Coal Mining: 2. Benton, Illinois

A cross-country motorist might not notice anything unusually bleak about Benton, Illinois, compared with West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Pennsylvania coal towns. You don’t see all that soot and coal dust making the white frame houses black. “To the innocent urban eye it looks very much like any small town in Illinois; one has to go to the unincorporated fringe, or to a tavern in an obscure alley off the square, to see what almost ten years of poverty will do to human beings.” Thus Trans-Action magazine described Benton (fictitiously named Clyde) in its cover story two years ago on the decline of small towns. Reflecting on growing up there, I recall that obscure alley, the tavern, nearly everything. It’s a pleasant recollection filled with nostalgia; doesn’t everyone think of his hometown this way? Yet there is something unusual about Benton. It bears a scar of disaster.

The time was four days before Christmas, 1951. Winter had officially arrived, and a large shift was busy mining coal at Orient No. 2, between Benton and West Frankfort. One loud blast and Orient No. 2 had blown. After a four-day vigil, 119 miners, all but one on the shift, were counted dead. West Frankfort (the mine is slightly closer to it than to Benton) became a household word.

West Frankfort has now been joined by Farmington, West Virginia, the most recent tragedy in a series which includes Monogah, West Virginia, scene of a mining disaster in 1907 that took 362 lives, the highest death toll recorded in this country. Each of these tragedies tends to bring token ameliorative action. After Monogah, the U. S. Bureau of Mines was created. West Frankfort led to the watered-down Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952. There is hope that the public outrage and miners’ strike in Farmington following the explosion there last fall that killed 78 men will produce meaningful mine reforms.

Benton is located in the heart of Little Egypt, 300 miles due south of Chicago and too miles east of St. Louis. Driving from St. Louis takes under two hours if you know the shortcuts, along stretches of dirt road. No trains go directly from St. Louis, or from Chicago anymore, but there are a few Greyhound bus runs.

Benton borders on Williamson County, described by Paul Angle in Bloody Williamson as the place where 500 striking miners massacred 19 strike-breaking miners in 1922. It happened, one of the worst episodes in U. S. labor history. No one is proud of it. That kind of violence is gone.

Four in the morning

There’s no doubt coal was dominant in Benton. Today, even though the demands for coal have increased, southern Illinois mines are on the decline. The overworked veins have been depleted. Strip mining has moved in. Many miners are no longer needed in John L. Lewis country. (His late brother, Howard, was mayor of Benton.) Economic death is now a certainty for many family heads. Why, then, do so many stay, seeing hope in hopelessness?

Few outsiders, I think, can understand. Mining seems to offer almost nothing. Sociologists have made careful studies (for example, Herbert Lantz, in The People of Coal Town), but an explanation of what motivates miners remains obscure. Perhaps the miner’s daily routine helps one understand them.

It’s four in the morning and dark in Benton when the miner and his wife awaken. Breakfast is large for a long, arduous day in the pit: heaps of eggs, bacon and ham, biscuits, pancakes, potatoes. All of it is greasy; almost everything is fried in bacon grease. Breakfast is finished, but still there is no sunlight. Soon the miner’s ride will come for the drive to work of several miles. It’s often a car-pool arrangement, as in suburbia.

The miner takes his lunch in a dull-looking rectangular-shaped box with an oval lid. Color it black. Inside is a thermos bottle usually filled with hot coffee. Alongside are sandwiches, cookies, and perhaps an orange, grapes, or a banana. He’ll cat lunch (called dinner; the evening meal is supper) around 11 A.M. His wife usually prepares it the night before, unless perishables are used. Often there is no light. He’ll eat quickly down below. There is no guaranteed hour for lunch. There’s not much for him to do or see anyway after he has finished | eating.

Working in a mine must feel like living entombed, or rather working entombed. Although specific jobs vary, most are physically demanding. The miner must hammer and chisel. The stooping alone is hell on one’s back and legs. It’s literally ; back-breaking. Ventilation is poor. Miners inhale harmful quantities of gaseous fumes without relief.

Time passes slowly. No matter how busy the miner is, his body reminds him that it’s being punished. The boredom of doing tedious chores may set in, but lack of attention to his work for a second could mean instant death, or at least crushing a leg or losing a finger.

Leaving work around 3 or 3:30 P.M.J, the miner returns home with his car pool; again as in suburbia. He’s tired, often exhausted, and hungry. Awaiting him is a heavy meal prepared by his wife. He may relax for a few minutes with a beer watching television, but he’ll eat within half an hour. By five, usually earlier, he’ll be finished, capping the workday as it began with heaps of food. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, corn bread, biscuits, and green beans are common. After supper he reads the local paper, talks with his family, and watches television. He doesn’t see the late shows; he goes to sleep no later than 9 P.M.

Coal town is insecure. It sees that people elsewhere have more opportunities and that it is education and savoir faire which enable them to get the “soft jobs.” The miner feels exploited, and this was true even when fie was paid a wage which satisfied him. His efforts converted a plentiful but useless natural resource into a much needed valuable product. Although times were not too hard, others seemed to reap a higher return than he did: physicians, merchants, and lawyers, who didn’t break their backs or risk their lives down below, and therefore didn’t really deserve the money.

He’s not proud of being intolerant of lawyers who live well, or absentee mine owners in St. Louis, Chicago, or New York. But the coal industry is dying. Any automated innovation which gives it a lease on life relegates him further down the ladder, even though he’s toiled for years in the pits. He’s now in his fifties, tired, sick, and unable to be retrained. Even if he were able, for what would he be retrained? Few new industries are being attracted in coal country, and if they were, young men would lie wanted, not a worn-out has-been.

Coal town’s history has always been marked by discrimination and intolerance. A sizable group of miners who justifiably felt they were second-class citizens were the immigrants. In the 1930s large groups of Italians and Eastern Europeans migrated to the thriving coalfields. Hard work was not anathema to them, and the coalfields’ high wages were to he the promised land. Financially, they fared well, but not without harassment and humiliation from the indigenous working force which saw them as a threat. Italians were “encouraged” to live in segregated parts of town, and then accused of being clannish and lazy, doing nothing but guzzling beer and playing boccie ball.

Eastern Europeans fared worse. Mostly from Poland and Hungary, they were often not even permitted to settle in some sections of town. Entire settlements or company towns were set up. Here, as in Orient, Illinois, ten miles southwest of Benton, these Eastern European immigrants lived in small wooden dwellings owned by the coal companies. European customs were maintained, and many did not learn to speak English. Blacks in Williamson County worked mainly in segregated, non skilled jobs.

Coal still employs more people than any other industry in this area. There are people living in Benton who earn a living some other way, yet coal affects them, if only indirectly, and they must be seen in terms of their everyday relationship with the men who work down below the earth.

No mix

In Benton a coal miner has status, at least compared with his blue-collar counterpart in the city. He lives next door to lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. They talk together about how things are at the courthouse, prospects for the forthcoming high school basketball season, their sons’ and daughters’ social lives. Maybe there’s even a perfunctory, “How are things down below?” “OK, things could be worse.” There’s really not much else to say.

Small talk, living next door, might appear to be real camaraderie for the miner and the “professional folk.” Actually, it is superficial. In the city, white-and-blue-collar workers aren’t neighbors, and the boss and his employees talk only on the job.

Socially in Benton there’s the same gulf, and when it comes to real mixing, a line is drawn. “Those rich folks dance and carry on at the country club. We just play cards at the American Legion. They don’t really want to be with us.” There’s truth here.

Years ago miners married young, usually about twenty-one, after two or three years of Army duty. They often chose a miner’s daughter. “We already had something in common. Hell, no lawyer’s girl knew what it’s like to work.” The other girls weren’t available very long past high school, anyway, for many went to St. Louis or Chicago to work as secretaries or airline stewardesses, and some went off to college, The miner’s daughter stayed at home. She also married young. There weren’t too many bachelors left if she waited much past twenty-five; if she did, it was quite likely that she would never marry.

These days, even though being neighbors hasn’t meant real social interchange for the banker and miner, their children have learned to mix freely in athletics and school activities. They date and often marry. Classmates often don’t know a friend’s father’s occupation, and if they do, it doesn’t matter. These sons and daughters of miners now get an education. It’s as sacred as in suburbia. They may attend junior colleges, or if they’re lucky, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Scholarships elsewhere are scarce.

“Gotta Travel On”

The practical advantages of a college degree are readily recognized. Parents sacrifice. A surprisingly large percentage of their kills do get degrees and some go on to teach in universities, and others become lawyers and doctors. Education often works against the parents, for the educated children tend to move on. (The population is now 7025, down 1500 since 1950.) The ones who do return have legacies of a law or medical practice awaiting them, but there is no legacy in mining. And really the miner is glad. Mining’s not suitable for the educated. Mining was good to him, at least in some ways. He has had his day. He’s resigned. Relief and pensions have replaced work.

There are few claims to fame here other than children’s accomplishments. A Benton native had a hit country-style record a few years ago, “Gotta Travel On.” He and his Grand Ole Opry gang occasionally return to perform on the high school football field. Beatle George Harrison’s sister lives there. People still talk about seeing George before he was famous.

Not too much else important has happened. People struggle daily to eke out a living in an industry which used to pay well and keep the employment level high. Twenty-five years ago the mine payroll was over $1 million a month; now it’s $150,000.

The going is getting rougher each day for the miner, and his age is beginning to show. The stooping, lifting, chiseling. While he’s working, he can’t tel! that hard times have come. Sure, he’s slowed down a bit, but that happens to everybody —Stan Musial, Bob Pettit. The doctors and lawyers aren’t what they used to be either.

Passing through, things don’t look bad in Benton. It doesn t take a romantic to lose himself in thoughts of Huckleberry Finn: hunting, fishing, chasing flyballs all summer long. But it is deceptive, with integral pieces of the puzzle left out. It takes a hard look to see what ten years of poverty will do to human beings.