Miners’ Picnic rooted in tragedies | TheUnion.com

Miners’ Picnic rooted in tragedies

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 over the weekend.

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 Saturday’s Miners’ Picnic, where perfect weather mixed with gold panning, bean-bag tosses, cake walks, chili dogs, ice cream bars, gunny sack races, children’s voices and the pop of balloons bursting on the former work-a-day estate of gold mine owner William Bourn.

The idyllic day was 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, red fire engine. Such events were tragically frequent, leading to the start of the Miners’ Picnic.

The Mine Workers Protection League held the first picnic in 1895 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, 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 picnic now raises funds for the park – chronically strapped by state budget cuts. It continues with competitive events. And instead of the earlier mucking contests, greased pig grabs and baseball games pitting Nevada City against Grass Valley, competitions include egg-on-spoon races and old clothes relays.

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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