Coal Miners and Their Communities
in Southern Appalachia, 1925-1941
Rhonda Janney Coleman
(Part Two of Two)
It is difficult to find anything that evokes a picture of the coal towns in the 1920s and 1930s more than "the company store. " Ernest Jennings, better known as Tennessee Ernie Ford, immortalized the life of the coal miner and the company store in his song, "Sixteen Tons.
You load sixteen tons, and what do ya' get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't you call me,
Cause I can't go.... I owe my soul to the company store.(49)
As we shall see later on, the "sixteen tons" was also another piece of coal mining fiction. It is true however that many miners did get caught up in the web of debt spun by the company store and the scrip system by which nearly all miners were paid. Not all of them fell victim however.
The company store was not just the local grocery store. It was often the center of life in a coal mining town. Every town had one, and everyone shopped there. The company store was usually located near the railroad tracks in the town. Everything that a family might want or need could be bought in the store, from food to clothing, from hardware supplies and the miners' tools to furniture and appliances.
Company stores were not the only purveyors of goods however. Many mail order companies such as Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company did a brisk business with the mining families. Mining towns in the New River Gorge area of Fayette County could be separated by as little as one mile, and since each town had a company store, mine families often had many such stores to choose from. Local farmers often set up stands to sell their wares on the outskirts of company towns. The availability of trains as transportation made trips to other communities for shopping easier for mining families than for their rural farming counterparts. Ada Wilson Jackson remembers traveling to Oak Hill or Rock Lick from Concho to shop." (50) One could board a train at seven in the morning, shop in Charleston and be home on the 7:00 p.m. train.
Pricing in the company stores was often higher than in surrounding non- company establishments. It is true that in the mining families, coal operators had captive purchasers for their goods. However, the availability of rail transportation, mail order products, and the proximity of other local merchants gave miners more choice than has been portrayed. The quality of company store goods was equal to that which could be bought in town. When the miner weighed the price of shipping his purchases from a mail order catalog or local merchant against the price of what could be purchased at the company store, very often, the store ended up being the better bargain. When coupled with the facts that anything desired could be purchased at the company store and quality that was as good or better than was available elsewhere, the ease of credit through the company scrip system gave many miners plenty of incentive to shop at the company store.
Companies routinely paid their miners in "scrip," a form of money that each company issued in lieu of U. S. currency. Scrip could be paper, but was more often metal coinage on which the name of the coal company was imprinted. As a general rule, scrip could only be used at that company's store, but this was not always the case. Scrip could be exchanged, at a discount, for U.S. currency if a miner could find someone interested in the transaction. For the companies, scrip provided an easy way to pay the miners without the necessity of keeping large amounts of cash available. However, according to Crandall Shifflett in his study of coal towns in Southern Appalachia, there is no evidence that miners were "forced to draw their pay in scrip. "(51) On payday a miner could draw scrip or cash or both, the choice was his.
Scrip did provide a means of easy credit for both miner and coal operator. For the coal miner, drawing cash on payday limited his choices should he run short before the next half, but gave him more freedom to shop elsewhere. Drawing all scrip meant that a miner had no cash on hand for emergencies. However, companies usually showed a willingness to extend scrip credit to the miner who was caught short. Miners drew scrip advances for many purposes. Should he run short and need food before the next payday, scrip credit was available. If a miner needed a piece of furniture and did not have the cash, scrip credit would take care of it. if a miner was sick or injured, companies would advance scrip pending receipt of his Workman's Compensation checks. For the operators, this was a no lose situation. Companies had the ability to "virtually garnishee a worker's wages to collect on a debt." (52) It would appear that with the availability of such easy credit, most miners would in fact, "owe their souls" to the company stores. However, studies cited by Shifflett seem to indicate that miners used this option judiciously. He states that "debt peonage was rare, (53) and cites a Virginia mining company whose outstanding debt between the years of 1910 and 1947, averaged only two percent of sales. (54) The scrip system seemed to be something that served both miner and operator well and, except in rare cases, neither took undue advantage of the other.
The company store served many other functions besides grocery store. It was the community bulletin board, a place where housewives gathered to discuss meals, children, and neighborhood gossip . Often the payroll window was set up in the store, so that miners gathered there on Friday afternoons to collect their pay. "Records were kept there; a miner's time, attendance, number of cars loaded that week, rent, light and coal deductions, doctor's fees and scrip advances." (55) Offices of company management were usually located in the company store, as was the U. S. Post Office serving that community. In essence, the company store was a place of community, where neighbors and friends came together without the formal organization of church or lodge or school.
The rapid pace of industrial development in the Southern Appalachians in the early 1900s made it nearly impossible for coal companies to rely on the indigenous population as their sole source for labor. With the onset of World War One, foreign immigration had virtually ceased. Coal operators began to rely on the floods of black migrants headed north to America's industrial centers. According to Ronald L. Lewis, black migration into southern 'West Virginia began as a "trickle in the 1880s, . . . and crested in the early 1920s." (56)
The black man who migrated to the coal towns of Central Appalachia fared far better than his counterpart who stayed down on the farm. He had the advantage of relative independence in his work, known as "miner's freedom." (56) His paydays were closer together and with a difference in pay that could average as much as $6.00 per day, he could be free from debt in a relatively short period of time. He also had the freedom of movement; if he didn't like the working conditions or the pay at one mining camp, he could simply pack up and move to another. (57)
Within the communities, segregation was still a fact of life for the Negro coal miner and his family. While everyone was served equally at the company store, other town facilities were separate. Negro housing was usually in a separate, less desirable or accessible area, of the town. in some communities, there were no blacks at all. Ada Wilson Jackson, a black coal miner's wife and daughter relates that in the town of Concho, "they didn't allow no colored people. They didn't allow them to even come through Concho." (58) In the towns where blacks lived though, there seemed to be a more "flexible system of segregation" with blacks and whites visiting one anothers' homes and patronizing the same social centers. J. C. Blume, a resident of Kaymoor Number 2 Bottom (Fayette Station), bears testimony to this fact as he recalls, "all us kids, we all played together, the blacks and whites. We didn't know the difference. And, we ate at the black peoples houses all the time and they ate at our house whenever they wanted to." (60)
Black miners appeared to value the lack of (white) supervision that was such an integral part of coal mining in the era before mechanization gained such a foothold. Additionally, migrant blacks found similarities between their former system of tenant farming and the company owned coal towns to which they moved. As in their sharecropping days, black miners started out their career in debt for the cost of tools, housing, food and often transportation from their former homes. One important difference however was that the black coal miner had far more earning power in the mines than he had on the farm. Thus, he was able to clear up his initial debts far quicker. An added bonus to blacks moving into the West Virginia coalfields was the franchise. West Virginia was the only state to give its black residents the vote.
While segregation existed in the communities, inside the mines it was equal pay for equal work. However, not all work was divided equally among black miners and their white peers. Black miners were routinely given the harder, more dangerous or less skilled jobs. Studies show that in 1932, in twenty West Virginia mines, 77 percent of the hand loaders were Negro miners but only 60 percent of them were white. (61) Rarely were black miners given positions of authority over white miners. While the white miners did not seem to mind working beside the black miners underground, they severely resisted any attempts to upgrade the Negroes to higher skilled positions.
When mechanization moved in, it had a tremendous impact on the mining industry as a whole, and on the Negro miner in particular. (62) The black coal miner usually held jobs that were hardest hit by mechanization, but they were not given a proportional share of the newly created jobs. Many white managers did not believe that Negroes were capable of the skilled work required to run the new machines, nor did they believe the blacks were dependable enough. As a consequence, when layoffs occurred, the proportion of black miners affected was significantly higher than for whites in the industry. Between 1930 and 1950, the number of blacks in the coal mining industry in the central Appalachian states declined 38 percent. (63)
As mechanization increased, blacks and whites stood side by side in the unemployment lines. However, unlike their white companions, black miners did not have the strong community ties to bind them to the area. As their employment prospects declined, black mining families continued their migrations to the northern industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Akron, leaving the coal towns as they had found them, in the hands of the native white population.
Life as an underground miner was difficult. In the years before mechanization, all mining was done by slow, laborious, backbreaking hand labor. Miners worked long days in dark, damp, cramped quarters with poor ventilation. Initial undercutting of the coal face had to be done lying down, often in several inches of water. For this part of his job, the miner used only his pick and his brawn, Once a V-shaped undercut was made, the miner bored a hole in the rock face, filled it with a powder charge and with a cry of "fire in the hole!" lit the charge and got himself to safety. If the charge was set properly and went off well, the face, with its seam of coal, was sheared off and the miner then went about the job of loading the coal. The miner's number four shovel held about 22 pounds of coal. The empty car, placed in his "room" in turns with the other miners, held about a ton of coal. These miners were called "loaders' and were considered the craftsmen of the industry. Knowledge of the craft was often passed from father to son and through the apprenticeship system. Once his car was loaded, the miner placed his "check" on it -- a small brass check with his number -- which allowed the checkweighman at the tipple to credit him with the tonnage loaded for the day.
Mining was a competitive business, a miner's output determined not only his earnings but his status and social mobility. (64) How a miner was paid was the sole decision of the company. Most paid by the ton, but there were variations in the size of that ton. Companies usually paid miners by the "long" ton or 2,240 pounds, as opposed to the "short" ton of 2,000 pounds of standard usage today. When profit margins were low, companies would often pay "long" and sell "short." (65) Other companies paid miners (loaders) by the car. To boost profit these operators would enlarge the one-ton cars to hold 2,200 or even 2,400 pounds. Operators could also demand that the cars be heaped full rather than leveled off at the top.
It is true that the miner's paycheck depended on the number of tons or cars he loaded, but other factors were also involved. The working conditions under which he labored affected the miner's output. The more time spent bailing water or shoring timbers was less time spent loading coal. The "room" to which he was assigned made a difference as well. The size of the coal seam, how far back into the mountain, how many "middleboys" there were (layers of clay rock that sometimes split coal seams) (66) all determined how much coal could be loaded. His tonnage rate, which was determined by company officials, had a direct bearing on his pay. "Company work," that is work such as track laying, car pushing, maintenance work, could also reflect on a miner's pay, and he resented doing work for which he was not paid. The exception to this was work which involved his own safety, that work a miner did gladly. (67)
Then from the miner's pay came the deductions. Miners bought their own 25 pound kegs of powder, paid blacksmiths to keep their tools sharp and supplied the oil for their miner's lamps. (68) In addition, rent, electricity, fuel coal, doctor's fees and scrip advances were all deducted on pay day. A miner was given a pay envelope with all the checkoff deductions listed and any balance due him was included inside the envelope. Often, those envelopes contained only a few pennies, or nothing at all.
Other mining jobs were generally paid by the day or by the hour. Men who performed such support jobs as taking up and laying down of track, pumping water from the mine (pumpers), riding full coal cars from the mine to the tipple (trip riders), and slate picking (usually young boys) were called "company men." In and around the mines were also skilled workers such as carpenters, masons, electricians, and engineers.
Wages in the 1920s for loaders could range from 48 cents per ton to 70 cents per ton. Translated to daily rates, these equal anywhere from $3.84 per day to $5.60 per day. During the twenties, an average miner could load eight or nine tons per day, not the sixteen tons depicted in the popular song. Shifflett explains the legend of "Sixteen Tons": (69)
According to Jay Watkins, a Beech Creek miner who had actually worked with Travis's father, Uncle Rob, in the 1920s, the legendary sixteen tons was an initiation rite. it was customary for the older miners to "slack off" so the newcomer could load sixteen tons on his very first day and thereby prove his manhood. (70)
Machine runners and common laborers received approximately $7, 11 and $4.00 per day respectively. Brakemen and motormen averaged $6.50 per day. An average monthly wage for some black coal miners in West Virginia during this time period was $118.00.(71) Locally, mines on the New River in Fayette county were paying anywhere from $2.50 to $3.20 per day, and miners were averaging five to seven tons per day. (72)
With the onset of the Great Depression however, earnings plummeted as mine operators first cut wages, then hours and finally jobs in order to stay in business. Per day wages for miners dropped to below $3.00 throughout the region. Mines that had been operating six days per week cut back to two or three. The industry as a whole was hard hit, but companies survived by making the necessary cuts. It is possible that the scrip system allowed them to continue to function without the large outlays of cash that could be difficult to obtain as banks across the nation failed on a daily basis.
Miners and their families in the Fayette county area did not appear to be particularly distressed by the deprivations of the Great Depression. Life was certainly more difficult, but it had been hard before the Depression hit. In the pre-union days, Southern Appalachian coal miners were poorly paid. During the Depression, many supplemented this meager income with vegetable gardens and other make-do devices such as "potluck" suppers put on by several families. Abundant game and fish from the New River helped to supplement the diets of mining families during this time. Some companies made allowances for house rent during the times when the mines were not operating. Miners often did other work in and around the mines, such as road work, ditch digging, or aligning tracks when operators temporarily shut down the mines. Other companies issued flour, sugar and rice to families.
Companies making these allowances kept track of them and miners were expected to repay the amounts when the mine returned to full production. (73)
Ralph Sanders, born in 1895 in Fayette Station, West Virginia, recalls the depression by calling it the "Hoover Oppression," saying that the "capitalists oppressed the poor. (74) He also remembers seeing trains with boxcars full of "hoboes." Often these men would come to the door and ask for food. "I never knowed my mother to turn anybody away when they come and ask for something and said they was hungry and wanted something to eat." (75) J. C. Blume also has the same recollections; of trains with "hundreds and hundreds of people riding in the cars trying to go from one place to another to find something to eat." (76) Mr. Blume's father, who ran a store in Fayette Station, would give them boxes of crackers and pieces of cheese.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 brought new hope to people throughout the nation, and the miners in the coalfields of West Virginia were no exception. It soon became apparent that "where the earlier Republican administrations openly courted and favored big business, the New Deal behaved the same way toward organized labor and favored this segment of the population in many of its most important policies and decisions." (77) John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America used Roosevelt's favorable attitude toward the unions to urge miners to join his union saying, "the President wants you to join the union." (78)
Mining families are nearly unanimous about the difference the presence of the union made in their lives and their communities. When FDR signed the NIRA into being, men could, for the most part, stop hiding while trying to organize their unions. Pauline Miller, whose husband was a coal miner in Terry, West Virginia says that when the general manager found out the men had been hiding to organize he told them, "I don't want to hear of you hiding around to organize your union. Pick whatever building you want to. Go on into it, and organize. I'm not against your union." (79)
When asked about the lives of women in the coal camps before and after unionization, Bob Foffen had this to say:
"There's one of the greatest difference in the world. It's not within my vocabulary to describe to you the difference in the mothers and the wives in the homes in the, our coal camps previous to the organization.... They begin to attend churches moreso; they were dressed better; their children were dressed better.... Our union did not only apply to the conditions in our individual coal camps. It applied to the conditions in the other types of business in the field. "(80)
Ada Wilson Jackson states that after the union came in, the town of Concho, which had previously been all white, now allowed black mining families in, "And then after the mine started and all the union started, then they began to let 'em live in Concho." (81)
Herbert Garten views the best thing the union did was to give the men the right to bargain. Before the unions came in, miners had to do just whatever the company said, or leave, there were other men waiting outside to fill the empty spot. (82)
Article V of the NRA coal code set the all important conditions for employment that are generally seen as major improvements for coal miners throughout the nation. In it, miners were given the right to organize; the right to collective bargaining and the right to have representatives of their own choosing. They were not to be required to join a company union or restrained from joining one of their own choosing, Employers were now required by law to abide by wage and hour agreements, and miners were to be paid on a semimonthly basis. The compulsory scrip and company housing rules were done away with and miners could no longer be required to shop only at the company store. Child labor laws were strengthened, and no one under seventeen was allowed to work in or around the mines." The NRA was truly a "New Deal" for miners. James Johnson says of it, "In abolishing child labor, establishing fair trade practices, and eliminating compulsory scrip wages and the compulsory company store, however, the code made changes that were both dramatic and important. (84)
Coal operators began building their towns in the 1880s. As the industry peaked, so did the establishment of these communities. By the coming of the Great Depression, expansion had virtually ceased. Companies began selling houses to miners soon after that. The nation was changing. With the newer, relatively cleaner burning fuels such as oil, gas and hydroelectric power, the demand for coal quickly declined. Mechanization of the mines, spurred on by UMWA president John L. Lewis, increased production while drastically cutting the work force. As the union drove wages to new heights, miners were making more money than ever before. Automobiles, previously unheard of luxuries in the New River coalfields soon dotted the landscapes. The miner had more money and greater freedom. No longer was he bound to live within walking distance of his mine.
Paternalism appears to have served both operator and miner alike. The operators had, with a few exceptions, a relatively stable and content workforce. Their mines and stores were profitable ventures. The miners for their part had work and comfortable housing, both of which had been dwindling resources in the mountainous farming regions they had come from. Most appear to have fond memories of their lives in the coal camps of southern West Virginia. If the operators sought to control them through the scrip system, company housing and the company store, the miners seemed to have found ways to skirt that control. Only in the area of unionization of the industry does there appear to be real friction and discontent, with both sides insisting that their view is the "right" view. That argument has been going on since the very beginning of these towns, and continues to this day.
49. Merle Travis wrote "Sixteen Tons" on August 8, 1946.
50. Jackson, 26. 29.
51. Shifflett, 182.
52. Shiflett, 186.
53. Shifflett, 183.
54. Shifflett, 183.
55. Shifflett, 179.
56. Lewis, 80.
57. Lewis, 93.
58. Jackson, 26, 32.
59. Lewis, 97.
60. Blume, 7.
61. Donald T. Barnum, The Negro in the Bituminous Coal Mining Industry, University of Philadelphia Press, Philadelphia, 1970, 27.
62. Barnum, 7.
63. Lewis 98.
64. Shifflett, 85.
65. Seltzer, 11.
66. Seltzer 10.
67. The elimination of "company work" and the installation of portal-to-portal pay were issues that came up often in discussions of the unionization of the coalfields.
68. John Brophy, A Miner's Life, University of Wisconsin Pres, 1964.
69. "Sixteen Tons" was written in August, 1946 by Merle Travis and made famous in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
70. Shifflett, 89.
71. Shifflett, 108.
72. Forren, 8, 5.
73. Shifflett, 201.
74. Ralph Sanders interview, NRGC, 35, 6.
75. Sanders 35,7.
76. Blume, 9.
77. John Rublowsky, After the Crash, America in the Great Depression, Crowell-Collier Press, 1970.
78. Rublowsky, 137.
79. Pauline Miller interview, NRGC, 16, 23.
80. Forren 8, 9.
81. Jackson, 26, 32.
82. Garten, 5, 35.
83. Wallace Davis and William Goetzmann, The New Deal and Business Recovery, Henry Holt and Company, 1960, 22-24.
84. James P. Johnson, "Drafting the NRA Code of Fair Competition for the Bituminous Coal Industry," The Journal of American History, 53, December, 1966, 521-41.
West Virginia Historical Society
West Virginia History Center