Monday, December 14, 2015

The Shadowgee

By Steven Wade Veatch
During the school-free months of summer my mother, brother, and grandfather stayed at our cabins in the mountains north of Divide, Colorado.  Mother’s cabin was next to my grandfather’s cabin. These were simple times where we passed the summer days with pleasant recreations. This was a time where relationships and memories were made—a time when my life was shaped. The two cabins marked some of the most memorable scenes of my boyhood.
Sunrise in the mountains. Watercolor © by S. W. Veatch

There were no malls or shopping centers, only a simple country grocery store six miles away. There were no toney, high-end country clubs; instead we went to the Divide Community club, which was built during the Great Depression, for a weekly diversion of bingo or a dance that alternated each Saturday with the bingo game. The mountain folks referred to the dance as “goin’ to the fights” as some of the rowdy cowboys liked to throw down and mix it up out back during the dances.
At our cabin I would stay up late and read. Before turning in for the night I would go out on the porch and look at my grandfather’s window to see if his bedroom light was on. It always was on—he would read into the dark and quiet hours of the night.  He liked to read, he liked words and working with words. I got that from him.
On this particular summer morning I got up at daybreak and looked out the window of our cabin to see welcoming smoke coming out of my grandfather’s chimney. I ran down the porch steps to start a morning with my grandfather—my mother and my brother would soon follow.
While my grandfather made breakfast I watched the meadow, forest, marsh, and granite rocks through his kitchen window. The July meadow grass waved rhythmically from wind while the wildflowers painted a splash of purple along the edge of the meadow. A chipmunk sat on a weathered stump and worried a seed.
After our breakfast of pancakes with Mickey Mouse ears, Log Cabin syrup poured from a tin, bacon, and orange Tang we eased into the main cabin room. The burning pine crackled, popped, and hissed in the Ben Franklin fireplace.  Angry red embers warmed the room. The calming aroma of the burning wood filled the cabin while the morning sunlight streamed through the windows where light, skipping off little specs of dust, created pinpoints of reflected light.
I curled into the couch and my grandfather relaxed next to me in an easy chair. He put a mug of black coffee on an old wooden barrel with a round top painted a deep red. Old liquor bottle labels, covered with clear shellac, decorated the top. He filled his pipe with Half and Half pipe tobacco, stuck a wooden match and lighted the bowl of his pipe. Soon a tendril of smoke climbed from his pipe. It was time for stories to be tossed around. I can still hear the deep, articulate, and measured sound of his voice—certain, knowing. He fired my imagination by telling erudite tales of mining days all the way back to territorial Colorado. His grandfather and father were pioneers in the windswept mining camp of Caribou in Boulder County.
Following our morning round of tales my grandfather took an old, gallon-sized Half and Half pipe tobacco can and reworked it into a lantern. He attached a wire at either end with the loop on the outside of the can. The wire stretched from end-to-end.  This made a handle and held the can on its side. Next he punched an inch-round hole on the underside of the can. Finally, he shoved a candle in the hole. The candle flame would reflect off the shiny, inside bottom of the can and shine out through the open top, creating a beam of light. Now the empty tobacco can was a makeshift candle lantern. I sat upright, engrossed. I waited with held breath and hoped that he would hand me whatever he was making. What could it be?
I said, “What the heck is that?”
Grandfather said, “It’s called a shadowgee, this is what the miners used in mining camps before flashlights. Would you like one?”
 “Heck ya!”
My grandfather reached over with the Shadowgee and handed it to me. I carefully took it from him and held it in my hands. I slowly looked it over. It felt so cool and seemed like the best thing ever made.
The shadowgee my grandfather made for me. Note how the handle is offset from the top. This way, when the lantern was carried, the candle would tilt away from the wire handle and not burn the miner’s fingers. Photo © S. W. Veatch.

View of the shadowgee in operation.  Photo © S. W. Veatch.
The empty can kept the mountain winds from blowing out the candle flame. The burning candle provided a steady light so the miner carrying it could check his corral in the dark or to see his way on a late-night trip to the outhouse. Grandfather used his shadowgee to find our two-holer outhouse at night.
The shadowgee speaks about mining life: miners were careful in spending their money; lamps and kerosene were costly; and miners were resourceful and had to improvise and use discarded tin cans as a resource, repurposing them into shadowgees or other useful artifacts.

That night, I waited to test my shadowgee. The wind quieted down so it could hear the alluring sounds of the forest. Shadows whispered across the meadows. The evening became a lingering twilight of layered crimson in the clouds. The night turned eggplant dark and the countryside calm. When the summer stars were bright it was time for me to test my shadowgee and follow the worn path to the outhouse. Out I went, into the night, shadowgee in hand. What I learned was that spending time with my grandfather was the best part of those summer days so long ago. He always had something new to show me or teach me. What I didn’t appreciate then was that his stories of living in a mining camp and the shadowgee sparked the beginning of what turned into a lifelong fascination with mining.

Today my grandfather is gone. My mother is gone too. The other day I was going through some of my mother’s boxes. I opened a cardboard box and saw a real treasure, a shadowgee—a battered tin can that was an affectionate throwback to the world of my grandfather. It brought me back, forty-nine years ago, to that moment when I first learned about the shadowgee, now a symbol of my grandfather and an intensity of life, a time of stories and where I could really relate to someone, a time before distractions of smart phones and other technology.
I know the time my grandfather spent with me enfolded me into something larger than myself. I emerged changed—nearer the person I longed to be. In this way he reshaped and repurposed my life, just like the tobacco can being made into lanterns—something better. I carefully put the shadowgee back in the box, and smiled.


  1. This was a delightful read. Thank you for sharing your memory.

  2. Lovely memory, Stephen. That shadowgee is still showing you the way in life... The watercolor is gorgeous too.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this and your kind comments.

  3. Nice work Veatch. You've come a long way since your days as CEO/Czar of the "Wade School". "Get the Money!" "I worked it!" "Moe, I cut off my head!"

    1. The Wade School was a happening concept of higher education.

  4. Steven just reading a book called Abandon which speaks about Shadowgee on googling it lead me this lovely reminiscent blog. What wonderful happy memories it must have evoked in your retelling. Also I now know at first hand what a " Shadowgee" is. Many thanks Steve ....

  5. Thanks for the kind comments John.