Coal mining played an astonishing role in West Terre Haute’s history. Coal was the primary reason its population grew tenfold between 1900 and 1920, and it began to prosper. And its demise left thousands out of work and started the decline of the town.
My grandfather started working in the St. Mary’s coalmine when he was 14. One of his jobs was to help drive the bank mules. Bank mules (the term likely originated with the mules who pulled boats along canal banks) were used to haul the coal dug from the banks. They were hitched to large coalbins that ran along tracks that conveyed the coal to the surface. Bank mules, then, became part of Grandpa’s psyche. He grew to hate and love them. They were stubborn and dumb in his mind. One of his tasks when the bank mules faltered under their backbreaking load was to go over and whop them with a 2×4 to encourage them to once again take up their burden.
So, the greatest epithet he could offer on someone’s character was that “He is dumber than a bank mule.” I heard him apply this to various neighbors, some of my cousins, and occasionally one of my uncles (tho never, I am proud to say, to me. But there was another side. One that still brings a smile to my face anytime I think of it. Nearly every morning as his beloved wife and my grandmother would place his fried eggs or pancakes on the table, he would reach over and give her a gentle smack on her bottom and say “Hildy, your ass is a broad as a bank mule’s.” It was said with such unalloyed affection that Grandma smiled at this offhand benediction as an affirmation of love.