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