Mention the name Tino Guiterrez to almost any artist in Helper, and they know he is the man who knows all the great stories and history of the town. Tino owns and operated the Regis Club on Main Street.
“Helper didn’t die when the coal mines closed; it died when the last brothel closed in 1976.” According to Gutierrez, after police began cracking down and closing all the brothels in other cities, Helper continued to run theirs, thanks to the protection from local businessman Matt Starr. Gutierrez says that Starr knew all the politicians, police chiefs, and DAs in Salt Lake City, and he protected all five brothels in Helper from the authorities until the day he died. After Starr’s death, the brothels began closing in the early 1970s.
Our conversation changed from coal mining to whoring as if the two industries relied and thrived on each other. Guiterrez said that as a boy growing up in Helper he knew the ladies working at the houses and they were always friendly. Guiterrez recounted, “I once saw Judge Willis Ritter (a good Mormon) get into a limousine. And do you know who I saw in the backseat? It was Rampton himself [former Utah Governor Calvin Rampton that is]. The residents of Helper knew why they were really there, but they kept a tight lid on what happened, because they were all aware of the economic importance of the brothels to the town.
The coal miners provided a steady stream of customers for the brothels and the brothels brought a steady stream of “hunting trips” from Salt Lake City. When most of the mines, “hired scab workers,” (non-union labor), the mines began cutting corners and closing due to safety issues. Actor John Wayne owned a non-union mine in Helper, and Guiterrez said John Wayne personally visited the town to promote the concept of non-union labor, which Guiterez said was the beginning of the end. Guiterez’s father was a miner his entire life, and he never abandoned the Union.
Helper Theater owner Don Howerton described mining as “an industry of constant exploitation of immigrants. First it was the Italians, and then the Czechs and Chinese, and today it’s the Mexicans. It’s all about business owners cutting corners on safety to make a buck.”
It’s clear that the Crandell Canyon mine collapse in 1997 that entombed 9 workers is still in the psyches of the residents of Helper and they blame the non-union labor and the manner in which non-union mine owners buy off the UMS (Utah mine safety inspectors) to fraudulently sign off on safety hazards that are in blatant violation of codes.
The worst mine disaster in Carbon County history was around the turn of the century when 300 workers were killed in an explosion. Mine collapses and problems have continued, but according to Gutierrez and several other bar patrons, the mines that have been in operation since all but two union mines closed are always in serious risk of disaster. §