Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 26 Nov 2012 08:32 pm
Let’s spend some time looking at reality. We tend to forget our history quickly and look back – in those rare instances when we actually DO look back – at what happened before we were born as quaint, odd, silly, or horrific. When the Hatfields captured some McCoys who had just killed one of their clan, took them across the river, tied them to trees and shot them, we react in horror and assign those actions to brutal, ignorant people in a far off time. We couldn’t be further from the truth.
These events happened not long ago and they have changed our lives in a hundred profound ways. Did you know that veterans of World War One were not given the benefits they were promised upon enlistment? Did you know that the government ignored them, denied them medical care or pensions? Did you know that many, many thousands of them built a tent city outside of Washington, DC because they had nowhere else to live? And did you know that the US government sent in troops with cavalry and machine guns and even planes with bombs to drive them out? That was only eighty years ago. Or did you know that a Methodist minister with a military commission slaughtered men, women, and children in Eastern Colorado and, although many tried to bring him to justice, the courts and government officials refused to punish him? There are lots of periods of history we would rather forget but they are real and they helped make the world in which we live. And many of these events — such as the murder of hundreds of veterans outside DC, happened less than one hundred years ago.
And close to that same time, people in West Virginia rose up against outsiders who had poisoned their land, starved their children to death (literally), and shot down their fathers who dared to complain. These were the Mine Wars and they will be the subject of this next set of blogs.
People who had farmed their land and made a living (barely) by hard work for generations found that their land had been bought out from under them. Lawyers in far off towns like Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Richmond had pulled legal maneuvers that were no less than robbery and deprived people of the right to own their own land. Now, millionaires claimed ownership of land they had never seen or lived on. They had purchased it and then sold it again to the mine owners. Banks foreclosed on properties because of one late payment or because of some clause the mortgage holder had never heard of before. Government agents used “eminent domain” to take vast tracts of land away and sell it to mine owners, dispersing money among themselves. If you think this doesn’t happen anymore, ask yourself why most government officials leave office far, far better off financially than they were when they arrived… and do some research on the Kelo decision or go here for another example: http://reason.com/archives/2009/10/08/when-public-power-is-used-for
Within the space of ten years, private ownership of property nearly disappeared. By 1912, the people of West Virginia who lived in the coal fields were no longer free. The company owned your home, the schools, the churches, the stores, the police, and the roads. They owned the doctors and all medical care and they owned the cemeteries. Twenty years before, the people lived in free, small communities and they made their own laws while enjoying the great freedom assured them by the US Constitution. Now, they had no power over what they would do with their lives. Their children would work in the mines – beginning at the age of 8 in many communities. Any disagreement with management would mean starvation and eviction if not rough justice at the end of a revolver or Winchester rifle.
Wages were low and paid in mine company script. For those who don’t know about script, it was used in place of money. In fact, you couldn’t buy anything in coal company areas with American currency. You had to use the script the company issued. That meant that the prices in the poorly stocked stores were set by company policy and you had to pay it. There were no options. Want to leave town and buy in the next town? You can forget it; they wouldn’t take your script even if their town was owned by the same company. You see, each town was issued its own script to keep you from being able to travel to buy something at a better price.
It was impossible to be clean. The rivers were toxic with run off. The roads were choked with mud and coal dust. Clouds of dust turned laundry black and peeled the paint off of the tiny, shed like homes the coal company allowed you to live in if you pleased them. The coal company bosses had electricity and running water and indoor plumbing but the common man was not allowed such luxuries. If a school teacher dared to teach about freedom or the need for improvement in society, they were fired and replaced overnight. When doctors were begged for medicines that the coal company said were too expensive to waste on the children of miners, they were not allowed to mention reality. And, by the way, as a miner, you were required to give a portion of your pay monthly to the doctor, teacher, and for rent on your home to the company.
There were no provisions made for the care of those injured in the mines or for their retirement. You worked until you died or until the coal bosses decided you weren’t worth the script any more. And then you became a burden on your family.
Coal had always been a part of life in these mountains. Thomas Batts first mentioned it during his survey trip of 1742. When settlers came in, they used it mainly for blacksmith shops. By the time of the Civil War, it was being dug out of hills one bucket at a time by families who used it to heat their homes.
When the railroad companies came in, they bought up huge amounts of land (and eminent domain got the rest). Families had to move or try to get a job with the company. When the money ran out, so did their options. Railroads and mines were usually owned by the same powerful families (such as the Rockefellers who still wield power in the state) and those families looked out for each other, not for the poor souls who had to live in their towns.
At first, miners came into the area to join the hunt for coal, hoping for a cut of the profits. Welshmen, Scots, Englishmen from Lancashire, Belgians, Austrians, Italians, and Poles all came into the low valleys of West Virginia. An average miner made about $70 a month. After deductions were made for healthcare (whether used or not), the school, food supplied for meals in the mines, clothing, tools, etc. he would end up with about $50 to take home. If he was sick or had a family emergency, he was not paid for the time he took off. His bathroom was an outdoor privy; often no more than a flat board with a hole in it perched over a hole in the ground. Enclosed privies would come along in time, but they were always built and financed by the miner himself, not by his coal boss landlords. Those who hoped for a better life usually had to settle for a bitter one instead.
Should a visiting preacher or family member come along, you had to get permission for them to stay in the company owned house you lived in. No exceptions were made. If the company decided that having someone visit you would cause unrest or distract you from work, they were denied the right to stay in the town. They couldn’t go to a hotel or boarding house because those, too, were owned by the company as were the roads in and out of town. And they patrolled those roads with heavily armed thugs called police or mine security.
Isn’t it interesting that the very people who perpetuated this outrage on the citizens of West Virginia – the elites of New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC – even today paint those citizens as hillbillies, ignorant, shoeless, and stupid? All of those stereotypes come from the conditions under which the people were forced to live by millionaires who rarely if ever visited the areas they had destroyed.
Samuel Gomper was the first president of the American Federation of Labor. In 1912, the AFL called for and got the first major strike against mine owners in southern West Virginia. He wrote “Normal human beings possessing a spark of independence and ambition cannot be oppressed beyond a certain limit of endurance. The West Virginia miners struck to free themselves from intolerable conditions.” He referred to the mine owners as “czars” and said that West Virginia had been “Russianized” by despots. Interestingly enough, when the miners struck and moved for their freedom was about the same time that the czars fell in Russia and the communists moved in, so the mine owners called the miners communists for wanting to throw them out and regain some control over their lives.
Next time – gun thugs with badges and the first strike back.