From grubbing coal to styling hair, Gabossi’s ‘had a great life’
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Victor Gabossi opened his first hair salon in Glenwood Springs in 1959. He sold the business in 2005. He is semi-retired, still doing what he loves to do two days a week.
Gabossi: My mother and dad both came from the northern part of Italy for a better life.
My mother came with her parents when she was 2 years old. My father came with his uncle when he was 15.
My dad was born in 1895 and lost his mother when he was 2 years old. She had died in childbirth when his youngest brother was born. He was raised by his grandparents and left home after graduating from the eighth grade and spent time with an uncle in Germany.
When he was 17, his grandmother died in Italy, and he decided to return for her funeral. While he was there he got caught up in the First World War and had to go into the Italian army. He was in there four years and got wounded. They finally released him. He spent another year or so in Italy and then he was given free passage to the U.S. to work in the coal mines.
Dad came to Illinois and then ended up in Waukee, Iowa, just outside of Des Moines. The mines in that area had three- and four-foot ceilings. So my dad was either crawling or stooped over when he worked in those places.
Waukee is where quite a few of us kids were born. Dad was 27 when he married my mother. Mom was only 14. She had already raised a lot of her brothers and sisters because she had to help her mother, who was really crippled. So at 14 she was old beyond her years. She had my oldest brother one month before she turned 15 in December. She ended up having 10 children in all.
Gallacher: Did they all survive?
Gabossi: All of us lived and are still alive except for my oldest brother. The baby of the family turned 70 last September.
Gallacher: Did your family spend a lot of time in Iowa?
Gabossi: No, Dad moved from mine to mine. So next we moved to Colorado. I have a brother born in Ouray and one born in Idaho Springs and one born in Telluride. We ended up in Oak Creek in 1940 or ’41. I was 5. That’s where my youngest brother was born.
Gallacher: What was it like growing up in Oak Creek?
Gabossi: We lived in an old meeting-house on a hill above Oak Creek. We had three bedrooms, so the six boys were in one room and the four girls were in the other. When we moved in we found KKK uniforms stored in the barn out back. For the next few years for Halloween we all went as Klan members. We never did figure out who the robes belonged to. The folks eventually threw them all in an old cistern and buried them.
I remember one summer my dad decided that the house needed a new foundation, so he jacked the house up and supported it with timbers. It looked like it was on stilts. The bedrooms were on the second floor so we climbed a ladder to go to bed. Dad tore the whole downstairs out and we spent the whole summer that way.
Dad would come home from a day at the mines and pour the foundation and do carpentry work. My mother worked as hard as my dad. She could pour concrete with the best of them. She was a strong, sturdy woman. She was the strength and the spirit that kept us all going.
Oak Creek was a tough town. There were 10 or 12 bars and lots of gambling and prostitution. If you said you were from Oak Creek you had to be ready to fight, because guys wanted to see how tough you were.
Gallacher: Did your dad ever get injured in the mines?
Gabossi: No, but he moved around a lot. If he didn’t like the conditions, if he thought the mine was gassy, he’d quit and we’d move. By the time we got to Oak Creek some of my brothers were old enough to work in the mines.
The mining company was very powerful. The company owned the houses and the company store. We lived in a company house and part of my dad’s wages was paid in *scrip. The only place the scrip was worth anything was in the mining company’s store. So we were forced to shop there. Mining companies had too much control in those days, and that’s why the United Mine Workers started to organize.
Back when I was a kid, that 20-mile stretch between Oak Creek and Toponas was all lettuce and spinach fields. During World War II, my sister and I would work all day picking lettuce. They’d pick us up early in the morning in a big canvas covered truck with benches in the back.
They paid 25 cents an hour if they thought you were 16. I was 10, but I told them I was 16, and that was good enough. Nobody cared because they needed help.
My two oldest brothers were in the Army and my other brother, who was six years older than me, was working in the mine.
Gallacher: How old did you have to be to work in the mines?
Gabossi: My oldest brother went to work in the mines when he was 14. Most of us graduated from high school. But my brothers and I knew that it didn’t matter how smart we thought we were, we were all going to end up working in the mines. It was just a fact.
But by the time I graduated, the war had ended and it was before the Korean conflict, so I didn’t have to worry about going into the service. At that point, I was just looking for a way to get out of Oak Creek. The 10 or 12 mines in that area had started to shut down, and many of the 2,000 miners were packing up and moving on.
I had a scholarship to study music, but in a tough town like Oak Creek you couldn’t be too musical. I never went on with my music at all, even though I loved it. When I was 20, I moved to Glenwood and went to work in the Thompson Creek mine. My brothers were already working there. Between brothers and brothers-in-law, there were six of us in the mine.
At 21, my wife Lois and I took off and went and got married in Denver. We’ll be married 56 years next month.
Gallacher: How did you meet Lois?
Gabossi: I met her in Steamboat Springs. The first night we went out we were riding with my friend, and he went off the road and rolled the car. It landed on its top, and we crawled out the windows. None of us were hurt, and we finally got a ride to her parents’ farm. It was four in the morning when I finally got her home. It took her mom and dad a long time to trust this wild kid from Oak Creek who nearly killed her daughter on the first date.
Gallacher: When did you decide that mining wasn’t for you?
Gabossi: I don’t think I ever thought that mining was for me. I was still dreaming about a career in music when my oldest daughter Vikki was born. That’s when I realized life as a musician wasn’t going to work, but neither was mining.
I decided to be a barber. But when I went to talk to Jim and Art, who were barbers in Glenwood at the time, they said, “Oh, don’t be a barber, go to cosmetology school and learn how to style women’s hair.”
They were right. I styled only women’s hair for the first 20 years of my career.
Gallacher: Why only women?
Gabossi: Well, the money was good, and I was so busy. I bought my first place in Glenwood six months out of school and had three women working for me. The business grew to where, at one time, I had 12 people working for me. By then I had four people cutting men’s hair in what we called The Men’s Room and eight styling women’s hair.
Gallacher: What did your family of coal miners think about you going to cosmetology school?
Gabossi: My oldest brother gave me a hard time, but I just told him, “Look, Frank, I hate my job in the mine, and this is what I’m doin’.” But my wife really encouraged me. Lois is my guiding light. She has taught me a lot over the years.
She was the one who taught me how handle horses. I had never been on a horse until I met her. Every summer over the years, she and I would pack up and ride up onto the Flat Tops and spend a week to 10 days just riding and camping.
Gallacher: It sounds like a good life.
Gabossi: I have had a great life. I’ve spent 57 years of my life in Glenwood. This town has been very good to me. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m fortunate to have my kids, Vikki, Vance and Valerie, living nearby. I’ve got six grandkids, one great-grandkid and wonderful nieces and nephews. I’m perfectly happy.
*Scrip is an American term for any substitute for currency that is not legal tender and is often a form of credit. Scrips were created as company payment of employees and also as a means of payment in times where regular money is unavailable.
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