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Front Page » April 13, 2006 » Carbon County Senior Focus » A Witness to History for 100 Years
Published 3,061 days ago

A Witness to History for 100 Years


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By TOM McCOURT
Sun Advocate reporter

Recently reaching the age of 100, John Escandon was born in Mexico but spent much of his adult life in the Carbon County area. He worked in a variety of coal mines, but like many miners, worked a farm.

On March 30, John Escandon celebrated his 100th birthday. Friends and family gathered at his home that day for a wonderful meal with much reminiscing and sharing of old photos and stories. In spite of his age, John fully participated in the festivities. He talked, laughed, and answered questions about his life and many adventures.

It has been a remarkable life's journey. John Escandon was born in 1906 in the town of Sombrerete, in the state of Zacatecas, in Old Mexico. He was born the oldest son of Leonard and Perta Escandon.

Living conditions in most of the world at that time were primitive by today's standards, and there were no antibiotics. John's mother, Petra, gave birth to 10 children, but only four survived infancy. Later, one of those four, a daughter, died as a child. Growing up, John had only two younger brothers as siblings.

Zacatecas has always been one of the richest areas of Mexico. The silver mines of Zacatecas are world-famous and the precious metal seems to be inexhaustible. Spanish Conquistadors first opened the mines in the early 1500s, and even today Mexico is one of the world's leading producers of silver. The mines have been worked continuously for almost 500 years.

John's father was a miner. He died in 1917 from a lung disease, probably silicosis, a malady common to hard rock miners. Like the coal mines of the time, ventilation of the hard rock mines was poor and the health and safety of workers was of little concern to the mine owners. John was 11 when his father died. His mother was left with four small children to care for.

At the time of his father's death, Zacatecas was caught up in the fighting of the Mexican Revolution. The revolution started in 1910 and lasted through 1920. The legendary Pancho Villa was the leader of the rebels, and the silver mines of Zacatecas were a prize to be won. With silver Villa could finance his rebel army and further his ambitions. The famous "Taking of Zacatecas" by the rebels in 1914 is still a part of Mexican folklore.

By 1919, America and the rest of the world were recovering from the World War I, but the revolution was still going strong in Mexico. Young John Escandon, aged 13, wanted to run away and join the fighting. It was not unusual in those days for boys to be members of the opposing armies.

John said that he wanted to ride with Pancho Villa. To Americans, Villa was considered to be little more than a bandit, but to Mexicans of the time, he was a romantic folk hero.

Desperate to keep her son out of the fighting and the ranks of the rebel army, John's widowed mother made arrangements to take him to El Paso, Texas, to live with his uncle Carlos in the United States. John stayed with his uncle in Texas for three years, until the fighting was over.

By 1922, Pancho Villa had been defeated and the Mexican Revolution was over. That same year, John received word that his mother had died in Mexico. He traveled back to Sombrerete to visit the graves of his family. With his parents and sister gone, and his two younger brothers living with relatives, there was little incentive for the young man to remain in the town of his birth. Sixteen-year-old John returned to the U.S. that year and brought his younger brother, Manuel, with him. His brother Paul elected to stay in Mexico.

The two boys journeyed to Montrose, Colo., where they found work as farm laborers. Through the 1920s they worked on farms in western Colorado and eastern Utah, near Westwater.

In 1924, at the age of 18, John met and married Carmen Fernandez. They would have 10 children together.

At 100 years, John Escandon has 11 children and a posterity of more than 200, spanning six generations.

In the late 1920s, John moved to Helper where he worked for the railroad for a time. He then went into the coal mines in 1930 or 31. It was at the height of the Great Depression when he moved his young family to Columbia to be near his coal mine job and he planted a big garden.

John said that his first mining job was shoveling coal with a scoop shovel. It was dirty, dangerous and backbreaking labor, but with hard work, a good attitude and a willingness to learn new skills, he was soon promoted to muleskinner. Mules and horses were used in the mines at that time to pull the loaded mine cars out of the mine.

John said he liked working with the animals, and he smiled when he said that he didn't need a watch to know when it was quitting time. "Those mules knew when quitting time was," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "They would just quit. Those mules would just walk out of the mine and nobody could pull them back. It was quitting time."

John still remembers his first mine foreman with fondness.

"His name was Mike Butanakis," John said, "And he was a good man. He taught me a lot of things, and he let me try new jobs."

Over the years, John worked at nearly every job in the mines. He was a driller, nipper, rope rider, motorman and mechanic. He worked in the Columbia mine until it closed in May 1967, and then he went to work in the Horse Canyon Mine.

John remembers the early days of mining coal by hand, and he said there was never a better bunch of men anywhere than the guys who worked in the Columbia mine. "They were good to me there," he said. "Everybody was friends."

John retired from the Horse Canyon Mine in 1976 at the age of 70. He has been a member of the United Mine Workers Union since 1931, and on April 15, at a reception and birthday party in his honor, union officials will honor him with a 75-year service pin.

John said that when World War II started he tried to enlist in the Army. He had wanted to be a soldier since his early days in Mexico, but his country needed him elsewhere. He was 35 years old and supporting a large family when the war started, and the government agents deferred him from active military service to work in the mines. "They told me that I could serve better at the mine," he said. "And so I mined coal for the war."

John always loved animals and farming, and with a large family to feed, he kept a large garden and farm animals at his home in Columbia.

A few years later, the family moved to Wellington. They also bought a 22-acre farm in the south of Price. For many years, John would commute between his coal mine job in Columbia, his home in Wellington and his farm is Price. He was always on the go.

John grew sugar beets, hay and pasture grass. For a few years he rented a second farm in the Miller Creek area.

As a young man, John Escandon grew up in Mexico and moved to Texas when his mother tried to help him escape the effects of the Mexican Revolution.

"He grew everything you can grow in a garden," his daughters and granddaughters said, "And he had every kind of domestic animal."

The family raised cattle, sheep, chickens, and goats.

His daughter Louise said, "He milked the goats and made very good goat cheese. He sold vegetables, goats, and goat cheese for extra money to provide for his large family. My mother, sisters, brothers, and I worked alongside my father in the fields, gardens, and tending the stock. My mother and sisters canned and put up the garden vegetables."

All of his farming and livestock raising was carried out around his steady job at the coal mines. He often worked the mines at night and farmed during the day. "He always had something going," one of the girls said. "I don't know when he ever slept."

Always one to take advantage of a good business opportunity, John owned an upholstery shop in Price for a time. He was also involved in a few other small business ventures over the years.

Even though Spanish was his native language, John insisted that his children speak English, even in their home. "He told us that we needed to speak English to get by in America," his daughter Louise said. "I never did learn to speak Spanish. I wish I had."

John's children said that he worked in the mines for 45 years and only missed five days of work in all of that time. "He missed three days of work when mom died in 1952," one of the daughters said. "And he missed two days when his dog died. Dad always loved animals."

A few years after Carmen passed away, John remarried briefly and fathered another son. He has three sons and eight daughters.

Over the years, John has kept in touch with his family in Mexico. He has visited several times, and has cousins, nieces and nephews, who still live there. His brother Paul died in Mexico, and his brother Manuel died in Salt Lake City.

After marrying at the age of 18, having 11 children and living to be 100, John now has 54 grandchildren, 100 great-grandchildren, 37 great-great-grandchildren and two great-great-great-grandchildren.

His driver's license expired on his 100th birthday, but he voluntarily gave up driving at the age of 95. He said it wasn't because his driving was impaired, but because he had his knees replaced and pushing the pedals was painful. His old pickup truck still sits ready and waiting alongside his home in Price.

John left his home in Wellington and moved to Price in 2002. He sold the farm in 2005. Family members said they already miss his fresh vegetables and meat.

When asked how he managed to live to be 100 and still be so healthy and full of life, John responded that he has always worked hard, he didn't smoke, he drank alcohol sparingly and he ate good food. He said that he lived on fresh garden-raised vegetables and his own homegrown meat. "And maybe it was the hot chilies," he said with a smile. "I always liked hot chilies."

His daughters quickly add that even at 100, John exercises everyday. He has an exercise bike in the house and he uses it every morning. He is also a man of faith. He is active in church and attends the Notre Dame Catholic Church in Price on a regular basis. "He is also a good, honest man," a granddaughter proclaimed proudly.

No tribute could be better than a poem recently composed and presented to John by his great-granddaughter, Brooks Martinez Passey. This poem was used on the invitations sent to honor his 100th birthday.

An Ode To Abuelito (Grandfather)

Youth is such a fleeting thing,

It's gone in the blink of an eye.

You're left with naught, but

memories, life experiences, and

love that has gone by.

New generations flourish

and bloom and in them we pray

that you find pride.

For we speak so passionately of you.

For in you our heritage lies.


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Carbon County Senior Focus  
April 13, 2006
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