One hundred years ago, Prohibition was repealed – construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge – the first drive-in movie theater in the United States opened – and WWII veteran Herman Todeschi of Bayfield was born in the four-cabin hamlet of Cold Creek.
The nearly lifelong resident of Durango and Silverton will celebrate the century mark Sunday with 100 friends and family at an Italian-inspired “polenta picnic” at the Durango VFW.
“He’s Italian and it’s one of the things they do when they have gatherings,” said granddaughter Anastasia Arellano of Bayfield. “They’ll make a big pot of polenta and then people will bring sauces and gravies – mushroom gravy or marinara, meatball or meat or whatever, just a bunch of different sauces.”
The gathering itself will fulfill Todeschi’s expressed birthday wish.
“I just wish my wonderful family will all be well and that they all make it there all right,” he said. “Everybody is trying to come.”
More than 30 family members are expected from as far afield as California, Montana and Tennessee to celebrate the man who worked much of his life as a miner while also being awarded five bronze star medals for his service in the U.S. Army Air Corp during WWII. The bronze star is awarded for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
“I was a flight engineer,” Todeschi said. “I was in Corsica and Italy with the B-25 bombardiers. I was in seven campaigns in Europe. We supported the British 8th Army and the American 5th Army, tactical support, bombing bridges up through Italy and the invasion of southern France and the Air Battle of the Balkans in the Adriatic.”
Todeschi, who served as one of four grand marshals for Durango’s 2018 Veterans Day Parade, said he knew and was in the same outfit during the war as author Joseph Heller who wrote the satirical novel “Catch-22” about a bombardier during WW II.
Todeschi was raised in Silverton and Durango. His father and stepfather were both miners. He went to work mining at age 14 during the summers swinging a single jack “before we went to machines.” He graduated high school in Durango in 1941 and left for California a week later to study engineering in college while also working at aircraft manufacturer Northrop Corp. Then the war called and Todeschi left college behind.
After the war he went back to mining in Arizona and in the La Platas with Sunnyside Gold Mine. He has mined for gold, silver, lead and zinc, he said. And then had his own mine – the Muldoon at the top of La Plata Canyon where the Colorado Trail passes. The claim is famous for its outhouse that practically hangs from a cliff. The cabin and outhouse exist to this day.
“At Muldoon we mined for silver and a little gold,” Todeschi said. “We did pretty well but we had to work in the wintertime in other mines to keep going, and that was at 12,000 feet so it was difficult.”
Todeschi married a few years after the war and he and wife Gladys had two sons and two daughters. Today he reckons he has 20 great-grandchildren but admits his memory for such things is not what it used to be. His granddaughter Arellano figures that’s about right.
She remembers summers as a girl staying with her grandfather while he mined in Silverton.
“What a great place to grow up,” Arellano said. “We tinkered around all over the place. He taught me how to fish. He is probably the best fisherman I know. He taught me all about Durango and the areas up by Silverton. We used to go mushroom hunting. He’s an old-school Italian so he loves mushrooms and polenta. He’s a very knowledgeable man, especially about the area here. So just spending time with him is one of my favorite things to do.”
In addition to his days in mining, Todeschi owned the Oasis Lounge and Tavern on Main Avenue in Durango and managed the VFW. He is a great gardener whose tomatoes earned acclaim as the best in the area in the early to mid-90s, Arellano said.
When asked what the biggest change he has seen during his lifetime, Todeschi didn’t mention the moon landing or computers. He did not say anything about the fact that when he was 10 years old it cost about $18 a month to rent a home, or that gasoline was 10 cents a gallon, a pound of coffee 23 cents and a loaf of bread 7 cents. He didn’t mention that when he returned from the war the average cost of a new home was $3,600.
“It’s the way people have changed,” he said and then laughed. “It used to be everybody helped with everybody. And now it’s gotten so up and down people are fighting about politics and stuff. It’s kind of depressing. You know, I believe more in what people were like coming out of World War II – the Greatest Generation. They just went to work and didn’t complain.”
Todeschi did not hesitate when asked to share the wisdom of a century of living with younger generations.
“Get an education,” he said. “That’s important. I neglected to finish up my college stuff. I had credit for a year-and-a-half in college, but I should have stayed with it. You know, better paying jobs with more education beyond high school.”