Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Company Store

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Catherine Dilts, who writes mysteries set in the mountains of southern Colorado and here gives us an informative glimpse into the early days of the mines that pepper the mountains of that area. I for one hope Catherine will turn from contemporary and write about the Ludlow Massacre, which I'd never heard of before. Here' s Catherine:


The grimy faces of young boys emerging from a mine stared at us from a poster in the Western Museum of Mining and Industry. My daughter told her middle child, “If you lived back then, you’d be marrying one of those boys. Soon. Then you’d have babies. That’s all you’d get to do.”

My granddaughter seemed unsure whether she should believe her mother. As we would learn that evening, a coal miner’s wife in the early 1900s often had a bleak, hard, and short life.
I became a member of the museum last summer. My fiction has gravitated toward stories involving modern day prospectors and gemstone mining. The WMMI is a good resource, plus they offer free programs, like the February lecture on Social Life in Western Mining Camps, presented by Associate Professor Fawn Amber Montoya.

Colorado is known for gold and silver mining, but the state is also rich in coal. Over a century ago, coal camps dotted Southern Colorado. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I) dominated the region, controlling the mines, the mills, the trains, and the towns.
In the early 1900s, workers flocked to the CF&I mines. Many were immigrants, lured to America with promises far exceeding reality.  A survey from the time listed over twenty different ethnic groups, with English, Spanish, and Italian as the predominant languages. At Ludlow, one of the tent mining camps, this diverse population got along quite well, playing music and singing in the evenings. Professor Montoya’s description of camp life was one of harmony.

The mining companies hired teachers, more to train future workers than to educate the children. Both boys and girls attended school starting with kindergarten and ending by sixth grade. They learned practical arithmetic needed by miners, farmers and laborers. The only library consisted of whatever books the teacher happened to own. While children learned to read and write, their parents were typically illiterate.
This sign warns that you are entering a uranium mine area with possible open shafts and tunnels and possible radioactive radon gas. It cautions visitors to stay on the existing road. [Note the handkerchief over Catherine's face.]

One photo showed eight-year-old boys dressed in mining gear. They weren’t working in the mines. Not yet. They were participating in a career field day. My oldest granddaughter just turned thirteen. A boy that age would have one year of childhood left before going to work.

What about the girls? They married young and started families or worked as domestic help. Most women didn’t live past the age of forty-five. Dying in childbirth was common. People had large families with the expectation they would lose two or three children.
Working conditions for those “men” aged fourteen and up were shocking. Life expectancy was between forty and forty-five. Men died in mining accidents or from black lung caused by coal dust.

In 1913, just before the start of World War I, miners began striking in what became known as the Colorado Coalfield Wars. They demanded relief from the dangerous conditions and from the near slavery resulting from low wages and the requirement to shop exclusively at the company store. The miners even had to pay full retail price for the coal they had dug out of the mines.
The mining camps were often tucked into canyons, where the entrance was easier to control than a camp on the open prairie. Armed guards supervised who came and went. Handy when you wanted to keep union organizers out.

After months of escalating violence, on April 20th, 1914, mine company employees in National Guard uniforms were ordered to evict the striking Ludlow miners from their tent city. The miners fought back. Fourteen hours later, seventeen men, women, and children had been murdered. Some died when their tent city was burned to the ground. News of the massacre spread, inflaming workers around the world to strike in protest. 
Despite the outrage, not much changed for many years after the Ludlow massacre. The strike had been broken. World War I started. Miners went back to work in the same conditions. Eventually the United Mine Workers and federal laws changed the mining industry.

What grim, terrible times. And yet Ms. Montoya described an interview with a woman who had grown up in a coal camp. Most of her memories were of the epic baseball games and team rivalries between the different camps. Life wasn’t all suffering. 
After the company town monopoly was broken, people could live and shop where they wanted. Mining companies sponsored baseball teams and picnics. At one, a contest offered a prize to the heaviest lady. The women consented to a public weigh-in to determine the winner. In another, the woman with the most children won shoes for the entire family. Those were definitely different times.

I found it interesting that happy memories prevailed for the former mine camp resident. I wonder what my granddaughters will remember from the lecture. The hard life of a coal miner’s wife or Grandma attempting to sing “I owe my soul to the company store” on the drive home?
Here’s a link to the lyrics: http://bit.ly/1hHTVj2; You can learn more about the museum at: http://www.wmmi.org/

About Catherine Dilts
Catherine Dilts writes amateur sleuth mysteries set in the Colorado mountains. In her debut novel Stone Cold Dead – A Rock Shop Mystery, business is as dead as a dinosaur, but when Morgan Iverson finds the body of a Goth teen on a hiking trail, more than just the family rock shop could become extinct. Catherine works as an environmental scientist and plays at heirloom vegetable gardening, camping, and fishing. Her short fiction appears in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Visit her at http://www.catherinedilts.com/

5 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Catherine,

The life of miners have unfortunately been grim and short. Clearly very hard on their families. A current TV series set in Canada on Hallmark deals with this as well.

Anonymous said...

Jacqueline, I haven't seen that program. Sounds interesting. Today coal miners are among the highest paid Colorado workers. Times have changed for the better, but it is still a dangerous profession.
Catherine Dilts

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I agree with Judy that Catherine should write a novel dealing with the Ludlow Massacre. Possibly one is in the works? In the meantime, I'm looking into both Judy and Catherine's mysteries.

(Saying Hi, too. I remember you well, Judy,from long association with WWA.)

Judy Alter said...

Irene, lovely to hear from you again. Hope all is well. Actually there is a novel about the Ludlow Massacre--Bob Reed's The Red-Winged Blackbird. Published last year.

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