Growing up in Louisa – King Coal
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Sometimes we have memories that jump to life when we are reminded by a certain scene in a movie, hear the strains of an old song, read an article, or overhear a conversation. Many of those recollections have no reason to pop up because they were just part of the everyday. We didn’t think them memorable until something tickled our remembrance. Sometimes they came from things we witnessed, but were not really a part of our lives except by proxy. Besides, the ways of life have changed so dramatically, the ‘old-fashioned’ things are forgotten and pushed into a dusty mental (not metal) cabinets deep in the depths of our grey matter.
Even if we were directly or indirectly involved we’d never consider many things as ever having anything to do with life today, or worthy of mention. The unpleasant ones were pushed aside. We forgot the experiences that dealt with hard, dangerous work, but we did them routinely. Many of those things would not be considered particularly safe in our minds, today. For example, we jump into our cars and trucks and hook up the seat belt as second nature. Back in our day cars didn’t have seat belts, but wait a minute, go back just a little further and we didn’t have cars. Harnessing a mule or horse could draw a kick to the careless person that walked behind the animal. Careless use of kerosene lamps burned down houses and barns. Some folks stood too close to the fire and nightgowns suddenly burst into flames. Trains killed more than their fair share, and frankly, there were uncivilized roughnecks about in those days that practiced some unlawful activities. It was a rough time for many of us.
To introduce a story let me point out that Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as other sections of America, have an important history involving coal mining. With the industrial revolution gearing up in the late nineteenth century coal was a hot commodity (no pun intended). It was used to fire the furnaces in the big steel mills, and for fueling the locomotives that ran on the tracks of the nation. The foundries and blacksmith shops were regular customers, and new markets for the fuel was developing overseas. Coal was king at the turn of the century and the decades that followed.
I know that when I was growing up I would hear of one disaster or another when mines exploded, carbon monoxide seeped into chambers, or supports gave out creating a cave in. Anxious wives and children would stand in the cold waiting for news of husbands and fathers. My great uncle was a traveling ‘coal town’ doctor, who was kept busy treating the various ailments, including the dreaded black lung. In spite of the size of the coal industry it was the owners that made out. Some of them and the railroaders that worked with them made unbelievable fortunes. Sadly, the workers found themselves in hock to the company store. Among the workers poverty was absolutely astounding.
Children as young as eight were used as breakers and some went into the mines to work alongside their fathers. The commercial mines had rails, tipples, and drills, all of which helped, but gave place for accidents. The smaller independent operations usually had to do all the digging and blasting by hand. There were also those small mines that were in use only to provide a farmer with heat. I was sent such a story from a reader who is a former Fort Gay resident, Mr. Martin L. Artrip. (I will include his short bio at the end of the article.) I think there are more readers that can identify with the experience described and maybe see the value of catching these tidbits of history for posterity. I am pleased to pass the story on:
“My uncle had a small coal mine on his property, of which he could dig coal for his own use only, due to not owning the mineral rights. His place was across the creek from our place on Upper Stone Creek, Glenhayes WV, and the mine was located several hundred feet up the hill from his house.
He had five boys, so I spent a lot of time with them, causing me to be around when their dad would have to dig some coal. The mine was probably some forty or fifty feet back into the hill, and he had timbers placed at intervals back to the face of the coal.
The process of getting the coal out of the mine consisted of using a coal auger (maybe 2 inches in diameter) to drill holes into the coal. Once this was done, it was time to place a charge into each hole. He used black power that was rolled up in paper, and looking like a big cigar. This was then placed into the hole, and shoved back to the back of the hole with a ramrod. I don’t know just how many loads he would use per hole, or exactly how deep the holes were drilled, probably only a couple of feet.
The ramrod had a flat disc on the end that fit in the hole, and had a notch cut into it. Once the load was packed into the hole, a long steel rod, called a needle was inserted into the hole with the needle in the notch of the ramrod, and the needle punctured the paper holding the charge. The ramrod would be removed, leaving the needle in the hole. Then dirt, mud or whatever was available would be placed in the hole, and the ramrod, using the notch over the needle, would be used to pack the dirt up against the charge. Once the hole was filled with the packing, the needle was removed, leaving a hole back to the charge. Once this was done to all of the holes, a fuse was inserted into the hole, and lit with a match, and it took a few seconds to burn to the charge, in which time we would run for the mouth of the mine.
We could hear the explosion, and after giving time for the smoke to clear, would go back in, and see how much coal was ready to be moved outside, using a wheel barrow. That’s how I remember it from about 1937. I was eight years old then.”
Thank you, Martin. Now, folks, can you imagine an eight year old back in a mine shaft and watching blasting operations? If one of my kids did that I’d throw a fit, but back then we all flirted with danger. If invited, I likely would have joined in the fun. Whether it was fishing in swift water off a concrete structure at Saltpetre, or driving cars up steep mountains, riding a tractor around a steep hill, swinging on grape vines out over a creek, riding waterfalls, or even testing some white lighting, we all took chances. Some of us more than others, but we survived.
Yes, in many ways life is better and safer. For that we can be grateful. Now it’s no longer wild Indians at our backs, but misguided people out to martyr themselves for a cause already lost. Terrorists remind me of the kamikazes of World War two. My worry is about those who will push for disarmament with false reasoning. The truth is that would take away our right to defend ourselves against those that are already armed and intending to do us harm. So shall we be blown away in a coal mine, or in Time Square? Danger has always been there and will always be around us. We can use our heads and do what we must to protect our lives and family, but the dangers will remain. We cannot live life in fear, but rather in the knowledge others have survived worse, and we can overcome.
When we think back to those foggy memories of growing up, a kind of nostalgia rushes in that makes them almost romantic. We bask in those thoughts and smile knowing that we have survived and experienced what life has to offer. That’s the fruit of getting old. My experiences are rarely quite the same as yours, but a commonality exists nonetheless. We rise out of the same generation or one of its near neighbors. Even if you are a young whippersnapper, we are all brothers and sisters when we share our memories.
I am so glad to be able to share one of Martin’s memories. He has offered to provide some more and I look forward to him doing that. I didn’t ask him if I should share his email, so for now, write him through me. I promise to pass it on to our brother.
Please write me and share your memories about growing up, whether farming, chores, or stories your grandparents passed to you. Each memory enriches history and builds understanding of our times for posterity.
Contributor’s Biography: Martin L. Artrip, born at Glenhayes WV. and was delivered at home Nov 28 1929. The attending doctor was Dr. Leslie Scott Hayes of Louisa. I guess my mother was so thankful to him for coming up there for this event, she named me after him. (my middle name is Leslie) Our house in Glenhayes burned on Mar. 22, 1943, and we moved to Louisa. Dad bought a house in Cedar Hgts, just outside Fort Gay, WV in 1944, and that’s where I resided until I entered the Marine Corp in 1951. After returning from Korea I went to work in Portsmouth, OH, in 1955, and retired from the NS RY in 1992. In 2006, my wife and I moved here in Monroe NC. She passed away in Sept. last year, and I live alone, but have a daughter living near.