Friday, April 1, 2011

Working in a coal mine...

Today we took a class to the Beckley Coal Mine Museum in Beckley, West Virigina. Of course, it was snowing. Lots. This is a photo from their webpage that gives a deceptive look at the weather... but, anyhow...

It was a fascinating trip. We toured the mine in coal cars! The exhibits included a well restored coal school (for the miners' children), the church, the superindentent's house, a single man's house, and a married family man's house. Coal was king in this part of the world and miners worked hard for very little. It is true that they "owed their soul to the company store." They were paid in script, which was company money, and it was only good in the company store. Why they couldn't even tithe with it as the church would not accept it!

If a man were killed in the mine, his family would have two weeks to leave their home, which was owned by the company, unless there was another male family member to take the dead man's place. As in every other part of the U.S., women had no rights at all in the mining community. Everything centered around the man and his relationship with the company. Women had to make do with very little for their families as every item in the company store was marked up. Usually workers ended up owing money at the end of the week or brought home less than a dollar.

The Union came into this region in the 1920s and organized the workers so they would earn a better wage and to break the company structure -- home ownership and script. And, provide for much safer mines for the workers. Workers were typically paid 20-cents per ton. Most miners earned $2 a day in 1920. Do the math. Isn't that tragic??

Although we live less than 100 miles from the mines, most of our students had no idea about the extreme hardships these people faced. It is a powerful thing to connect with one's culture. Trust me, I think a bus load of students returned home feeling pretty doggone blessed! I did!

Enjoy Tennesse Ernie Ford singing "16 Tons" with some great photos of actual miners!


  1. Thanks for this post Matty. When my grandfather's family immigrated from Italy my great-grandfather worked the mines. They had a small farm too. My great-grandfather died of "coal miner's disease", basically respiratory failure when my grandfather was 14. My great Nana didn't want her boys working the mines so she sent them up North to do construction then came along herself. She had 7 kids and came up North after the boys sent enough money. My relatives are still near the mines and my great-grandmother owned a little dress shop in what is now a ghost town I am told. Our W. Virginia relatives always invite us down when they come up here each year for our family reunion--I hope to make the trip one day:-)

  2. That was such a hard life. It's good to remind the younger generation what true hardship is, and what was the original intention of labor unions.

  3. Such an informative post Matty. Thank you for sharing some of the things you and your students saw on the trip. A lot of this was new to me as well, having originally grown up in California. It does teach us to be thankful for those who came before, and to never forget their sacrifices.


Thanks for dropping in on the farm today! I enjoy your comments!