Friday, May 23, 2014

Proud to be a Coal Miner's Granddaughter

"Well, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter...I remember well the well where I drew water" These are the lyrics from a favorite Loretta Lynn song that my mother used to sing when I was young.  She actually was coal miner's daughter!

My grandfather, Robert Cole, was a coal miner his whole life.  He went to school for just a couple of days and decided it wasn't for him, so at the age of 9, he went to work in the mines.  Yes, that wasn't a typo...I said 9.

He was born in Rose Hill, Virginia in 1911.  He lived the remainder of his life in Lee County, Virginia and on the other side of the mountain in Harlan, Kentucky.  As a side note, have you ever heard the song "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive"?  It is about the life of Harlan, Kentucky coal miner.

Death record for Jake Hensley found on Ancestry.com
Coal mining was a part of his ancestry and extended family.  His uncle, Dempsey Hensley, was killed in a slate fall in 1945.  Before that, his uncle Jake Hensley, was shot in the chest and killed in the years we know as "Bloody Harlan".  Harlan was a mining town with some serious problems during the 1920's and 1930's. My grandmother was said to have begged my grandpa to never work in Harlan for fear he would be shot.  It was a rough area.

Grandpa worked in several mines, but the following are the ones I remember hearing about:  Bonny Blue, Kemmer Jim, and Benedict.


Grandpa and the family lived in the coal camps early on, but in the 1940's they moved to Stone Creek in what is now Wolf Branch Hollow in Pennington Gap, VA.

Coal camps had their own commissary, post office, and gas stations.  Miners were paid with "script" that was meant to be used at that coal camp's facilities.  Here is a picture of some scrip from a mine in West Virginia:


Grandpa's main job as a miner was to go in before the workers did and "sure up" the ceilings. These mines were not below ground, but rather far back into a mountain side.  He worked along side his 2 sons, Millard and James.  It was a dangerous job and slate falls were always a great danger.  Grandpa was certified to give first aid to the injured. Below is a certificate given to him and now in the possession of my uncle Willard Cole.



I was not raised in a coal mining area and had no idea what life would have looked like there.  I was fortunate enough to come across (thank you cousin Kathy!) a facebook site dedicated to the area of Virginia and Kentucky where my grandparents lived.  "Looking Back at Days Gone By" is the name of the page.  It is dedicated to posting pictures of the history and the families of the Cumberland Gap region and in particular, coal mines.  Here I found a photo database loaded with pictures!

Bonny Blue Coal Camp where Grandpa worked and lived

Benedict Coal Tipple, another mine he worked in.

As I looked at the many photos of the coal mines, the story of how Grandpa died made more sense to me.

It was a cold, cloudy day in November at the coal mine owned by the Kirk's.  Grandpa had gone to work that afternoon with his 2 boys, Millard and James.  Later that evening, a third son Willard and Grandma drove over to pick the men up from work.  I interviewed Willard, the only son still living who witnessed the event, about what happened next.  In his own words is the story of that evening:  [Note to the readers, I have omitted some more personal things that he said for this public setting, however in our family book it is written in full]

"Mom and I walked on across and got in Dad’s truck and went up to the tipple of the mine and as soon as I opened the truck door I could hear Millard screaming, “Daddy’s dead.  Daddy’s in there.  Daddy’s been killed.”  And I knew.  I don’t remember exactly, but I must have grabbed that railroad jack out of the back of the truck and us 3 boys ran back in the mine where Daddy was.  It was about a quarter of a mile back.  The boys said he was covered up.  That slab was 18 inches thick, 12 feet long and 12 feet wide.  People said later it had weighed 3 tons.  We jacked up the rock, but the rock started to slip and I kid you not, those 2 boys, Millard and James,  held up that rock when the jack fell and I pulled Daddy’s body out from under the rock.  Me and James got on either side of him and carried him out of the mine.  With every breath he took, blood would bubble from his eyes and nose, his mouth and everything.  He was alive, but just barely.  Mom saw us coming and was just screaming and crying.  We put him in the cab of the truck ‘cause now it was late in the evening and turned cold and raining harder.  Mom was holding him on the other side and the boys were in the back.  Dad died in my arms right there.  We got down to the bridge there and Robert  Montgomery opened the door and said, “Willard, get on out now and let me take your Daddy.”  He felt his neck and said he was gone.  And I’ll never forget, he pulled him out on the gravel of the side of the road and it was raining and put an old dirty tarp over him.  I just ran.
After a while, the boys came and got me and we went back down to where the body was.  Robert Montgomery wanted us to go on home and he’d wait for the undertaker to come get the body, but we said no, we’d stay there till Clyde [the local undertaker] come.  So we got in my car [which had been left on the other side of the bridge that was out] across the way and waited.  When we were about to leave, Robert said, 'Willard, before you go home, you need to stop at Wright Kirk’s (he was one of the owners of the mine) and tell him what happened'.  So we did and when I told Wright about Daddy, he had a heart attack right there.  They said when they told Wright’s brother, George, he’d had a heart attack too.  ‘Course they were afraid, there being an accident in their mine and the insurance and all that.

“The undertaker brought the body back the next morning and laid him out in Lewey’s room in the back there.  He told us that they couldn’t bury Dad without his teeth and someone was going to have to go back in there [the mine] and get Dad’s teeth.  That was law see, you couldn’t bury anyone without you found all their body parts.  So he looked to Ben and Harold [Willard's 2 brother's in law] who were there and they would not do it, so Mom said to me, 'Willard, you’ll have to go'.  The coroner drove me over to the mine and he wouldn’t go in with me and I went in all by myself and picked up Dad’s teeth like they were corn kernels and put ‘em  in a little brown bag I had.  Back at the house, the neighbors and family was all there for the ‘wakening’ and they stayed up all night with the body.”  End quote.

Grandpa was killed in a slate fall on 13 November 1958 when my mother was just 11 years old. He was 46 years old.  He left behind my grandma with 5 children still left at home.  Grandma moved the family to Ohio the following year to get the boys away from the mines.  I can't imagine she could have stood to lose another loved one.

Grandpa loved and raised 10 kids on a miners pay...Grandma scrubbed their clothes on a washboard everyday...the work he done was hard, at night he'd sleep 'cause he was tired...and here I've wrote the memories of a coal miner's daughter.

Grandma Goldie Cole and Grandpa Robert Cole


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