The life and times of Tom Varner

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The early days in Gilpin County

By Jaclyn Schrock

With retirement, the Varner’s made their move to Colorado, September 18, 1993. Tita enjoyed the area in the 30s and Tom in the 40s. Tom and Tita Varner settled into Gilpin County while in their 60s. They became the third owners of a home near the corner of Hwy 46 and Hwy 119. 1980 is when their log home was first built and lived in only two years, then sat empty for four years. The next owner had it six years then developed health problems. Moving into Gilpin County in 1993, they knew there was much work to do on the property.

The home owners insurance required them to clear all vegetation 30 feet around the home. Tom did that work himself, using the trees to make split rail fencing along 48 feet on both sides of the driveway. Tom and Tita redid all the caulking and chinking between the logs in 1996. Later, the power company took out many more trees by the power line, but left the remains. Much help from friends and neighbors was appreciated to clear out that mess. Fire wood was gathered and stacked, and it took 80 pickup truck loads to get the slash hauled to the Gilpin Slash site.

For many winter seasons they used a snow blower to clear a path into the home. Tita wanted to keep things rustic in their cabin, so she insisted on a dirt driveway. Tom struggled to make the snow blower work safely, but after Tita passed, he paved the driveway which works much better for him now.

A bedroom still has delicate white crocheted curtains and bed covering in the room Tita’s mother stayed in until they could not care for her anymore. The porcelain painted sign on the door says Little Adeline, which is what her grandson called her.

There is a lovely rock stream and pond just off the back porch. The back porch is nearly at ground level, snuggled into the mountain side. The water feature was a birthday and Christmas present one year for Tita.

Tom Varner Jr. was born the first week of February 1927 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His mother, Mae and dad, Tom Varner Sr., welcomed their first child where winters are bitterly cold. His dad worked as the mechanics service manager for fleet cars. Since their teens, Mae was friends with a gal who also had a baby about the same time. They would meet in the park to care for their children. Tom slept with Tita, his future wife, the first time, 90 years ago, in the baby buggy. Tom says he told his dad, “That is the one for me, the one in the baby buggy.”

When little Tita was three, they were in the school yard playing. Another boy took a stick and was hitting Tita. Young Tom took the stick away from the boy and began to hit him with it before his dad came to break it up.

Soon after that “heroic” incident, Tita’s dad moved her family to Denver, to pastor a church. Living in Colorado, Tita’s family came to prefer winters that were not as harsh as the winters of Wisconsin.

Tom had a brother 3 1/2 years younger than he. Tom called him mom’s pet. Tom learned from his parents to value and save every penny, while his brother would spend everything he found on candy.

Some neighbors had radios, and those that did would listen to live musical shows and weekly live dramatized stories along with the news and advertisements. Tom was like most boys in Waukesha, Wisconsin in the 1930’s. World War I was over, and the Great Depression had left many struggling to make ends meet. Life was simple, because it was rare to have luxury.

Most people were scraping by, so valued what they could hold onto. No one had much money, so they made their own fun with their imagination, and the few things that they found lying around. The village developed young boys and girls who were respectful, responsible, and trustworthy, developing social and emotional skills demonstrated by good manners and morals; learned by experience despite a hard life at times.

The children played outside until the street lights came on, and they would get drinks out of the hose. They could play kick the can with a stick. Summer and winter, everyone went outdoors.

One day, Tom was playing hide and seek with the neighborhood children. Tom was hiding in a garage, when Tita came out to play. Of course he noticed her, and she noticed him! It turns out Tita’s dad had been re-assigned to an independent Christian Church back home!

Now that the Tom and Tita were in junior high school together, neither had much interest in any other classmates. They each had friends, but they only dated each other.

Tom, at age 14 began helping his dad an hour each day after school and four hours on Saturday, without pay. He return he got hands-on experience with mechanics in the garage, learning the trade.

In 1945, Tom went into military service for two years, with the army. He first came to Colorado in 1945 for training as a Medical Technician with Fitzsimmons Hospital. He loved Colorado, and it stayed in his memory even after serving in hospitals all over the country. The war was changing.  Germany quit, but Japan was still going. Tom was in Norfolk, Virginia waiting to get on a hospital ship. It took six days to cross the US in train coach cars, because the military no longer had priority on the rails after the war. He was going to Tokyo, where he served with the 64th Battalion in the Core of Engineers. They were married after Tom was out of the service on October 15, 1951.

After the Army, Tom studied in Metropolitan Theological Seminary. MTS was part of the church Tita’s father pastored. MTS had their own writers, printing press and operations to publish and distribute evangelistic materials, so that others could learn to know Jesus as their Savior. Young people in the seminary would stay in the homes of the Deacons while studying. Upon graduation, they would sell the printed materials to gain support for the ministry. Young missionaries would sell mostly children’s books as well as work with Sunday School before going to foreign countries to help with church planting and development.

Tom attended Metropolitan Seminary Bible School (MSBS). Missionary training took people to Northern and Southern India, South Africa, the Virgin Islands, South America, Scotland, and Mexico.

Tom and his wife, who spoke Spanish, went to Mexico two times a year to help with maintenance and/or construction projects, returning to the areas they had helped turn an empty building into an orphanage. Tom would work with indoor and outdoor plumbing projects, electrical wiring and more. Often, they worked at the orphanage in Mexico. The Mexico trips were always very special times for them. The children all needed hugs, and they were always welcomed as their best friends.

Sadly, only the Varners continued those mission trips to Mexico. 2003 was the last time they made the trip together. Tom, however has continued to make the trip as often as he can. 2017 was the last time he went, finding it harder to work a full day, even though he is capable and willing to help his Mexican friends.

After completing his Seminary Training, Tom didn’t want to work in the cold winters of Wisconsin, so he left to work in a factory for about six months. Later, he worked in a Desoto/ Plymouth dealership. Next he went on to work in the electrical division of General Motors in Milwaukee, then called AC Spark Plugs. This position used Tom’s expertise as one of the foreman with the Apollo Mission Projects, so he contributed the success which allowed the United States to complete the first trip to the moon! Tom was able to move his family and career to the San Fernando Valley. Tom worked for various electronic companies including, Electronic Specialty in Semi Valley. The Varners called California home for 28 years. Quite an exciting career!

Tom and Tita raised three children, two girls and a boy. They also had six grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and two great, great grandchildren.

Back in the 70s, the only way to get home was either through Crawford Gulch or Hwy 119. Golden Gate Canyon road did not connect over Michigan Hill until 1980. There were very few neighbors then – there are a lot more people now. Before Casinos, there was a gas station in Black Hawk where Bullwhackers was, which is now Z’s Casino. We said we lived near Central City, because most people knew where that was, rather than Black Hawk. There were even shops and restaurants for locals and tourists to get treats. There were quite a few bars in Central City and a couple in Black Hawk. There were summer celebrations and parades for the Opera House opening. An art school and a trailer park were near where Richman Road now comes to Main Street in Black Hawk. Dory Hill road was not passable by many vehicles in those days. There were piles of mine tailings everywhere, and equipment abandoned in all sorts of unlikely places. There were even steam shovels in North Clear Creek from dredging operations.

Trees were making a healthy forest, recovering from the timbering operations to support the mines and mills and homes abandoned by WWI. The trees were not as big as they are now. Golden Gate State Park was just beginning, and has grown since then as many have donated properties to the park, or to Jefferson County.  Trails, campgrounds and roads were built, with a newer visitor’s center.

The fire lookout station was still being used that we now pass, inactive, on the way to Rollinsville. There were also shops in Rollinsville as well as many more miners’ remains there.

Tom and Tita have attended the Evangelical Free Church in Black Hawk, when not visiting grandchildren. The last 15 years without Tita has certainly changed his life. Tom is content in his home with the dolls. He is actively caring for his home, able to get around well. You may see Tom out and about working in his yard, getting wood ready for winter to keep himself active.

He did trade in his truck for a car recently to have better options for getting around, not needing to haul things like he did in the truck. His eye sight has been well improved to see details and colors with cataract surgery in late July this year. He also participates in the Senior Program lunches at the community center. We appreciate the ways he has contributed to our nation’s history and been a good citizen in our little Gilpin County. We hope your enjoy many more days of good health.

The Dolls

Many folks in Gilpin County came to know the precious dolls Tita created. She first began painting china with a group of seniors in Wisconsin in the 60s. As a young girl, Tita never could forgive her friend who dropped and broke her china doll while carrying it as they played together. She has another in a wicker baby carriage, very similar to her lost doll, which Tom got for her after she had made a number of original porcelain dolls.

Once they moved from Wisconsin to California, she began to create dolls, and painting their delicate faces. She designed and made the patterns creating limited-edition sculptured dolls. Tom made the mold for the porcelain dolls she designed. A neighbor sewed professionally and encouraged Tita to make her dolls clothing, by providing a quick stitching machine. The finished doll often had blue ribbons to decorate them. She made over 20 original dolls which were recognized as having a high value, but there were also many reproductions made. The Doll Dorm in their home has fewer “original” residents today, but there are still many that came to join Tita Varner’s Dolls which were traded at doll shows.

Tita battled cancer about 10 years after moving to Gilpin County. In 2003, the Varners lost their beloved Tita. The family gathered in the home in Black Hawk, and each of the three children was able to choose which original doll they would keep to remember their mother. Tom still does enjoy having many of the reproductions, having worked together with his wife to create the originals. He still has three of the originals, all with high emotional and collector value.

Queen Esther is one of the original dolls Tom has kept in her grandeur, standing in a glass case. When reproductions of Queen Esther were sold at a high price, a paperback book with her story was given to the buyer. Queen Esther’s story is told in the Old Testament of the Bible. She was a Jewish orphan, but was chosen because of her beauty to marry King Ahasuerus, who reigned in Persia. She was placed in her position by God, able to courageously help save the Jewish people from being destroyed by one of the king’s managers who hated the Jews, not knowing the queen was a Hebrew orphan. Another Persian King original porcelain doll, King Xerxes, got his body proportions from Tom’s own body as Tita wrapped him to make a mold of the proportions, and then reduce them to size as desired.

The Joker is another original porcelain doll who stands on a mirror in a glass case. In his golden glimmer he is poised in a jester of merriment. His story comes from Greek Mythology, as he had an affair, a forbidden romance with Columbine, a woman of royalty.

The third original Tom kept is the precious doll baby in the carriage, like Tita’s from her childhood.

4 recommended
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