Today we traveled to Beckley to tour the exhibition mine. We rode a small train deep into the earth. The site included several coal camp structures: a camp house, bachelor shanty, one room school, church and the superintendent’s house. The students have been reading about and interviewing coal mining families before and during the field school, but before today (May 23, 2018), they could only imagine what a mining life might have been like in the early 20th Century. The exhibition mine made it possible to understand the focus of our studies in a new and interesting way. The place and people we meet is what makes the field school such an important learning experience.
Our tour guide, a former miner, gave a detailed explanation of the day-to-day work in the mines, including the injustices (shorting miners on the weight of the coal) and dangers (methane, lack of ventilation and oxygen). He demonstrated how the ceilings of the mines were propped, how miners packed dynamite to blow out the coal, and despite differences one might have aboveground, in the mine, the workers depended on one another like a family.
At one point, the guide turned off all the lights in the mine to demonstrate the daily working conditions for miner. No light but the lantern on their hard hats.
After the mine tour, we walked around the grounds to look buildings that were moved from nearby mining communities to create a replica coal camp: church, school, mining family house, and a bachelor shanty (below).
The bachelor shanty was charming in a way–a 19th Century 8X10 tiny house with a small cot, coal stove, and table. That wash tub on the outside of the structure was hauled to the nearby creek for bathing water that was warmed on the coal stove. Something about this structure bothered me. It was a single-person cabin. Why would a coal company build individual structures for single miners? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build bunk houses, as was common for logging communities in the same time period?
I discussed this with the students and my folklore colleague, Emily Hilliard. A small house would command more rent, but it would also be more expensive to build dozens of shanties instead of one large bunk house. It would be easier to heat a tiny house, but since the coal company required miners to pay for everything they used at home an on the job (including work tools like picks and the dynamite they used to blow out the coal), I doubt cost was a consideration. I suspect that the tiny houses were a means to keep miners from talking about issues that would be inconvenient to the company, like unions and organizing.
We visited Tamarack on our way back to Charleston. The variety and quality of artisanal items was amazing. It was a lovely way to end the day–thinking about the incredible talent and artistry that is West Virginia