A century or more ago, an unnamed writer began a poem by stating, “Life is a mill and men the ore, roughest of rock may hold in store; the silver of love and the gold of truth, metals of strength and lasting truth.”
These first lines, published in the “Mining and Industrial News,” seem appropriate when remembering the life of Tom Hendricks. “Miner Tom,” as he liked to be called, died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 70 on Jan. 6.
As old-time Boulder County obituary writers used to state, he “went over the range.”
I first met Hendricks in 1981 when I interviewed him for a Camera feature story on his mining and milling activities. He was optimistic and enthusiastic about having recently reopened the Cross Mine, near the ghost town of Caribou, west of Nederland. By the early 1980s, gold had jumped from $42 to $673 per ounce, and several hard-rock mines were in varying stages of development in Boulder County. (Currently, gold is more than $1,500 per ounce.)
Hendricks said he started mining with a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a credit card. While still in his mid-20s, he hired a small mine crew who helped him drill and blast rock. When the dust settled, the crew mucked (removed) the ore. They repeated the process over and over again.
Always environmentally conscious, Hendricks gave the Boulder County Commissioners monthly updates. One time, all were astounded when the water discharge from his mine exceeded drinking water standards.
During my first interview with Hendricks, I quickly learned that he took every opportunity to learn from old-timer miners and incorporate their passion. At the time, he was trucking his gold and silver ores to the former Allied Chemical Mill, at Valmont, east of Boulder. For milling advice, he relied upon Al McGowen, a retired mine and mill superintendent who had learned his skills from yet another generation of miners who had preceded him.
Like McGowen, Hendricks also was generous in sharing his knowledge with those to follow. He led many thousands of his peers and young people through sometimes-wet underground adits (tunnels). Usually, he preceded his tours with detailed accounts of early Caribou, located at 10,000 feet and first settled in the 1870s by hardy miners and their families, some who had relocated all the way from Cornwall, England.
Hendricks also liked to pepper his tours with personal anecdotes, such as the time he gave a tour to actress and supermodel Margaux Hemingway. “She gave me a kiss, and I didn’t wash my face for a week,” he told me later.
For decades, Hendricks kept on mining and continued even after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. On a sunny but cold January day, his family and friends laid him to rest in the Caribou Cemetery, within sight of the Continental Divide. The setting is one that he loved, but everyone knew he’d rather be mining.
The anonymous writer from a long time ago finished his poem with sentiments that encompass both Hendricks and his predecessors by stating, “When I’m through and the cleanup is weighed, I hope there’s an honest profit paid. May the mill-man speak not of laurels won, but simply say, ‘Twas a good mill run.’”