Mike Mancini: Keeper of the Keno City flame

Kathy and I recently visited the Keno City Museum in search of the quintessential artifact — something from the collection that defines the essence of the community.

Kathy and I recently visited the Keno City Museum in search of the quintessential artifact — something from the collection that defines the essence of the community. Mike Mancini was waiting for us by the museum when we arrived.

The Keno City Museum is comprised of a number of buildings in which historical artifacts from the museum collection are on display. But the central part of the exhibit is found in the building once known as Jackson Hall. The building itself was once a hotel in Dawson City, but it was rebuilt in Keno in the early 1920s as a community hall for social events, showing movies and holding dances.

The early Polk’s directories help to tell the story of Keno City. In 1915, the town did not exist. Mayo consisted of about 200 people, while Dawson City had 2,500-3,000 inhabitants. Keno was born around 1920; by 1925, Dawson had shrunk to a mere 1,000 souls, while the new Mayo/Keno mining district consisted of 1,200 people, eager to cash in on the new discoveries, or find work.

The district became a beehive of activity, with communities like Wernecke Camp, Calumet, Elsa and Keno City growing and shrinking, depending on the adjacent mining activity. When the Keno Hill mine shut down around 1990, the population dwindled to a few dozen committed individuals. The museum become one of the major focal points of the community.

We marveled at how much the museum had matured since we first saw it several decades ago. The two floors of the building are filled with artifacts, assembled into interesting exhibits pertaining to mining, domestic life, social life, and recreation.

The first item that Mike showed me was the “Rosebud Trolley,” a quirky contrivance created by an Elsa Electrician named Brian Vernon, who was known as a tinkerer. Looking for something to stave off boredom in the isolated mining camp at Elsa, he acquired a trolley from the cafeteria at the United Keno Hill mine and quickly remade it into his own Rube Goldberg device.

Vernon mounted a vice on the flat top surface, and installed drawers below into which he could cache various bits and pieces. To liven up the drawers, and the trolley, he attached maker’s tags and serial number plates from various pieces of old machinery manufactured by General Electric, Ingersoll-Rand, and a host of others. Vernon also wired the trolley up for electricity, installed a flashing light and a telephone, so that he could be readily reached in case of electrical emergencies.

Mike took us upstairs and showed us the various movie posters which were acquired with permission from Johnny Galitis, who ran the electrical shop, as well as the projector when movies were shown in town.

The domestic display was assembled piece by piece from donations by various people in the community. Mike found the old treadle sewing machine at the dump. The hutch came from a friend living down the road. The yellow drop-leaf table came from Father Huijbers, the Catholic Priest in Mayo. Mike had fun developing the display, with technical help from Sally Robinson, who was then working for the Yukon Historic Sites Branch.

Mike credited the efforts of Drago Kokanov, who worked at Elsa, and a group of geologists, most notably Terry Levicki, for getting the museum started in the first place. They collected things from the dump, from abandoned mining camps, and by donation from former residents.

In recent years, Mike has met many of these former residents who have returned to the abandoned mining camps on trips of nostalgia. Seeing what the museum has been doing to save the history of the region, they have shared their memories and added their personal memorabilia to the collection.

Mancini is the ideal sort of person to meet with such visitors. Though born in Italy, he came to Canada when he was quite young, when his father came to work here. Mike grew up in the Elsa/Mayo district, and remembers the place as an energetic community.

As a youngster in the 1960s and 1970s, he spent time haunting a certain local restaurant operated by an Italian family. Sitting on one of the stools, he said, he would listen to the miners regale him with stories of the “good old days,” and watch the hippies come in and play the jukebox.

Mike recalls watching movies in Jackson Hall. The chimney from the stove on the floor below passed through the second floor theatre. The smoke emitted from the leaky stovepipe added a sense of reality to the gunfights portrayed on the screen in some of the westerns.

Mike’s special gift is his ability to transform the inanimate objects into meaningful memories and events. In essence, he is their spokesman and advocate, adding a vital layer of understanding to the stories they convey. Without him, they are merely interesting curiosities.

Over the years, he tells me, he has seen the mining camps flourish and then die. When the camps shut down, residents abandoned the place in a hurry, leaving many things behind. From these things the museum has been able to assemble one of the largest collections in the territory.

He shares a cautionary note though: contemporaries of his father are in their late 80s and even 90s, and their memories are fading. He has seen many of them pass away in the last year. When they are gone, so are their memories. Similarly, as the camps are shut down and abandoned, they fall victim to decay and vandalism. Many objects are taken away, while other artifacts and the buildings are simply bulldozed out of existence.

As the memories fade and the voices fall silent, he stresses how important is the responsibility to gather together the objects, and even more important, to collect the stories. That responsibility has fallen upon his shoulders and those of others.

“We’re the keepers of the flame,” he says. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time.”

And so, for the Keno City Museum, if you ask me what is the quintessential artifact in the collection, I would have to respond that it is not what, but who. Mike Mancini and other dedicated keepers of the flame are keeping the memories alive.

Why not visit the Keno City Museum and learn for yourself?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net