Sunday, May 9, 2010

Loading Sixteen Tons

You load sixteen tons and what do you get.

Another day older and deeper in debt.

St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go.

I owe my soul to the company store.

The song, Sixteen Tons, recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1950, grew in such popularity in West Virginia and Southeastern Kentucky it made Ford’s name a household word and the song an instant hit. Because so many miners were working in mines that had few federal regulations for safety or fair treatment, the song held a core deep truth miners identified with. At that time the labor unions were in existence but did little to protest how the work force they represented were treated or even paid. So the mines paid their workers in what the miners called scrip.

Scrip was paper or metal tokens the mine owners printed up or had fashioned to pay their miners instead of money. They didn’t want to keep cash on hand and it was more convenient for them to cheat miners if they paid him in scrip. If the miner requested currency for his scrip they only paid him 50- 80 cents for each scrip dollar he earned. At a dollar a day salary his 30 dollars a month could suddenly became 15.

The mine had a company store or commissary where the miners could buy groceries and other necessities. The prices were jacked up so that the scrip they were paid covered little of the cost, so they ran a tab and paid it by having what they owed deducted from their next months wages. Thus the lyrics for “I owe my soul to the company store.”

What kind of man would work a job, still high risk today, but life threatening day in day out then, for 15 dollars a month?

The same kind who do it today. A man who wants to feed his family, who wants to remain independent, who has pride in who he is.

In this depressed economy, the areas of Southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia, the mining areas of those two states, remain much as they were back in the 1950’s. Technology has advanced, and federal regulations are put in place to try and protect the workforce, but in light of the most current tragedy in West Virginia, it just isn’t enough.

And why do the men keep going into a black, close pit day in and day out? For the same reasons they did then. To make a living. To try and put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads. And because there is no other work to be had in the areas where they live. Which brings to mind another song.

I'm workin' in a coal mine

Goin' down down down

Workin' in a coal mine

Whop! about to slip down

Workin' in a coal mine

Goin' down down down

Workin' in a coal mine

Whop! about to slip down

Five o'clock in the mornin'

I'm all ready up and gone

Lord I am so tired

How long can this go on?

My Great Grandfather, Alexander Huff, was a miner, as was his son Henry who was crushed to death by a runaway coal car in a coal mine in Verda, Kentucky.

My Great Grandparents lived in the coal mining camp housing in Verda their entire lives. Their home was a luxurious 4 room wood frame house with 2 fireplaces, one in the living room, which also contained two double beds, and one in their bedroom. In the 3rd room lived my great grandmother’s disabled brother Lincoln who suffered from severe epilepsy. The fourth room was the kitchen. In that four room house, my great grandparents raised eleven children and cared for Lincoln.

Ma’am (Sarah) was a school teacher and Dad (Alex) a coalminer, with a taste for A& P 8 O’clock coffee. Because he was paid in scrip, the coal mine he worked for expected him to buy everything from the company store. But Dad didn’t like the coffee they sold so he demanded to be paid in cash so he could go to Evarts and buy the coffee he liked. When the foreman of the mine found out he was spending money somewhere besides the company store, he fired him.

Big mistake. My grandfather was 6’2, 190 pounds. And considered a giant at that time. The work being done during Dad’s shift at the mine suddenly took a nose dive and the foreman realized that instead of making an example of my grandfather, he had suddenly cut his workforce by a quarter. He came to Dad and magnanimously offered him his job back. With thirteen mouths to feed, Dad had little choice, so he returned.

Years later, when most of his children were teenagers, a roof fall ended his job as a miner. He broke his back and was never able to mine again. For his years of labor, he received no pension, but a monthly $88.00 disability check from the state.

My grandfather started out as a miner, but when falling rock crushed his left foot, he never returned to the mines. Instead, he drove for the VCT bus lines from Harlan to Evarts and back again. He later bought a service station and finished out his working life as a mechanic. No, disability check for him.

My dad was first a Marine and then a Coal Miner. After 23 years in the military he retired in 1970 and went back to school on the GI Bill. He worked first for US Steel, and then when they were sold to Arch Mineral, continued with them for a combined 25 years. His lungs were damaged by black lung before he retired.

My brother worked summers in the mines to make money for living expenses and partial tuition while he went to school at the University of South Florida to earn a degree in Marine Biology. His classmates nicknamed him Miner when they discovered what he was doing every summer.

My uncle crawled on his hands and knees into deep mines for many years working on their machinery and as one of the mining work force, he finished his mining career as a mine inspector. He too suffers from black lung.

I’m sharing this history of one families’ legacy in mining to make a point. Southeastern Kentucky’s depressed economy offers few jobs that pay enough to keep a family solvent. A mining community is much like an ecosystem. The mine is the major contributor to the livelihood of the community with the better paying jobs. If you had to make a choice between flipping burgers at the nearest fast food joint for minimum wage or walking into a mine every day at five in the morning to make a decent living, which would you chose?

Each one of the men in my family were faced with that decision. And each decided to do what they had to do to keep their family fed and sheltered

There’s a pride and a brotherhood shared by all miners. They do a job that serves us all. And they risk their lives to do it. It’s the coal they’ve dug from the earth that helps create our electricity. Think about that each time you turn on a light. And thank a miner.

Yeah I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter

To all those families of the miners who lost their lives in the Big Branch Mine explosion, may God bless you and keep you and yours. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Teresa Reasor


Cheryl said...

Hi Teresa,

My husband's family is from West Virginia. His dad was a miner and died of black lung. His mom lost her father and a brother in mining accidents. There is no work anywhere any more dangerous than that. My heart just aches for those families that recently lost their men in the mining accident in WV. Very very sad. Thanks for your post. The history of coal mining is fascinating. There was a special on PBS or A&E about mining and WV and they had actual footage of the mining strikes back in the the 20's and 30's and how the term "redneck" came into being. VERY interesting. Thanks so much for this post. I really enjoyed it, and it was nice to get to know more about you.

Happy Mother's Day.


Teresa Reasor said...

Thanks for posting. I agree, mining is one of the most dangerous jobs. And I'm so sorry for your families losses.

There's a whole history about Harlan, Kentucky, my home town, and the labor unions. Men got blacklisted by the mining bosses if they were members of the labor union and they couldn't get work. It took President Hoover's stepping in to end the strikes and the bloodshed in Harlan County. The area is still called Bloody Harlan on occassion because of what transpired during that time.

Thanks so much for commenting.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Hi Teresa

I really enjoyed reading this post. What a hard life your menfolk had (and I'm sure the womenfolk as well). Some years ago I wrote a series of oral histories. All the old people I interviewed, men and women, had such hard lives and few material possessions compared to what most households take for granted these days. Thanks for sharing this moving post and writing about the pride you feel for your family.

Annabelle Ambrosio said...

I enjoyed reading your blog about the mining and your family. My one son-in-law's grandfather worked in a Pa. mine and his mother talks about the "company store" and how they owned the people. I do hope things are better today.
Thanks for sharing this.
Ann Ambrosio

Nina Pierce said...

It's such a hard life, but a proud legacy to be sure. I live among potato farmers who are really struggling in this economy. Great post!

gaygezunt said...

Brava, Teresa,

I'm a coal miner's granddaughter and great-granddaughter. My grandpa survived the Cherry Mine Disaster 100 years ago (Cherry is 90 miles southwest of Chicago. His 18 year-old cousin and 258 other men and boys and a good number of mules lost their lives in that burning mine.

Cherry still stands as our country's worst coal fire and as its third worst coal disaster of any kind.

Every time I hear news of another mine accident, my chest tightens and I pray for the miners and their families. In 100 years, not much has changed but the rescue equipment. At Cherry, 21 men holed themselves up at the back of the mine, barricading themselves in against the poisonous gases, and walked out alive eight days later.

Half of our electricity still comes from coal, and today women also are going into the pitch blackness many feet below ground or many feet into a mountainside to bring it out.

God bless the miners and their families, and keep them safe. With every accident, I pray that if 100 years ago 21 plucky miners survived without food or water, there will be similar miracles today.

Karen Tintori
TRAPPED: THE 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

j j said...

Your family pride shines in this blog. Congratulations to your family for surviving during harsh working conditions.


Teresa Reasor said...

Thank you ladies for commenting on my blog!
I thought I'd add to it because the story isn't finished.
There's a wealth of history that people aren't even aware of there.

Write on,
Teresa R.

Lise said...

Teresa, what a poignant and beautiful history! Thank you for sharing - from a coal-miner's granddaughter. My grandfather was a coal miner in Scranton, PA before he passed away at aged 70, in 1970. He'd ended up a foreman and my Mother recalls the nights he would come home and sit at the kitchen table and cry, because he'd lost a man in the mine, and because he'd had to go and tell the families. He was too old during WWII (his son joined the marines at 19 and was at some of the major island battles in the Pacific). But he kept working at the mine and as it was supporting the war effort, he received extra gas and other rationed coupons. He was part Scot, part Welsh, and he hand relatives just a generation or two before back in Wales who worked in the mines as young children. My mother always uses the tale of one little girl, my Grandfather's great aunt, who'd been working in the mines since age 5. My mother says whenever her life got hard or she thought she couldn't take it any more, she would think of the little girl, every day, going down into the mines and said, "If that little girl can do it, so can I".

I'm proud to be the daughter of a coal miner's daughter.

In memory of all those in the most recent mine disaster, and all disasters like this which can, and should, be preventable.

Teresa Reasor said...

Thanks so much for reading my blog and commenting. I'm glad you found it interesting. And I'm sooo glad you added your own family history for all to read!!