I’ve started my Labor Day column two times, filling up the front and back of sheets from a yellow-legal pad. A few minutes ago, I told my grandson, Tyler, “I found my focus.” And he said, “What’s it going to be?” My response, “You know that photo of me standing at the miners’ union hall, looking like a raggedy beggar, waiting for my Christmas treat? I’m going to write about the UMWA.”
And so I begin, but my story must start before me. The UMWA website indicates that it was founded in 1890 and “The richness of the UMWA’s history is a testament to the firm determination embedded in the hearts and minds of the coal miners of North America to build and maintain a strong and enduring union.”
The UMWA did not endure in Harlan County, and a report earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that union membership in this country has declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to a current 11.3 percent. The purpose of my column this Labor Day weekend is not to get into the complexities of this phenomenon, but instead to pay tribute to all the men and women, past and present, who have mined coal.
A few years ago, I visited the cemetery at Springfield, Ill., where John L. Lewis is buried. As a kid growing up in Cumberland, I knew that this fierce man with the bushy eyebrows was my dad’s hero. When I tell my friend that my dad was a union organizer, I must expand on that comment immediately because their sense of such people is a paid employee who moves from locale to locale. No, he wasn’t that: he was one of the men walking the picket line when the UMWA was organizing U.S. Steel at Lynch in the late 1930s.
In a communication to those men, like my father and so many others who worked to unionize, as well as to the world at large, Lewis, UMWA president from 1920-1960, said, “I have pleaded your case from thepulpit and from the public platform-not in the quavering tones of a feeble mendicant asking alms, but in the thundering voice of the captain of a mighty host, demanding the rights to which free men are entitled.”
As I regularly heard praise for Lewis from my father and his friends, I was usually thinking about the treats we children received each Christmas after waiting at the union hall in Clutts. (When I was really young, we knew it as Frog Level. I was told by my oldest sister that the only way to get to Frog Level was to climb inside the mouth of a big frog that would transport me). The treat always had high-quality fruit, lush oranges and apples, a Hershey bar and prime English walnuts.
When I returned to Cumberland as an adult in 1978, first as academic dean at the college and later as president, my experiences and rewards were plentiful. In addition to the wonderful people I came to know for the first time, I also began to know the town leaders I was in awe of as a child, Vic Howard and C.R. Chrisman.
I taught a class in writing and, because over half of my students were enrolled in the mining curriculum, we toured the mines at Benham, Lynch and one of Clyde Bennett’s mines that had low coal. I then began to have an understanding of what engineer Norman Yarborough once told me about the magic of the industry where miners opening new seams are privileged to enter terrain where no human being has ever walked.
The local UMWA determined that I should be named Honorary Coal Miner and a Kentucky Colonel, and they made both happen. Further, I and so many others, were able to be involved in the construction of Chrisman Hall which housed the mining program. Additionally, I watched the mine rescue competitions on campus, and I even took an Introduction to coal mining course.
My memories of coal are not all positive. I still remember my father-in-law, Roy Blevins, of Dartmont, and his struggles to breathe after black lung invaded his body. He was a gentleman, and never said an unkind word to me. I loved him.
I’ve chosen to share with you a favorite photo of mine. When Lynch underwent dramatic mechanization in the early 1950s, the labor force was cut dramatically, and my father lost his job. He headed north to begin work in Toledo at the Mather Spring Company, a backdoor industry for Detroit and the automakers. We soon followed, so my high school years were in Toledo, but each summer when my father got his vacation of two weeks, we went home.
Home was Cumberland, and the photo is of my father, Caleb P. Bowling, in his shirt and dress pants – which he always wore on weekends regardless of where he was working. The person with him at Portal 31 at Lynch is Pork Chop. I never knew Pork Chop’s official name, but I love the joy in this photo as my dad was so happy to be home with the coal miners he respected so much.
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