JAMESTOWN – For a few precious hours every Saturday night, Jamestown, in the foothills of the Rockies, looks more like it did before the floods.
Those who stayed after September’s devastation and those who had to leave for rental homes in nearby Boulder return once a week to the Jamestown Mercantile – the town’s meeting place for more than 100 years – to eat together. Then, they push back the tables to dance to live music.
And this fall, as the cleanup and rebuilding continue, the gatherings have been a place to give thanks.
“Everybody just walks through there with the biggest smile on their face,” owner Rainbow Shultz said of “the Merc,” which boasts of having served miners, painted ladies and horse thieves in its early days.
The storm destroyed a fifth of the former mining town’s homes and both bridges over Little James Creek. During the week, federal aid workers outnumber residents and lines of trucks hauling away tons of debris pass down the main street.
Before the flood, finding community was easy in the town of 300, something people say made the town more than just another scenic spot. Residents never hesitated to ask their neighbors for help, and it wasn’t hard to run across someone telling an interesting story.
Karen Zupko, who lost most of her house to the waters, said parties started easily. Whenever she and her neighbor pulled up chairs to a bridge over the creek with some cheese, crackers and something to drink, others were bound to join them.
Jamestown’s children were tight too, attending classes in a small schoolhouse.
The flood cut off access to the school and split those children up. Six students now attend classes in Boulder, where their parents moved. But the community worked to keep the remaining students in Jamestown together.
For several weeks, 15 students studied in the living and dining room of one student’s home, then moved to a Christian retreat center. A holiday play uniting all the students is one of several programs planned to keep them connected in the coming weeks.
“I feel like they’re growing up with a family of 300 people watching them,” said Shultz, who has lived in town for 12 years and has two children, aged 3 and 6.
Oak Chezar, a writer, teacher and performance artist, said she used to socialize in Boulder more before the flood but now feels more like staying with people who survived together.
Nowadays, residents do what they did back when Joe Howlett owned the Merc.
Howlett was considered the patriarch of Jamestown, played Santa Claus at the Merc and he led a marching kazoo band at the town’s annual Fourth of July parade. He died when a mudslide slammed into his home during the flood and his death has left a big hole in the community.
Shultz, who bought the store from him in 2010, is trying to keep the same spirit he brought to the gatherings at the Merc. She only accepts donations, saying it wasn’t fair to charge people when they’ve lost so much. She’s taken in enough to keep the place open once a week.
Last Saturday, people crowded at the tiny bar and around wooden tables – some pushed together – to eat large plates of Indian food cooked by Shultz. People, including the town’s mayor, talked, laughed and ate as about a half dozen kids ran around, some of them playing with takeout boxes.
Shultz and her husband, Adam Burrell, served the food and drinks.
Chezar, a former employee who volunteered to bus tables, is organizing a Thanksgiving dinner for over 30 people at the Merc with food provided by a church. She also hopes she and the residents of about 20 homes staying through the winter will create a musical about the town and the flood.
Michael Brotherton, a woodworker and musician who has lived in town for 27 years, said lots of places try but fail to be the authentic gathering place that the Merc is. “The Merc never tried to be anything other than a service to this community,” he said.
Someone clinked on their glass and then everyone lifted their glasses to toast Shultz shortly before an indie rock band, squeezed into a spot by the storefront, started to play.
The kids were the first to start dancing.