Dark as a Dungeon- Mining in Appalachian Kentucky: Part 2

A Tale of Growing up cold, Rabble-Rousing and a constant search for better fitting shoes.

Link to Part 1 – Dark as a Dungeon
Link to Part 3- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 4- Dark As a Dungeon

A tale of growing up cold

Hillbillies “can’t never live in towns because one leg gets shorter than the other from a-walkin them tall hills” 

Tenement housing and poverty in major cities around the turn of the 20th century gets the lion’s share of attention in history because of the plethora of available images showing the cramped and inhuman conditions. Poverty in coal camps was probably just as or more intense but it’s considerably less documented. There wasn’t a famous expose on living conditions for miners. There was no Upton Sinclair novel driving attention to unsafe working conditions. Poverty in the Appalachian region was the kind of poverty that people could stomach – the kind that was so far away they never had to be reminded of it existing.

Appalachian coal town shacks. Credit- Arthur Leipzig (1949)

Despite the oppressive poverty in the Appalachian region, a diverse contingent of men and women came together and formed a unique culture. Rich story telling, religious practices and a musical tradition that eventually influenced the scenes in Memphis and Nashville that would help define and invent popular music as we still know it today all came out of the Appalachian region.

Outsiders rarely came to visit, and usually when they did it was for work and they came to stay. The mountains made it difficult for most major radio stations to broadcast, and every major improvement in infrastructure- whether it be trains, electricity, running water or paved roads – was decades behind in being implemented in the hill country. But these people weren’t completely isolated. The region was fiercely patriotic in their contemporary wars and still held wounds from the civil war where families were split on either side of the conflict. Kids in Appalachia even grew up playing baseball, just like in any other parts of the country. Unlike most of the country, though, they made bats from trees they cut down themselves and baseballs were usually rocks wrapped in cloth and tape. Their version of the national pastime helped them through the heat of summer. The good times.

Miners and their families mostly remember the cold. “Many a time, it’d be so cold you couldn’t walk, you’d have to run, and I had three quarters of a mile to go from the house to the schoolhouse.” In They say in Harlan County, Portelli describes the childhood stories of his oral history subjects as telling him “the tale of growing up cold.” You’d “Wake up of the morning and brush the snow out of your hair.”

The coal town homes that miners were allowed or forced/coerced to rent were shacks, by all accounts constructed with the same care and consideration as a birdhouse made by a 6th grader in shop class. There was no insulation, gaps in the planks which made up the walls that were large enough to see and talk through. Because of the slope of the hills where these towns were located, houses were often on stilts, exposing the uninsulated floorboards to the freezing mountain wind.

During the winter, as often as it was afforded, coal was kept burning in small grates in the center of the one room shack. Miners did get a little discount when purchasing the coal that they brought up from the mines, but it was not affordable to keep a fire lit for as long as one would need to keep warm. Houses caught fire often because of the constant presence of smoldering embers in shoddily constructed tinder boxes. But it was worth the risk to fight back the cold.

Shoes were rare, and almost exclusively reserved for adults who wouldn’t grow out of them quickly. Look closely at the mother’s shoes, which are unlaced and clearly too small for her feet. (Photo by George Skadding/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In Harlan County, Portelli tells of one story where his brother helped unload coal from a truck, and the steel bed frame was so cold that his feet stuck to the bed of the truck. “No one around here wore socks.” It seems even less could afford shoes- especially as children. The lack of funds to acquire even the most basic of supplies seemed to plague the entire region. Wealth seemed an unachievable dream- and people in this kind of circumstance are vulnerable to swindlers, thieves and bosses.

A Tale of Growing up cold, Rabble-Rousing and a constant search for better fitting shoes.

Rabble Rousers

Scrip from Jellico Coal Company. Credit- Knox Historical Museum

Gaining wealth in privately owned coal towns seems virtually impossible now. Because these weren’t incorporated towns recognized by the state, they were able to get away with a lot when exploiting workers. Paying workers in company scrip, or private currency, was supposed to be a benefit to the miners at first. They could “earn more” by taking scrip, which was basically a promise to buy everything they needed in their lives throughout he company at the company store. But over time, instead of getting more from scrip, miners simply ended up earning less if they took payment in actual cash. This seems particularly relevant today as some companies are experimenting with launching their own cryptocurrency and others pay bonuses or offer incentives with gift cards only redeemable with themselves*. These start out as perks but, without a voice fighting for the employees, will almost certainly devolve into being a part of the baseline of compensation, which does not typically scale well over time.

*Trigger warning on that link for some of you. I hope you survive

Because towns weren’t incorporated with the state, they were treated as expansive private estates which the workers were permitted to live on by the owners. The Louellen coal camp was treated as such and was able to restrict mobility of their workers, requiring permission to unlock gates to enter as well as leave. There were no renters rights or eviction notices- anyone from deadbeats to agitators to less than stellar workers were thrown out of the company provided homes without notice. Workers would come home from their shift to find everything they owned thrown out on the road with another family already moved in. This was a common punishment for being involved in talks of unionization, spending money on goods available at the company store in another town, or rabble-rousing in general.

“They that owned the company owned the churches”

So why did people stay? Why did they allow themselves to be subjected to these conditions? Living in a home where everything was full of dust- “you can’t get it out of anything”. Why stay where the air was so thick with coal dust that it stained clothes a different color, changed colors of the floors, walls- everything? Or why would someone stand the living near the pollution that followed mountaintop mining- “The river won’t freeze anymore. The rivers are so polluted they won’t freeze over no more.”

The practices of these companies around the turn of the century, whether by malicious intent or indifference, were ridiculously vertically integrated to the point where they owned everything the workers came into contact with. Because of all of the deductions of pay taken for living expenses, there weren’t any real paydays for many workers. “They didn’t draw any paydays ‘cause they didn’t make much money and they’d spend it in the store. And, if you had any pay coming, you got cash. We never had one. We never had  payday. I didn’t know anybody that did. Most everybody spent it in the store, you heard that song about the company store, “owe my soul to the company store”? Well, that’s the way it was.” One miner was more blunt,“They got it all back. They got back almost every dime you made.”

The captive nature of employment wasn’t limited to just the miners, it was also the clergy, doctors, teachers, newspaper editors* and storekeepers. “They that owned the company owned the churches. They paid their salaries. The preacher wold go to the window and draw his pay just like the miners did.” Teachers and doctors would try to skirt the system to help their neighbors- trying to be “one big family”- but they did that at their own risk. If they were caught, their stuff was likely to be out on the street, just like the miners. No profession was safe from management and their “gun thugs”.

*Newspaper is a strong word, most of the publications were tightly curated company propaganda. Free newspapers were frequently banned from the coal towns

A Tale of Growing up cold, Rabble-Rousing and a constant search for better fitting shoes.


I’m dividing this into multiple parts. Next post I’ll dig into the interplay of some conflicting ideologies as they played influence on the people of the region.

Link to Part 1 – Dark as a Dungeon
Link to Part 3- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 4- Dark As a Dungeon


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