What could be more boring to some of you than talking about dirty, black dust smudged coal miners exiting a filthy, death trap of a mine day after endless day? Why go there with one of your stories, TradeBait? I have better things to do like walking the dog, staining the deck, and washing the dishes.
One reason to read this may be because the America we know was built on their backs, among other important We the People working family occupations. Another reason may be that the attitudes that developed out of those mine workers and families are at the center of the debate on who America really is and wants to be.
For it all to make the most sense as I introduce the people in each story, I need to give you a piece of me and mine, make it personal, and somewhat of a ground report from back then.
I will spend very little time on the science aspect of coal. We have scientists and science lovers on here who probably know the subject well who can discuss in better detail than me. Just know that over one third of the world’s primary energy is created with it as well as one fourth of the world’s electricity. Also know that due to its intense heating capacity, coke, has been used for many years in steel and iron making. Most of all know that America has the biggest known coal reserves in the world – #1 with #2 China being around half as much. When you add in our radically understated oil and natural gas reserves it is clear we have everything we need to handle energy needs for many centuries while other technologies are being developed sufficiently to transition away seamlessly if and when it might become necessary.
Which we know is NOT happening. Why? That question will be addressed in this author’s opinion in another part in the series. For now, let’s develop the personal side of the subject story series.
I had an aunt, my father’s sister, who was a very intelligent educator. She graduated from East Tennessee State College (now University) during WW II and the University of KY (Masters) after the war was over. She taught history and civics in northern Kentucky high schools along with being an Assistant Principal of a large high school until retirement. She was a lifelong, dyed in the wool, FDR worshipping, the federal government is the answer to everything, teachers’ union is good, C-Span is my entertainment of choice, mix of southern and northern Democrat – member of that side of my father’s family. Going to church was not on her and my uncle’s agenda even though she was baptized in the same coal mining camp town as my father.
My father was the polar opposite. He went to Lincoln Memorial College (now University) in the middle of Coal Country before and the University of Tennessee after the war for civil engineering – one of that school’s core educational fields for a century. I will expand on the reasoning for that statement about UT in a later BIMD story.
Dad graduated from the International School of Mining after that and become a licensed surveyor and engineer as he progressed. He was conservative in many things, played semi-pro baseball in the coal camp leagues and was a GOP supporter, except when it came to Truman. Since he served in the Naval Air Force in the Pacific theater of the war, he was very happy with the decision to atomic bomb the hell out of the Japanese and end it. That made President Truman a big deal in his eyes because he was growing weary of the fight and wanted to go home and get on with his life. He thought it better to end it quickly than slog it out for the same result in a couple of years. You could say he was one of the America First supporters of his day.
He had turned his safety over to God during the war. Upon his return and later marriage to my mother, they joined a church and got my sister and I involved. His first major job in his area of expertise after marriage was after they left Coal Country in 1950 when the mines where he worked were sold and shuttered. He was employed on a survey team that worked on the construction of a large DOD facility on the Ohio River. He knew why it was going there and was proud of the work that lasted four years at that location.
My aunt and father would have some dandy “discussions” that I would just sit and listen to with interest growing up. She was not belligerent in stating her views at all. She would make her case in measured tones, but was unyielding. If she disagreed with Dad she would grin and shake her head “no”. He would pick at her to probe her weak spots to see if he could get her agitated. Then he would use humor. He was unyielding as well. They both knew neither would give in or agree. Yet, even with their immense differences, they loved each other with all of their hearts and souls. They were in 100% agreement about one thing and that was their mother, my Mamaw, was the best mother who ever walked the face of this earth. I was able to understand why they felt that way as the years passed.
So what does all that have to do with a story about Coal Country Heroes?
My aunt and father were the children, the products of one such unsung hero and his wife.
My aunt chose one route in life after being raised as a Coal Miner’s daughter. My dad chose another route as a Coal Miner’s son. Their divergent paths yielded two very different life and end results that matter when looking back into history. Yet, there was the common thread that would unite them for life.
Love. They agreed about very little, but that did not get in the way of loving and taking care of the people they cared about.
Think about it this way. Theirs is a snapshot in time of two very different ways of viewing and living life that provide an image in a mirror of what our divided nation is currently facing. I will go more into that later. I have a story within the story to tell first. It leads to why I called this the Music Edition.
Coal Mining Camp Towns of Appalachia
I have found no explanation that better transmits the raw emotion and reality of underground coal mining from back in my family’s day than the following:
I hope you listen to this song from Levon Helm, he of The Band and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a contributor to the music of many other famous musicians. Add in his many film credits through the years. I find it fascinating that Levon, real name of Mark Lavon Helm, could capture the reality of the mines and miners as he did, when he was from the flat, low country delta in Arkansas. I guess it was because he remained a common man with his life and music despite all of the fame and prominent associations. He was very thoughtful, sincere and regarded by his peers as kind hearted and professional his entire career.
Apparently, his interest in mining developed in a major way during the filming of the highly popular Coal Miner’s Daughter movie of the fictionalized life of Loretta Lynn in which Levon played her father. When the linked song above was released Levon had already dealt with throat cancer and slowly recovered his ability to sing. It would recur and contribute to his death at 71 years of age.
I still remember the scenes and the smells in particular of the mines and mining towns where my family lived. My experiences relate to northeastern TN, eastern KY and southwestern VA. This is the area where both sides of my family are from and there were coal miners in both. It is also from this area that a couple future stories will be told.
The coal mining camp towns dotted the landscape going back to before the Civil War. As the coal and coke became more popular as a fuel for the railroads, steam engines, iron and steel making, etc.; mining became more inviting as an investment. This grew exponentially with the growth of the use of electricity. Captains of industry began purchasing and growing operations throughout the area. Strip mining had not yet arrived on the scene as motorized earth moving equipment did not become readily available until after WW I.
By the time my Papaw was born in 1888, there were over a dozen mining camp towns in our region. His life was like many other male children in those communities. After going to the one school in the camp for a few years to learn how to read, write and do basic math; he went to work full time in the mine. Papaw was big and strong for his age, so he became a water boy at about 11 years old. Hours were long and the aches, pains and injuries were many for all miners. Their average life span was on the short end. Alcoholism was common, but so was the camaraderie both in and outside the mine. They learned to have each other’s backs.
The camp towns were about 150-500 people in total population generally. The companies that owned them provided all of the basic needs of the people. The companies provided virtually all of the housing. There would be a company general store, a medical facility with a doctor and nurse, a teacher or two, a church or two with a pastor or two, blacksmith, machine shops (later) and so on. Of course there would also be a “lodge” with a bar and a dance floor. Occasionally, arrangements would be made to travel to the bigger towns for other needs and more extensive medical care. For many years each company provided its own currency to be used to make purchases in the town. Over time that faded away to using normal American currency as people become more transient with vehicle travel instead of using a train or horse and carriage.
Mining as an industry was boom and bust. As demand for product grew the mining towns would expand. When demand was down, they would become almost desolate with poor living conditions. Larger companies would buy the smaller operations. If demand was high the jobs would be retained or added. If demand was down or the company had too much inventory, they would shutter the newly purchased mines until demand picked up again, if ever. Jobs would be lost and life in the camp town would get really rough again. There were no government social programs to help, just the charity of one another and the church.
It was into this environment that my dad and aunt were born after my Papaw and Mamaw met. They were married in 1920, two years after Papaw returned from military duty in WW I. It was four years after his first wife passed away from consumption (tuberculosis) as the family told the story. Two of his babies from that marriage had also died before the age of six months, which was more common than not during those days. There was one young surviving son who had stayed with a brother’s family while Papaw was in the Army in the war. My father was then born in 1922 and my aunt a year later. Papaw had worked his way into being Superintendent of the mine in the camp town of their birth. Keeping this in perspective, he was only 32 years old when he became the mine Superintendent, yet, he had 21 years of experience working there.
Mamaw was the teacher of the younger students in the town’s schoolhouse. She was a college graduate and state licensed teacher in a day and age when women rarely earned the opportunity to even go to college, especially in those hills. She did, despite being from a poor coal mining family in rural eastern Kentucky. The local community saw how special and intelligent she was. They made the way financially for her to go. She gave back to all as a result.
Even with their status, life was hard. They made enough to get by and help others around them. However, nothing was healthy about the environment in which they lived. A fact they would later learn all too well. But that is a story within a story to tell at a later time.
It was the spring of 1977. Goober Gump, a product of the family above, had gone out into his own world of adventures in a different part of the country. I was sitting at my desk on “the platform” of the third largest bank in the state in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had spent a year after college graduation in a management training program before being assigned as a business development officer for local area accounts. The platform was the main lobby where all of the primary bank officers that dealt with customers had their desks. So I was just happy to be there with all the big dogs, even if I was nothing but a glorified coffee fetcher just learning the ropes at that point.
One of the big dogs, who was a national accounts officer and political lobbyist in the state and DC for the bank occasionally would coach me on business development things. One day a hippie looking guy walked in and sat down in a chair across from the officer. The officer beckoned over to me to come to his desk. As I approached, he told me he had somebody he wanted me to meet and said, “This is a friend of mine and I take care of his accounts. When I am out of the office I want you to handle anything he needs, OK?” I said, ” Will be happy to do so.” We shook hands.
It was Levon Helm. Yep. I got excited about then because I knew some about The Band and loved a lot of their music. The Band had called it quits after their Thanksgiving concert the year before with all of the other big name stars in California entertaining with them. Levon told the two of us there was a potential movie in the works about it. He was tired of dealing with all the member issues in the band and was also considering doing some other film work opportunities to change things up. It was just time. He said he would pick up gigs with others until he decided. Of course the artists he was referring to were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, and so on. Geez.
I left him to finish with his officer friend and they left for lunch together. Levon left a message with our area’s secretary once a couple months later for me to handle a transfer of funds. I saw him one more time when he came back into town to have lunch with his friend. Later that same year I left the bank to take a better employment opportunity with the state’s largest utility company in a different region.
During my two years in that bank’s employment I had met or observed in person many well known famous people, especially politicians, he was just one more to file away into my memory. Life would go on and Little Rock was in my rear view mirror.
Except maybe for the things I did not know then that I missed by moving away.
Hi, Paul. Remember me? I doubt it.
Yeah, I guess I did not mention that Levon’s officer buddy, Paul, was Slick’s roommate in college. Paul’s role at the bank was point man, introductions, bag man and cleaner with major name players all over. Those were the primary job duties of a “lobbyist” back then. He would then handle their personal banking needs, much as “private banking” departments or programs for wealthier individuals do today. I am not saying Levon was mixed up with any of that – I doubt he was. He was just a long time friend of Paul, who was still single in his mid 30s, who enjoyed the rock and roll life with his buddies in that business.
Needless to say Goober Gump had unwittingly escaped a bad situation that began to transpire in the year after my departure. I still get antsy about where that path may have led if I had stayed and played the game. Of course during that period of my life I had no idea what would be revealed later. More to come on this in at another time.
Back to this story. My ex and I relocated as I stated. A year later I was reading the newspaper and saw here was a new movie at the local theater called the The Last Waltz. Well, would you look at that, The Band and Levon with all the other stars at that concert had been made into a Scorsese movie like he said. I could only shake my head. We went to see it that weekend.
When Coal Miner’s Daughter came out a couple years after that, it got real for me. Levon was not kidding about getting into film work. That film was made in and about the region and environment of my people. Butcher Holler (Hollow), KY where the movie was centered had no mines. The people who lived there traveled down to Pikeville, Paintsville and other nearby camp towns to work in the mines in Loretta Lynn’s younger days. All places I had spent time around with my family through my younger years. We had extended family and friends in those areas.
It would be a complete fail to not post this from the movie.
Below is a link for those who want to know more about Levon. You might even catch that a 14 year old Levon went to a show in the Arkansas delta where Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and a young guy who became known as The King were performing. Oh wait, that’s the same Elvis of BIMDs Rat Ranch fame – playing gigs in small towns in the Mississippi delta, in the mid-1950’s, with other icons of that music style.
It is just another example of the existence of so many parallels and crossing points in life. All we have to do is simply follow the story trails and connect the dots.
And Then There Was Music…
We will leave this part of the story here until next time. It’s a good place to stop and contemplate before we begin a story next time about a former Coal Country resident of note.
We will end with some songs from folks who lived in eastern KY who some of you may know about or heard. They have distinctive Coal Country, bluegrass sounding voices. The same bluegrass sound that enthralled Levon Helm when he first heard Bill Monroe at 6 years old.
First up is Chris is from Staffordsville in Johnson County, the same county as Butcher Holler. You may have heard of him by now…
Then this gal from Pikeville who gets featured in the QTree frequently. Good gosh, I love to hear her sing.
Then there is this guy who was born in the town of Paintsville where a lot of Johnson and Lawrence County residents commuted to work in their mines. Great talent.
There are more like Ricky Skaggs, American Idol Noah Thompson, etc.; but you get the idea. Born of hard times in the hills with the coal mines of their family ancestors in their bones and voices. I hope you will spend a little time listening to these songs I’ve posted of Levon, Chris, Patty and Tyler. They will give you a depth of understanding for the stories to come in this series. There are answers to America’s current woes in the sweat and blood of those miners from back in the day.
Until next time…