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The only union-owned cemetery in the country, and the fascinating story of why it came to be. Mother Jones is buried there.

As Muslims go to Mecca, there is a shrine in Illinois that deserves a pilgrimmage by all labor-minded persons. It is the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.

It offers no miraculous visions or cures; but each one who visits will be touched, for this is the resting place of that "grandmother of agitators," Mary "Mother" Jones; and this is a place filled with the spirit of good union men. They are the coal miners she called "her boys," among whom she asked to be buried at the time of her death in 1930, at the age of 100.*

cemetary

Beyond the wrought iron gate to the little burial ground rises a granite obelisk on which is a great medallion bearing the likeness of Mother Jones. She is guarded on either side by a larger-than-life bronze statue of a coal miner with his sledge. At the base is a simple stone nestled in the grass, Mother Mary Jones.

Among the tombstones in the Union Miners Cemetery is that of "General" Alexander Bradley, surely the most flamboyant figure in all of labor history. Bradley got his military nickname as a reference to his service in Coxey's Army, that fabulous cross-country march of the unemployed which culminated in a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 1894.

Home again in Mt. Olive, Bradley became a self-appointed organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, which had scarcely 400 members in Illinois at that time. Yet, Bradley and a handful of area miners resolved at a secret meeting in the woods to join in a nation wide strike called by the UMWA for July 4, 1897.

With Bradley at their head, the miners marched to coal camps in Belleville, Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Collinsville exhorting the men to "pour the oil from their lamps" and join the strike, which they did.

Wearing his favorite outfit, a top hat and Prince Albert coat, an umbrella in hand, "General" Bradley took the train, alone, to DuQuoin, 75 miles away. Again, his eloquence (and perhaps his appearance) was rewarded. DuQuoin's miners agreed to join the strike.

The Union Miners Cemetery is linked to an episode in the strike known as "The Virden Riot," in which four Mt. Olive men (and still others from nearby towns) were killed in a shoot out with mine guards on October 10, 1898, as a train carrying 180 black strike-breakers recruited from the south, attempted to pass through a band of armed strikers, and reach safety within a fortified stockade at Virden.

The mine guards, imported from St. Louis, were better armed and had the advantage of the stockade. The firing was intense, lasting about ten minutes. The train's engineer was wounded and he returned to Springfield, with his cargo still aboard. Dead were seven miners and five guards. Forty other miners and four guards were wounded.

The National Guard arrived several hours later. Interestingly, the next day they turned back a second train carrying strike-breakers, a sensible action for which Governor Tanner was denounced in newspapers all over the state.

The men from Mt. Olive were buried originally in the town cemetery, but the owner of the land objected to the ceremonies and other activities which the miners held there. The Lutheran cemetery was barred to them because that minister denounced the miners as "murderers."

The local union, thereupon, purchased a one-acre site, and the bodies were moved to the new Union Miners Cemetery in 1899. Additional land was acquired in 1902, and again in 1918 and 1931, in order to accommodate the monument which was dedicated on October 11, 1936.

After several years of fund raising and legalistic maneuverings as a result of schisms in the UMWA, the title to the cemetery was lodged in the Progressive Mine Workers The cash raised for the monument was $16,393.25. All of the labor involved was donated. It stands 22 ft. high on a 20 x 18 ft. base. It is built of 80 tons of pink Minnesota granite. The name of the sculptor is lost from the record.

The dedication was, itself, a monumental event. Five special trains and 25 Greyhound busses brought celebrants to Mt. Olive. Others came in private cars or hitch-hiked to the town. The crowd was estimated at 50,000. There were 32,000 in the line of march.

mother jones

Senator Rush D. Holt of West Virginia, the state in which Mother Jones had been court-martialed and imprisoned during the 1912 Cabin Creek Strike, was a speaker. North Dakota Congressman William Lemke spoke. The socialist leader from Springfield, Duncan McDonald was a speaker, too. The dedication was recorded for the newsreels by Pathe' News. There was a broadcast by radio station KMOX, St Louis.

For many years, Miners Day, October 12 (Columbus Day), was the occasion for a big gathering in Mt. Olive and a visit to the Monument. With the years, however, interest began to flag. A renewed concern for the Cemetery and the traditions connected to it has been revived in recent times. A Springfield-based organization, the Friends of Mother Jones, holds an annual Saturday night event, with a Sunday motorcade to Mt. Olive. For information write to Jack Dyer, Mother Jones Foundation, Box 20412, Springfield, IL 62708.

In Mt. Olive, itself, there is an on-going effort by the Mother Jones Jubilee Committee to raise funds for monument maintenence and a museum. They hold an annual craft and food fair, and sell collector's items, a cup for $5.00, and a tee-shirt for $13.00. Also available is a cancellation commemorative stamped envelope for $3.00. Write to the Jubilee Committee at PO Box 185. Mt. Olive, IL 62069. These folks have the dedication, but they need help.

The present owner of the Cemetery is the Union Miners Cemetery Association, the Progressive Miners of America having turned over the deed to the Association, said to be composed largely of elderly ladies.

The Union Miners Cemetery appears in the National Register of Historic Places, a list maintained by the United States Department of Interior.

*Chicago, November 12, 1923

A Special Request to the Miners of Mt. Olive, Illinois:

When the last call comes for me to take my final rest, will the miners see that I get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives of the hills of Virden, Illinois on the morning of October 12, 1897 [sic], for their heroic sacrifice of [sic] their fellow men. They are responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America. I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys.

Mother Jones

{The above document was filed for the record in the Macoupin County seat in Carlinville, Ill. on January 9, 1924 at 2:56 P.M.]

[Much of this article is based on information found in a piece by Dr. John Keiser, which appeared under the title: The Union Miners Cemetery: A Spirit-Thread of Labor History in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn, 1969. The complete text of the Keiser article was published as a pamphlet by the Illinois Labor History Society in 1980 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Mother Jones, November 30, 1930. The complete text can be found in Mother Jones an the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, edited by Leslie Orear and published by the Illinois Labor History Society in 2002. It is available in our Bookstore]

"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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