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Illinois author, Victor Hicken describes the origins of political radicalism among miners in central and southern Illinois.

MINE UNION RADICALISM IN
MACOUPIN AND MONTGOMERY COUNTIES (IL)

by Victor Hicken - ©1997 Victor Hicken

transcribed by Judy York

Even in the old implications of the word, the 1890's were not "gay." But it was true, specially in the cities, that the middle class enjoyed the almost yearly technological advances which America's prolific inventors were adding to the country's growing advantages. And, if one were willing and able, as well as necessarily brilliant, he or she could fulfill the dream of the standard Horatio Alger plot. It was proven time and time again that children of a middle- or even lower-class family could rise and become rich and successful. With those achievements, of course, came also the admiration and respect of society.

Like a great many aspects of life, the opportunities which America offered were like the proverbial coin of the realm; they had two sides. In the twenty-five years since the end of the Civil War, a laissez-faire society, untrammeled by government regulation, had allowed the rich to become exceedingly rich and the poor to become poorer. Hamlin Garland, a midwestern writer of the period, noted the growing disparity between life on the farm and life in the middle-class towns of the Great Plains. On the other hand, Jacob Riis, the Danish- American reformer, pointed his finger at the cities and graphically illustrated the terrible discrepancies between life in the ghettos and life among the more privileged.(1)

With respect to Hell's Kitchen in New York, to Murderers' Row in Chicago, and to the drudgery of the American farm, one could write with some assurance that these sides of the coin were not completely invisible. At least, Riis and Garland saw them, and so did dozens of other writers. If one were to target 1890 as a specific date, one might add that the same could not be said of those who worked the coal pits of America. The coal miner was there, and his numbers were in the tens of thousands and growing by the day. Almost more than anyone else, he represented the unseen American. No one wrote songs about him. He was less a part of American literature in 1890 than were the blacks of both the South and North. Gone from his mining-camp home before dawn and returning to it after dark, sometimes living in mining villages surrounded by barbed wire, his only comforts were those provided by the sanctity of the bedroom and the consolation found in a bottle.

These facts were true in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, where coal mines had fueled the industrial revolution for years, and they were increasingly true in Illinois where, by 1890, new pits were being opened with increasing frequency. In that state, almost everything was in a feverish state of flux. Even textbooks and newspapers were encouraging the use of the phrase "Prairie State" rather than "Sucker State." Chicago had burned and was rebuilding, becoming what a future poet would call the "city of big shoulders." The big shoulders belonged to newly-arrived immigrants who worked in the steel mills or the factories, and they worked so hard and so long each day that the need of Chicago for more and more coal was an economic fact of life. So did Germanic St. Louis, across the Mississippi River from southern Illinois. Between the two cities ran railroads, and they, in turn, crossed over the rich black coal fields of St. Clair, Macoupin, Montgomery, and Christian counties - so rich, indeed, that nearly 100 years after their first major economic development, their contents are probably ninety-nine percent intact.

Most of the coal produced in Illinois in 1890 came from three areas of the state: the Spring Valley and Coal City area in the northern half; the St. Clair County area near St. Louis; and that part of Illinois known by tradition as "Little Egypt." Williamson County mines had been opened as early as 1869, and by 1890 the county's coal production had reached 200,000 tons a year.(2)

This is not to say that there was no coal production elsewhere. Indeed, there were some sixty or seventy two- and three-man shallow pits near Colchester, in McDonough County; the coal there was so close to the surface that dogs were used to pull the small drays from the workings to the cave openings. There were also small shafts near Gillespie, in Macoupin County. According to early geological survey maps, most of these had closed operations as early as 1880.

The fact is that coal deposits in Illinois have the subterranean shape of a saucer, with the rim near the surface of the ground in southern and western Illinois. The base of that saucer runs through south central Illinois; hence the need for deeper shafts in that area. Being compressed at a greater depth and probably older, the coal there was of a slightly higher quality. The only problem in the 1870's or 1880's was the lack of mechanized equipment to bring the coal from the face of the seam to the surface, a difficulty which found correction by the development of more mechanized systems to produce the coal. By 1890, the Ellsworth Coal Company was either sinking or considering mines in the Mt. Olive and Staunton areas of Macoupin County. Soon operations were extended by various concerns to Carlinville, Litchfield, Hillsboro, Witt, Nokomis, and Coalton in both Macoupin and Montgomery Counties.

The extent of the growth of coal production in those two counties can be illustrated by a few figures. In 1906, for example, the Shoal Creek Company sunk its Mine No. 1 at Panama, in Montgomery County. It required eighty-seven workers in its initial year, 230 a year later, 375 in 1908, and 433 by 1910. Over eight-five percent of its coal in 1910 was mined and brought to the surface by machines.

In Macoupin County, the Inspector of Mines reported in 1910 that there were twenty-two mines in operation, seventeen on which were shipping coal to various industrial centers elsewhere. Four of the shipping mines were in or around Virden, one was at Girard, one was at Carlinville, one at Nilwood, one at Green Ridge, three at Gillespie, two at Mt. Olive, and four near Staunton. It might be added parenthetically that two other mines lay just across the Madison County line from Staunton, and that most of the men who worked in them actually lived in that Macoupin town. The total coal production of all Macoupin mines in 1910 was 4,040,436 tons, and all twenty-two mines employed a total of 4,681 men. Once again, parenthetically, the inspector reported one revealing statistic: of the total number of miners employed in the shafts, some 150 boys were among them, although no age levels for this group were given.(3)

Villages and small settlements became minor boom towns overnight. Between Gillespie and Staunton pit villages appeared carrying the names of Benld, Sawyerville, Eagerville, and Mt. Clare. The first of these took its name from the ineptitude of an itinerant sign painter who fell while attempting to paint the name of a mine developer, Ben L. Dorsay, on the tipple. He was hurt and unable to finish his work, and so, from that point on, the settlement was known as Ben L. D., the first five letters of the mine owner's name.

Working the deeper pits of Macoupin and Montgomery counties was considerably different than the effort required in many of the shallow mines in southern Illinois. The labor pool which fed these new mines was principally immigrant, and the workers came from every European country, including Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Italians and Russians flocked to Benld, the presence of the latter being marked by the continuing presence of a quaintly beautiful Orthodox church. Croatians, Serbians, Bohemians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Letts, Lithuanians, Germans, and British also came. While not seeking to demean the hard working and ambitious immigrants from other lands, it would be fair to say that the more skilled deep- pit miners and, indeed, the most activist in terms of the mine unions were those from Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland.

Consider the case of the Panama mines. Of the 1,500 people living in that Montgomery County town in 1910, the predominant ethnic group was Italian, with a score of other elements represented in lesser numbers. Yet, with all of this ethnic variety, only one name is remembered out of that hectic period, and that is John Llewellyn Lewis, of Welsh heritage from Iowa. Those British who came to work the mines around the turn of the century were hard-bitten, acerbic, and cynical men who had already cut their teeth on the emerging trade unionism of Britain. As one Scot remarked some forty years after settling in Gillespie, "When I came to America to work in the mines, I was determined never to tip my cap to the man who owned the mine."(4) It is strange but true that after all of the blood and the suffering of miners in this country, the only great novel to which American miners might relate is How Green Was My Valley, written by Richard Llewellyn. It is a moving story about mining and mine unionism, not in the United States but in Wales.

Early evidence of the militancy of the new immigrants to Macoupin County was shown in the coal strike of 1894. Although the bankrupt United Mine Workers accepted the offer of operators in early June, miners of southeast Illinois simply refused to obey the agreement. On nine different occasions the state militia was sent to various parts of the region to quell disturbances. These actions by the governor brought commendations from some newspapers, particularly the Chicago Tribune. That paper argued that, under the circumstances, perhaps the new and troublesome immigrant workers might be speeded back to the lands of their birth. The militia was especially needed in the Mt. Olive area of Macoupin County, for there the miners had continuously interfered with trains carrying coal from the nonunion fields of the south.

Some of this activity may have been inspired by a fascinating character named Alexander Bradley. Sometimes claimed by Mt. Olive, and later nicknamed "the General," Bradley was an Englishborn, nebulous character who flitted in and out of mine issues for over forty years. Always flamboyantly dressed, he was a quadrennial candidate for one office or another on the Socialist ticket, and he played a part in one of the most violent episodes in Illinois mining history.(5)

What Bradley and others saw in the mine fields of Illinois was a kind of industrial feudalism supported by both the law and the political establishment. The famous muckraker, Henry D. Lloyd described the system as a "pustule of a disease spread through the whole body." The average annual income of a Macoupin or Montgomery County miner in 1897 was approximately $190. For this he worked 179 ten-hour days each year. Out of this princely sum the miner supplied his own tools and his own transportation. This reason alone would account for the militant willingness of Macoupin and Montgomery County miners to join the United Mine Workers coal strike of 1897.(6)

Some six months later, in 1898, the operators settled on terms which were considered as a victory for the union. But the ordeal was not over. Led by operators who owned mines stretching along the Chicago and Alton Railroad, a segment of management balked at the new contract. Strongest among the protestors were the Chicago-Virden Coal Company and the Pana Coal Company. The former was a power to be reckoned with. Its mine at Virden was the largest single producer in the state, hoisting 348,000 tons a year prior to the 1897 strike. Even when a national board returned findings in favor of the miners, both the Virden and the Pana companies argued that they simply would not accept the finings.

Through the early months of 1898, the situation at Virden and at Pana went from bad to worse. The Pana company attempted to employ nonunion white labor in an effort to work their mine, but Christian county resistance was so great that the company quit the effort. The same company, and possibly some agents of the Chicago-Virden Company as well, then tried to recruit Chinese labor in California. The results were fruitless. Finally, in August, both companies resolved to import black labor from Alabama. By promising conditions which might have astounded the white strikers in Pana and Virden, agents soon rounded up a trainload of black miners from the Birmingham region of that state.

All along the route through southern Illinois, the strike organizers of the United Mine Workers succeeded in boarding the northbound train, and in warning the imported strikebreakers that their lives might be in peril further north. Indeed, some shots may have been fired along the way, for the guards riding shotgun were forced to compel their passengers to lower the blinds and not to show their faces under any circumstance. Despite all attempts of the union, and even despite the warnings of governor Tanner, who issued a statement on behalf of the union, the Pana Company managed to sneak its train into Pana and to house their strikebreakers behind a stockade near the struck mines.

The Chicago-Virden Company quickly followed suit, erecting a stockade which, in aging photographs, tends to resemble something Jim Bridger might have thrown up near the North Platte or on the wide Missouri. The compnay went one step further, hiring fifty professional gunfighters from Chicago and St. Louis. Fitted out with shiny new Winchester rifles, these men were stationed about the mine and even on the tipple in order to protect the train which was about to arrive.

Of course, all of these preparations were in the way of a signal to the striking miners and their supporters in Macoupin County. Led by the ubiquitous General Bradley, hundreds of miners from Gillespie, Benld, Staunton, and particularly Mt. Olive poured into the Virden area. The train puffed into sight at the appointed hour, but the engineer, blessed with more wisdom than valor, puffed right out again in the direction of Springfield. All of those men, vicious in their righteous indignation and armed with weapons ranging from pitchforks to shotguns, seemed too much of an obstacle.

Still the Chicago-Virden Company persisted despite the efforts of various local authorities north of Virden who attempted to dissuade the company from its goal. Sixty blacks were taken off the train at Tower Hill, fourteen others at Minonk, and the train was even shunted onto a sidetrack at Galesburg in order to thwart the attempt to break the strike.

Finally, on October 13, the Chicago-Virden Company made its final assault upon the besieged stockade. The train rolled southward and finally into Virden, Where it was halted next to the fort. Both the hired guards and the strikers opened fire at once and the scene became, according to one observer, reminiscent of the fighting at San Juan Hill some months earlier. When the engineer once again opened his throttle and backed up in the direction of Springfield, and when the smoke had cleared, it could be recorded that the human sacrifice had been significant. Seven miners were killed and between thirty and forty were wounded. Of the guards, five were killed and four wounded. No injuries were incurred among the blacks.

Governor Tanner quickly sent the militia into the area, with orders to prevent violence and to thwart any further attempts to bring in strikebreakers. What happened to the blacks? Most stayed in Illinois, either settling in Springfield or moving up to Chicago. As far as the miners were concerned, their victory was both sweet and tragic. They now had the martyrs any movement had to have, and one month later in Virden, the company finally agreed to pay the higher wage scale. It was a victory for militant unionism, although won at a high cost. A short time later, a visitor to these same Illinois mine fields affected by the strike was to note an absence of pet dogs and cats. The truth was that there were none. They had all been eaten.(7)

The aftermath of what came to be known as the "Virden Massacre" was an explosion of fact into myth. The murdered "boys of Virden," as Mother Jones called them, seemed to grow in number with each decade. Yet their martyrdom seemed undeniable to most Macoupin County miners. A month after the fight at Virden, a State Militia captain described the striking miners at Virden as mostly "Slavonic" who were impossible to "educate and elevate." He was partially right in the sense that some of the miners were Slavic in descent, but the nationalities of four of the dead who came from Mr. Olive is a story unto itself. Two had pioneer backgrounds or were British (Long and Smith), and two were Germans (Gitterle and Kaemerer). For some inexplicable reason, all four were denied burial in the town's established cemeteries, so their comrades were forced to buy an acre of land in which they might be interred. Some twenty years later, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones made a dedicatory speech for this Union Cemetery, and in it she stated, "I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys." Her wishes were eventually fulfilled, and today she rests in Mt. Olive with the "boys of Virden."(8)

Perhaps it was as Mrs. Jones had intimated in her 1923 speech at Mt. Olive: That the martyrdom of the Virden boys had created such a militancy in what was now called District 12 of the United Mine Workers that it would draw special attention from mine operators. Or perhaps it was that the better working conditions in District 12 simply developed because big capital found it to be a profitable area in which to mine coal. At any rate, the growth in coal production and the numbers of mine sinkings after 1898 in both Macoupin and Montgomery Counties were quite substantial. The most significant of these were those mines developed by the Superior Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Four major tipples were constructed at Eagerville, Sawyerville, Mt. Clare, and at Wilsonville. The last, Superior's No. 4, was partially a response of the World War I demand for fuel. Hence the reason for naming the town Wilsonville. Of the four mining villages, this last was the source of the most labor trouble for the Superior Company. It was also a little village which, as voting statistics show, harbored more political radicals than the larger towns in the county.(9)

That big capital had discovered the possibilities for enormous profits in coal in southern and central Illinois is shown by the fact that Joseph Leiter and John "Bet-a-Million" Gates could be numbered among the new investors. Leiter, a Chicagoan and typical of the nouveau riche of his time, was famous not only for his wealth but also for his wife, a woman whose tongue sometimes belied her social status. Malapropisms abounded in her vocabulary. She once told reporters that she planned to attend a fancy masquerade bell dressed in the "garbage of a nun." Entrepreneurs or not, such individuals as Gates and Leiter played for high stakes, and their dealings were sometimes hidden behind such interlocking directorates that union leaders were sometimes forced to bargain in the chilly confines of some LaSalle Street bank or in the Union Trust Bank at Pittsburgh. One small Gillespie mine, "The Little Dog," was once owned by the Lehmann Corporation, whose most famous public outcropping was Herbert Lehmann, a New Dealer and one-time governor of New York. Lehmann's liberal viewpoints did not serve to drastically alter or improve the conditions of men who worked that mine.(10)

So rapid was the economic growth in both Macoupin and Montgomery counties after 1900 that the McKinley enterprises, which were based in the east, built a so-called "interurban railroad" from Danville to Champaign and thence to St. Louis. The track for what was jokingly called "the Toonerville trolley" ran straight down the main street of Gillespie which, by the mid-twenties, had become the largest town in the county. Over in Montgomery County, small settlements were absorbed by bigger towns. The town of Witt, for instance, grew so rapidly after 1900 that it overran the nearby English settlement of Paisley.

All of the mining towns in the two counties grew rapidly, and all seemed to develop characteristics derived from the ethnic elements which predominated within them. Of course, some claims fell into the realm of myth, but it was argued that the best bootleg beer after 1925 came from Mt. Olive. The best wine and pasta, it was said, came from Benld. Because scores of English families settled in Witt, it was said that the best home cooked candies came from that town. The best scones and tea cakes were to be had in Gillespie. Seemingly unrelated to anything in the way of ethnicity was the claim that the best baseball players came from the Nokomis area.(11)

It was into this milieu of coal and ethnic expansion that, on some day between April 4 and June 25, 1908, John Llewellyn Lewis stepped. This was the same year in which John Mitchell, the declining hero of the United Mine Workers Union, was to give his last National Union report. Why did Lewis come to Montgomery County? According to Dubovsky and Van Tine, Lewis's latest biographers, he emigrated from Iowa to Panama, Illinois partially because of the militant unionism which pervaded the atmosphere of Montgomery and Macoupin counties. Saul Alinsky, in a adulative biography written some years earlier, makes the same claim.(12)

Lewis's brothers as well as his father also moved to Panama, and soon the family seemed to have seized control of the town. John was elected president of the U.M.W. local, Thomas became the police magistrate (some years later, he would be both the local union president and the manager of Shoal Creek No. 1), Dennie became financial secretary of the Panama local, and three others were simply labor union activists.(13)

In the autumn of 1909, almost all of the male population of the northern Illinois town of Cherry was wiped out in a terrible mine disaster. Through the efforts of John Walker, then the leader of District 12 (which included Illinois), John L. Lewis was given the special task of lobbying for more stringent mine safety laws in Springfield. In a sense, he never went back to Panama. Mine safety laws were radically improved, probably due less to Lewis' efforts than to the public hue and outcry over the Cherry disaster. Whatever the reasons, the miners of District 12 took the position that by being militant, by not backing down an inch, they could annually improve their financial and working conditions. Lewis road the tide, and by 1919, he had put himself into a position which brought him the acting presidency of the national union.(14)

Through the decade of the 1920's, the major problem for union coal miners in northern fields was the tremendous growth in the production of nonunion coal in Kentucky and Appalachia. With such cheap coal as a weapon, northern producers sought to reduce gains made previously among unionized miners by attempting to lower wages in the northern mines. Although Lewis argued the principle of "not one step backward," the reality of nonunion coal production was something else. In 1928, just prior to the onset of the Great Depression, affairs had reached such a sorry state among mines operating under United Mine Workers contracts that Lewis sent out a call of almost appalling desperation. Every district for itself, he told his workers: each was free to make its own contract.

There had been strikes during the 1920's in Illinois, but in general conditions had been fairly good. Irving Bernstein, in his History of the American Worker, 1920-1933, writes that local papers in southern Illinois, and in Franklin and Williamson counties in particular, had been filled with advertisements for radios, coats, and even books. Whatever strikes had occurred (and in District 12, there had never been any hesitancy about calling them) had been relatively painless. Once in a while, District 12 miners had "wildcatted" strikes over such simple issues that it appeared as if they really wanted to have a day off. But 1928 was something else indeed, and in the end, even District 12 was forced into a contract which lowered daily wages from $7.50 to $6.10 a day.

The touchiness of miners in District 12 did have tangible effects, however. The pay reduction there was considerably less than in other mining areas of the nation. Still, to the 50,000 miners in District 12, Lewis's willingness to submit to reductions seemed tantamount to abject surrender, and this was particularly true with respect to those who knew him best - the miners of Macoupin County. The same could not be said for miners in Montgomery County, however, for their situation was now becoming shaded by other changes. The mines of Witt had fallen into long closings, and those of Coalton and Nokomis apparently had a limited future.

Among the Macoupin County miners, it was not uncommon to hear Lewis now being referred to as a "crook," and there were rumors that he lived in almost baronial splendor. The last was not entirely true, but miners who took their families to Springfield on the electric railroad almost always made a pilgrimage by the Lewis home, a large sturdy structure which was certainly beyond anything which they might ever own. Such mutterings were increased when Lewis, as the president of the United Mine Workers, got into a deadly quarrel with the president of district 12, Frank Farrington. The latter had dared to challenge Lewis's authority and his power as well, the result being that Lewis unloaded on his enemy with such deadly precision that no one could err in naming him the biggest boy in the block.

While the quarrel between Farrington and Lewis was at its height, the former was persuaded to take a trip to Europe. Within days after the departure of the ship, Lewis released his most deadly missile. It was the revelation that Farrington, while president of District 12, had also signed on with the Peabody Coal Company as its "public relations expert" at an annual salary of $25,000. Peabody was a dirty name to many Illinois miners, and Farrington's deception was incredible in view of the fact that District 12 miners had just seen their wages lowered in the contract of 1928. (15)

When, in 1928, Lewis told his districts to pull in their wagons and to defend themselves, it was only a hint of the misery to come.

In the following year, with the onset of the Great Depression, coal fields in general, with the exception of those in central Illinois, became remnants of what they had been. The economic malaise quickly metastasized into a broad cancer. In Little Egypt, Sesser's three mines were closed, and so were Benton's four. Johnson City soon had eight abandoned mines. Within ten years, in the three counties of Franklin, Williamson, and Saline, there would be a total of 109 abandoned mines.

The growth of nonunion coal had a certain effect on mines around Witt and Hillsboro in Montgomery County, and this, plus the ordinary militancy of miners in Macoupin County, heightened the unrest of miners in those two counties over the seeming lack of leadership in the United Mine Workers itself. After all, as has been stressed before, if Lewis was known at all by the rank and file of his union, it would be by the workers in Macoupin and Montgomery Counties. While miners had taken wage decreases in both 1928 and 1929, Lewis's salary had more than doubled. The president now owned a prosperous bank, he traded successfully in the market, and it was said of him that he was making more money than smaller operators. Miners in Macoupin County especially would have agreed with Lewis's most recent biographers that, by 1929 and 1930, he had become "very much a man of the American 1920's."(16)

By March 1930, with the movement centering in Macoupin, Montgomery, and Christian counties, District 12 was in revolt against Lewis. An attempt was made to run the venerable John Walker against Lewis, but this was quickly nipped in the bud when Lewis preemptively ruled Walker constitutionally ineligible. Lewis' opposition was a mixed bag of dedicated unionists and radicals. One should not discount the latter, especially in Macoupin County. In the election of 1920, for instance, there was no Communist Party listed on Illinois ballots, but the Socialist and Socialist-Labor candidates won 1,291 votes in that county. Compared to a non-coal county such as Adams, the difference was remarkable. Larger in population than Macoupin, Adams County gave 404 votes to both of the radical candidates.

Four years later, in 1924, with the Progressive party, Socialist-Labor party, and Workers' Party (Communist) candidates on the ballots, Macoupin County tallied 6,959 votes for the first, thirty-two for the second, and seventy-seven for the last. Once again, this far exceeded the Adams county votes for the candidates of those three parties.

The Communist vote in Macoupin went up by fur in 1928, but in 1932 the results were more interesting. Norman Thomas received 1,567 votes, the Socialist-Labor candidate won fifty-one votes, and the Communist candidate received 134 votes. The Lemke-O'Brien Union Party ticket was to affect the 1936 election, drawing 950 votes in Macoupin county, but a study of the Socialist party vote in that election is revealing. There was no Communist candidate, and one may assume that votes ordinarily going in that direction would be cast for the venerable Norman Thomas. Thomas did well in three areas in Macoupin: in Benld, in Gillespie, where he received his largest support, and in one of the Dorchester precincts. Dorchester itself is a little farming village, but it does have one precinct which covers the Wilsonville area, where Superior Mine No. 4 is located. There Thomas got forty votes which, by calculation, amounts to almost three times the number which the candidate received in five precincts of Carlineville, the county seat.(17)

All of these factors--the Lewis-Farrington controversy; the basic radicalism of Macoupin miners as opposed to Lewis, the "man of the twenties"; the worsening conditions of the miners--would have profound effects upon the dramatic episodes which were to occur in 1932. In that year, the four-year contract between District 12 miners and the operators was drawing to an end. By March 31, almost all of the District 12 workers had left the pits due to the failure to bring negotiations to a close. Finally, on July 9, a new contract was announced, and although many miners may have resigned to losing ground in terms of annual income, the extent to which they were expected to give way was shocking. The basic daily wage scale on the previous contract was $6.10; the new contract was to lower this to $5.00. When the contract was submitted to miners for their approval, they angrily turned it down by a majority of more than two to one.

Within days a second proposal, which called for essentially the same agreement, was again submitted to the miners. Lewis, by now the international president of the U.M.W.A., ranged through the state, although mostly in the fairly safe districts. He pleaded for acceptance of the contract. The unfortunate and still highly respected District 12 president, John H. Walker, was given the onerous task of selling the agreement to the more militant miners. His appearance in Gillespie was disastrous, and it nearly erupted into personal violence against himself.

The meeting in that town was scheduled at an unused movie theater. Hours before the appointed time, miners began to come into town from outlying villages such as Eagerville, Mt. Clare, Sawyerville, and Wilsonville. The more outspoken opponents to the new contract occupied the front seats in the old building, and as Walker began his attempt to sell the contract to the miners, one by one they leaped to their feet. They would not go gently into that good night as lackeys or minions who would sell their right to a fair living. As the house rocked with applause from the angry audience, the poorly constructed old movie house almost seemed to self destruct. Chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling upon those seated below; not small pieces drifting through unmoving wisps of pipe smoke, but yardwide flat pieces which fell noisily on both people and seats below. Walker, veteran to mine militancy that he was, soon cut short his effort and quickly left town.(18)

The vote upon the second contract took place on August 6. The early pronouncements of Lewis' immediate subordinates indicated that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the referendum had carried in favor of the contract. Before any affirmation of the tally sheets could be made, the news suddenly broke that all of the sheets had been stolen. Evidence that the thieves had been high officers in District 12 was open and clear--a crime compounded by Lewis himself a few days later when he peremptorily announced that, because the sheets had disappeared, he was ordering miners to accept the terms of the new contract.

It was soon obvious that opposition to the skullduggery of the leadership of District 12 was strongest in Macoupin County. There in Benld, on August 14, rank and file miners held a meeting to determine the action to be taken against mines elsewhere which were in obeisance to Lewis's order. There was particular bitterness against Christian county miners who were answering the call of the Peabody Coal Company to resume work. The Benld decision was that miners should proceed to the Taylorville area and that they should picket working mines in that county. By August 19 there were some 1,500 miners, most of them from Macoupin county, en route to Taylorville. Their efforts were quickly successful; the Christian County miners refused to cross picket lines.

Temporarily successful in this effort, the attention of the Macoupin County miners now turned to southern Illinois, where miners of Franklin county had returned to work under the terms of the new contract. In Little Egypt, conditions were of a much different nature. Earlier picket lines had been dispersed by questionable tactics on the part of county law authorities. One picket had been murdered, and many of the workers in that area were anxious to return to work lest their places of employment be permanently closed.

Still, the union leaders in the Gillespie and Benld area made plans for a huge picketing demonstration, announcing that no miners would be armed, and that the parade of autos into southern Illinois was to be well organized and peaceful. Some 10,000 miners left the Staunton area, the tunes of the local municipal band ringing in their ears.

The circumstances of what soon came to be known as the "Battle of Mulkeytown" seem clearly to have been a result of collaboration between the sheriff of Franklin county, state police who directed the caravan into an ambush, and militant Lewis followers among the local miners. Hundreds of high school boys, coal miners, and businessmen were deputized by the Franklin county sheriff, as well as two physicians who were told to treat only Franklin county people among the expected casualties.

When the head of the vast cavalcade reached U.S. Highway 51south of DuQuoin, the state police shunted the leading cars eastward on State Highway 14. When the leading cars crossed the Little Muddy River, a short distance from the village of Mulkeytown, the sheriff's deputies suddenly appeared ahead. Shots were fired, men were beaten, cars were pushed over, and tires were punctured. It was hardly a melee, much less a battle. There was no contest, for only one side was armed. The great caravan turned around, and headed northward. Five of the would-be picketers were casualties; none of the sheriff's deputies had been wounded.(19)

With miners in southern Illinois working in the pits at the reduced wages, and a crumbling situation in the Peabody mines in Christian County, the militant miners now called a convention for September 1, 1932. Meeting in Gillespie and in the old Colonial Theater, which had shook at the rejection of John H. Walker's midsummer plea to accept the new contract, the convention recommended the organization of a new union to be called the Progressive Miners of America. Its acting president, later to be its regular president, was a working miner, Claude Pearcy of Gillespie. How odd it would seem to some miners later when they realized that Pearcy, a decent and intelligent man, had been born in Lucas, Iowa, the birthplace of John L. Lewis, and that only eight years separated them in age.(20)

Progressive Miners founding convention
While it may be true that, as some writers claim, the Progressive Miners of America (later the Progressive Mine Workers of America) were made up of pure militants, Communists, Musteites, Ku Klux Klanners, opportunists, and worse, whatever can be said in this respect can be repeated in turn for their opponents, the United Mine Workers. The 1930's, at least the years following the establishment of a second mine union, were filled with violence wherever and whenever the two unions came into conflict over control. While this was not so much true of Montgomery County because its coal mining days were temporarily ended, or in Macoupin County, in which almost everyone was a Progressive, it was true in southern Illinois and in Christian County. The Progressives (called "Proggies" by the United Mine Workers) did bargain into a slightly better contract, which added both advantages and woes to the new union. Operators, such as Peabody in Christian County, managed to obtain state militia protection from picketing, and simply refused to consider the more costly Progressive contract. In southern Illinois, whenever miners were taken with the "Progressive disease," they were often summarily fired.

Men died on both sides. Strikers were shot by national guardsmen, fights between scores of men were everyday occurrences in 1933 and 1934, and even the members of the Progressive Mine Workers Womens' Auxiliary were assaulted in Franklin County. This last organization, headed by Agnes Burns Wieck of Belleville, was no less militant in its activities than the union itself.(21)

A major problem of the Progressives was in obtaining recognition by the National Labor Relations Board, over which Lewis exercised so much influence. It was a particularly damaging situation, for any disputes involving discrimination against miners with Progressive affiliations had no hearing. President Pearcy of the Progressives attempted to rid the union of its red-tainted officers, in one instance firing the editor of the union newspaper, Gerry Allard. Lewis' stranglehold on the Department of Labor and his heavy contributions to the Democratic Party delayed National Labor Relations Board considerations of Progressive claims until midsummer of 1937. The recognition of the P.M.W.A. by the Board came after President Roosevelt's second inauguration and may have had some relationship to the quarrel which was soon to take place between the President and Lewis.

Though the issue of radical militancy had died along with the closing coal mines of Montgomery County, it remained a vital factor in yearly developments in the 1930's in Macoupin county. In 1937, over what seems to have been a slight grievance in Superior Mine No. 4 in Wilsonville, miners there refused to come topside at the close of the day's operations. It was the first so-called sit down strike to be conducted in a coal mine, and it lasted very nearly a week.(22)

And the union itself continued to have troubles. In 1939, two of its organizers were suspended on the charges of having proselyted for causes and principles adverse to the aims and aspirations of the union as a whole. Even at this date, some forty-one years later, it is dangerous to state just why the two men were punished. One may suspect at some risk that the two individuals were advocating principles so far to the left that even union officials could not support them.(23)

With virtually all of the old mines of Macoupin and Montgomery closed in 1980, one can now summarize the contributions of the two counties in terms of radical unionism and workers' militancy. There was the violence in the Mt. Olive coal field in the early 1890's and the Virden-Pana battle of 1898. John L. Lewis emerged in Montgomery County after 1908. He rose to leadership of the United Mine Workers and, with his friend Allan Haywood, once of Witt in Montgomery County, later organized the Committee of Industrial Organization in the 1930's. There was the peculiar "General" Bradley of Mt. Olive, and the famous "Mother" Jones who would be buried there. The latter not only helped to organize the International Workers of the World, the I.W.W. or the "wobblies," but she had some kind of a mysterious hand in the workings of the Mexican Revolution in 1915. And for Mother Jones' connoisseurs (she seems to have been rediscovered of late), there is even a radical feminist magazine published today in San Francisco. Called simply Mother Jones, its recent Christmas issue carried an artist's illustration of Mother Jones in a Santa Claus suit, with the notion that the leading article inside was entitled "Happy Hell Raising." Then there was the violence of the anti-Lewis movement and the organization of the Progressive Mine Workers of America. Forty-eight years after its founding, the union still exists, although it would be difficult to enumerate its membership.

Through it all, was there anything in the way of contradiction, anything in the way of anomaly? John L. Lewis came to work in Panama in 1908. One year earlier, Louis Kenneth Eilers was born in Gillespie. The first became a great union leader, the second the president of the Eastman-Kodak Company. Allan Haywood emigrated from England to Witt in Montgomery County, though his stay there was brief. Haywood eventually became a high official in the C.I.O. and in the United Automobile Workers of America. Leslie Berry Worthington was also born in England. He was brought to Witt by his family at about the same time Haywood arrived there from what was called the "old country." Worthington, like Eilers, had a long career in the business world, eventually becoming the president of U.S. Steel. Were they all examples of the way that was in the free-wheeling America of seventy years ago? Or were their successes, all of them, the results of the electric social climate of the coal fields of Macoupin and Montgomery counties?(24)

NOTES

(1)Garland's dissection of farm life is found in his Main-Travelled Roads (1891). Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives (1890), a powerful indictment of social disparity in New York City

(2)John Keiser, Building for the Centuries: Illinois, 1865 to 1898 (Urbana: Univ. Of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 12-13. Many of the early St. Clair County miners were active in the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers, an affiliation of the Knights of Labor. The original charter for Local Union No. 644, District 6 (Hillsboro, Ill.) was, for many years, displayed on the wall of Room 508, Ridgely Bank Building, Springfield, Ill. See Dallas M. Young, "A History of the Progressive Miners of America, 1932-1940," Diss. University of Illinois 1942, p.9.

(3)The Area News (Gillespie, Illinois) 22 Aug. 1980, section 2, p. 1, and Melvyn Dubovsky and Warren Van Tine, John L. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Club, 1977), p. 21.

(4)My own recollections. As to the importance of the British in the American labor movement, consider Sam Gompers, a London-born Jew and the leader of the American Federation of Labor for decades; Philip Murray, a Scot and important labor leader in the 1930's; John Mitchell, American born of a Scottish mother, and early leader of the United Mine Workers of America; Allan Haywood, an Englishman and 1930s' leader of the C.I.O.; and John Brophy, Lancashire-born coal union leader in the West Virginia fields.

(5)Keiser, Building for the Centuries, pp. 246-47. See also: John Keiser, "The Union Miners Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois--A Spirit-Thread of Labor History," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 62 (1969), 229-66. Keiser gives a fine portrait of Bradley, who was born in England in 1866, brought to Collinsville in 1873 by his family, and later settled in Mt. Olive.

(6)Victor Hicken, "The Virden and Pana Mine Wars of 1898," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 52 (1959), 264-66. The quote by Lloyd is from his book, A Strike of Millionaires against Miners (Chicago: n.p., 1890), p. 10.

(7)Hicken, "The Virden and Pana Mine Wars," pp. 265-78; also Keiser, "The Union Miners Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois, pp. 243-50.

(8)Ibid, p. 251. Dale Fetherling, Mother Jones: The Miners' Angel (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1974), p. 16.

(9)The Area News, section 2, p. 1. Also, tally sheets from the 1936 election, copy forwarded by Philip Brown, Macoupin County Clerk. The 1936 selection, the only one close to the 1931 depression for which tally sheets are still available in the County Clerk's Office, shows forty-seven Socialist and Socialist-Labor votes for Wilsonville, Carlinville, the county seat, had only fourteen in the same categories. There was no Communist presidential candidate listed for Illinois in 1936.

(10)McAlister Coleman, Men and Coal (New York: Arno and The New York Times, 1969), p. 76. In so far as working conditions in the coal mines were concerned, it should be remembered that the official figure for deaths from pit accidents since 1900 is 102,968. Some 3,242 miners died in 1907 alone. These figures do not include deaths from slow but relentless black lung disease which, in 1975, was accounting for between 4,000 and 5,000 deaths among old miners. See the Chicago Tribune, 12 Mar. 1980, p. 10.

(11)Nokomis produced two baseball Hall of Famers: Charles "Red" Ruffing of the Yankees, and Jim Bottomley of the Cardinals. Ruffing lost part of a foot while working as a miner but it did not hinder him from winning 273 games from 1924 to 1947.

(12)Dubovsky and Van Tine, p. 20. Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1949), p. 21. Alinsky's glosses over almost everything in Lewis's life which might have been ethically questionable.

(13)Dubovsky and Van Tine, pp. 56-57.

(14)Irving Bernstein, A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933: The Lean Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), pp. 362-74.

15)Ibid., pp. 360-69, and Coleman, p. 138. I also draw upon my own memory for some of the impressions Macoupin County miners had of John L. Lewis.

(16)Bernstein, pp. 362-65; Coleman, pp. 142-43. As for Lewis's 1920's financial dealings, see Dubovsky and Van Tine, p. 150.

(17)Most of these figures come from the Illinois Blue Book, an annual publication of the State of Illinois concerning the state. Phil Brown, County Clerk, Macoupin County gave me a copy of the 1936 vote tallies. It is interesting to note that Jennie Lee, the wife of British Labor Socialist Aneurin Bevan, made several visits to Gillespie during the 1930's. Not only was it the Scots settlement which drew her there, but the radical coloration of the mining population as well. It might be noted here that in 1976 there were seventy-four Macoupin County votes for the Communist candidate, five for the Socialist-Labor, and seven for the Socialist. Adams County, by comparison, tallied twenty-five Communist, eight Socialist-Labor, and twelve Socialist votes.

(18)Bernstein, pp. 370-77. I was present in the old Colonial Theater when Walker spoke.

(19)The events of summer, 1932, are described in Dallas Young's Ph.D. dissertation, pp. 49-95; Bernstein, pp. 370-77; Dubovsky and Van Tine, pp. 163-77; and Coleman, pp. 140- 42.

(20)Young, p. 113. I saw Mr. Pearcy often. I also attended school with his children.

(21)Ibid., p. 117. Through the summers of 1932 and 1933 there were countless rallies and picnics throughout the area in support of the Progressive cause. The "women's auxiliary" was always present. I have in my memorabilia a clipping which describes a rally on the farm of Bill Hicken at Witt. The article ends: "Every one was tired and weary but well pleased at having been present to take part in such an enjoyable outing."

(22)"Sit Down Strike Continues," St. Louis Star-Times, 25 May 1937, p. 1.

(23)Young, p. 184, gives no hint as to why the two men were suspended. I have my own opinions, having been acquainted with one of them. Dubovsky and Van Tine, p. 170, state that the Progressives were an admixture of Communists and Musteites, Ku Klux Klanners, opportunists, and pie-card artists. I have no idea what a pie-card artist is, but the term Musteite was applied to any radical who espoused the ideas taught at the Brookwood Labor College in New York state.

(24)My parents knew the Haywood family well, I also knew the families of Leslie Worthington and Louis Eilers.

 

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©1997 Victor Hicken

"And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destiny of the nation in her own hands and she will stand as a united force and show the world what the workers can do." --- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930

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