Coal Mining in Illinois


Excerpt from a story in the book Black Coal for White Bread, by Maurice R. Marchello

In the countries from which most of the townspeople migrated to my native town (Coal City), women became queens by virtue of royal blood lineage and upon their marriage to a reigning sovereign. In our early American melting-pot days a few women would acquire this title solely through their innate good qualities of kindness, perseverance, graciousness and exemplary character. Permit me to prove this by relating the saga of a German-Swiss fraulein who won this queenly esteem among the diverse ethnic immigrants in my hometown of Coal City, Illinois.

Constance Barber, the heroine of this musing, was born in a small Swiss village near St. Gotthard Mountain. At a very early age she married a Piedmontese laborer named Pietro Piagno, who helped bore the tunnel under its mountain peak. Pietro became jobless when the tunnel was completed in 1880 and took his wife and child, Bertha, to become a miner in our Illinois prairie. His tenure as a soft-coal miner was short-lived, as he suffered a recurrence of the lung ailment which he had contracted in the St. Gotthard Tunnel.

Through the insistence of his good "frau" Constance, Pietro agreed to open a general store in our mining town to compete with the large company-owned store. This was indeed quite a challenge in those pioneer mining days, but one which was heartily welcomed by the village miners, who were more than ready to stop "owing their souls to the company store." They bore bitter resentment against this monopolistic mine-owned business practice, as no groceries could be bought on credit when the miners were out of work or when a strike took place.

Shortly after the store began operating Pietro died, but the miners rallied to help the Swiss widow by increasing their patronage. This loyalty combined with the astuteness and good qualities of the widowed store merchant soon made "Peter Piagno's General Store" the leading one in the town; and the benign Constance did not forsake them. She carried them on the books when they became jobless and extended credit to them during their yearly strike periods. Whenever one was injured or killed in a mine accident, free baskets of food were promptly provided to their needy families.

My home-town Village Queen had several other attributes going for her. She was fluent in the three official Swiss languages, German, French and Italian and she spoke English with a rather unusual soft German accent. It would amuse me later when she became older how she quaintly mixed up her languages, and more particularly when she complimented one in a friendly greeting or parting salute. She would throw in an Italian "Ciao" with as equal ease as a native.

Her eyes exuded an aura of wisdom and kindness, while her well kept home and store premises became the talk of the town. As I was one of her young store helpers, she would assign me to clean the pigpens in the rear of the store. Rest assured that no hog ever wallowed in as clean an environment, as did the "Queen's" hogs after she inspected my pigsty cleaning tasks.

She was indeed a busy woman, but had a hobby, which became her favorite weekend pastime. The miner's wives considered her an expert in the art of reading fortunes from tea leaves and by the use of playing cards. A bevy of these women would line up on Saturday evenings after the store closed. I still remember the smiles on their faces as they left their "Queen" seer, who without doubt solaced and comforted them psychologically with some friendly advice and a few pleasant prognostications.

It was no small wonder, therefore, why they all called her the "Queen" or "Regina." Which title depended on the ethnic origin of her many admirers. Her benign qualities increased as she grew older, and when she passed away the entire village went into mourning. The Irish priest whom delivered the sermon at her funeral made this farewell tribute: "Our Queen truly brought to all of us a bit of Heaven on our bit of the Earth." To this day the corner of Division and Broadway Street in Coal City is still called the Queen's Corner, commemorating the location of her store.