Coal Mining in Illinois

Life of a Miner

Learning in Early Coal Mining Days
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By Dianne Thorgmorton
"Concerning Coal: An Anthology"

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly whose views are not necessarily represented by the views expressed herein.



Pioneering coal mining families moved their meager belongings wherever and whenever it was necessary to be close to the mines to have work. Children of those families often were put to work at the mines at an early age to help their fathers make a living digging coal. The children were employed as oiler boys and breaker boys or slate pickers, and some were put in charge of the animals. Others were employed for general work, or just to bring food to the miners.

Education was sadly neglected before child labor laws were introduced. Parents, needing the welcome addition to the family income, did not object to the youngsters joining their fathers in the mine. They also believed they were helping the children to learn a trade, accepting the general belief that once a miner, always a miner, and sons of miners would follow in their father's footsteps.

Children of miners did not always accept this belief, however. Many miner's children, upon getting a chance to attend school, excelled at their studies, were never absent, and showed great determination to complete their education, often seen as the only way out of the dreary miner's life.

Children of the first mining families gained their education at their mothers' knees. Usually this consisted of stories of their culture and history, along with the wages of sin and the ways of the Master. Early rudimentary public education continued at church prayer meetings and community sings, in private homes, and later in brush arbor revivals and pioneer churches. The church schools opened their doors to all denominations, abandoning their strict theological principles for the good of the children.

As the mining camps grew, coal-camp schools were established. Some schools served several camps, making it necessary for children to trudge through mud in spring and fall and snow in winter, and to walk along lonely roads across wooded mountains, often without proper clothing. Supplies, such as books and pencils and paper, were rare. Children were obliged to furnish their own books, and thus many had none. No maps, or library books, or even a dictionary existed in many of the schools. One writer tells of a school reporting that its "equipment consisted of 'nothing but a bell.'"

In the early 1900's, coal companies began to funnel great amounts of money into local schools in some areas. In one four-year period, companies in Logan County, West Virginia spent around $100,000 on education. During the same four-year period, coal companies in the county supplemented the teachers' incomes with monthly bonuses amounting to $6,000. This drew good teachers to the coalfields; however, it also gave coal companies enormous control over the educational system. Schoolteachers were not allowed to discuss labor issues or they would lose their monthly bonuses and their jobs.

Teachers were often preachers with no formal education to speak of. Teachers who were available to the mining camp schools were usually young, inexperienced, underpaid, and overworked. They were obliged to be housed from week to week with different mining families. The curriculum consisted strictly of the traditional three R's, allowing no other vocational or intellectual courses to be taught.

These teachers may have been ridiculed in other areas of the land, however, they were held in awe in the mining camps. Miners, having had little chance for formal education themselves, deplored the lack of good schools for their children and appreciated the value of the teaching profession all the more. Most camp mothers and fathers never objected to spending something for improved schools for their children, even when it meant substantial sacrifices.

Improved schools coincided with organized labor unions. When a union entered a district its first concern was the schools, a fact that spurred many a miner to support the union.

School buildings were usually of the same architecture as the company row houses, all the same simple structure. Some were log cabins constructed in cleared areas accessible to several camps. The log structures were one-room affairs with five corners, the fifth containing a huge wood-burning fireplace. Part of the boys study time was spent keeping its great maw plentifully supplied with logs. Seats and desks, if there were any, were sawed slabs of rough oak, and the seats had no backs. Some schools had boxes donated for children to sit on; in others, the children sat on the floor.

Improvements to the interior of a school might consist of a huge horizontal sheet-iron stove with a big door at one end. Large logs could be burned in these stoves, providing better heat for the one room, but making the supply of logs harder to carry for the small boys. The task was not shied away from, however, since going for wood got a boy into the out-of-doors and away from studying for a while. The teacher had a time trying to perfect a turn system so that each boy had his turn in order.

Age and previous progress determined the class a pupil was assigned to. Innovative teachers might inject additional courses into the three R's curriculum, but this was not always possible. Spelling bees between pupils and spelling matches with rival schools were popular ways of teaching. Math problems were completed on the blackboard, if one was available. Recitations were in order for all classes.

If a child went on to high school, it would be necessary for him or her to hike several miles into the nearest town since only elementary schools were available in the camps. A college education was out of reach of most miners' children, even at a tuition that today seems extremely low. One miner relates his exuberance at saving the $60 for his total college tuition.

Aside from the education of miners' children, coal miners themselves received training of different kinds. Early education for miners was on-the-job training. Miners, whether they were men or boys, learned by doing, by observing, and by their own mistakes. Formal education was abandoned early for most of them.

As the miners grew and the communities became more permanently established, other forms of education for miners became available. Safety concerns prompted government agencies to set safety standards for coal mines, resulting in new experimental and demonstrative safety equipment to be developed. Experimental blasting galleries were established to test explosives used in the mines. Rescue training schools were established to demonstrate and teach methods of rescuing miners from explosions and from gassy mines.

The early 1900's brought new educational opportunities for miners. The coal companies believed that miners caused accidents and hoped that a better-educated work force would reduce accidents and increase coal production. Many companies created special schools to teach their workers to read and write. A less publicized reason for the coal companies wanting their workers to be better educated was that they believed that more intelligent workers would be better able to resist union organization. This extended to the public schools when classes in the properties of mine gasses, mine ventilation, the geology of coal, mining methods, and the care of mine-safety lamps were added to the curriculum to encourage sons of miners to follow in their fathers' footsteps.

Museums and coal exhibits have been used from early times to teach about coal. Not only does an exposition bring together vast collections of facts that furnish unique facilities for observation and information, it also allows for relations between various facts to be clearly seen. The great Chicago World's Fair, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993, demonstrated coal's importance to the nation with its huge coal display.

The county fairs also presented coal exhibits and information to fairgoers, many of whom were miners on a once-a-year outing, many times the only outing they had each year. Most of the miners' children could only walk around and look and dream, but the experience was eagerly awaited each year.

Another dependable education tool used to satisfy the early miners' thirst for knowledge was the United Mine Workers Journal. Most miners were serious and reflective men with native intelligence and common sense. A glance through back issues indicates that the Journal articles reflect the interests of the miners, and their letters to the editor relate the problems and concerns they faced. George Korson in his book Coal Dust on the Fiddle relates that "the Journal itself was a prime educational force. Said a miner's daughter, 'I would not take anything for what the United Workers Journal has meant to me. I would not accept a university course in place of the education I received from the Journal.' In many isolated camps it was the only literature which the mining population read."

In the late 1940's, company magazines known as house organs became popular. They served not only as educational tools to make the miners aware of what was being done and why they were doing it, but they also served as morale boosters by giving recognition to the achievements of different men or members of their families and to crews who had done something special or unusual. Whether personal or professional, the recognition raised the image of the miner in other miners' eyes, as well as his own.

Probably the method of education most used by early miners was correspondence schools. Many miners who lacked formal education were intrigued with the correspondence schools where they could enroll and perform their studies in the comfort of their own living rooms. Courses were developed on many subjects, and the miner not only could learn more about mining methods, but also expand his horizons with knowledge about any subject he was interested in. Even the late John E. Jones, safety engineer at Old Ben Coal Company, used correspondence schools to further his education before he decided to return to college. He went on to develop and invent safety methods and procedures for mining that are still used today.

Another Illinois mining figure, Walton Rutledge, who was state mine inspector for more than 36 years, developed correspondence courses in mining and encouraged younger miners to use them to advance to foreman or superintendent of a mine. Rutledge never asked for, nor did he ever receive, a penny of compensation for his correspondence courses. Rutledge, it seems was a forerunner in promoting the techniques that today are known as "networking" and "mentoring."