles, Grass Valley juggler and magician for 32 years, mesmerized a gaggle of two dozen children with his antics tossing knives while riding a unicycle and his gags with fiery batons.

The children made off with Wiles’ balloons hand-twisted into white poodles, yellow snakes, even a hamburger for one boy. Others gleefully stabbed at each other with Wiles’ green and red balloon swords.

His gentle manner and wry humor tickled the grown-ups as well.

“Laughter is the main thing,” Wiles said. “There’s something magical about that.”


To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail tkleist@theunion.com or call 477-4230.

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