It’s not easy to walk six miles when you are a five-year old. Walking all the way from Sandford to West Terre Haute was not going to be easy. Especially if you have not had much to eat in the last few weeks. But mom holds your hand and pulls you along. You could take the interurban. But, no. mom does not have money to do that. Dad is home, sick. Dad has looked awful upset lately. Cars drive by and throw dust on your face. The interurban zips by. Boy, you would love to ride on that. Mom just looks ahead and says come on, “We need to get there before the food runs out.”
You wonder what strike means. And why everyone looks so upset when they say the word? Some things are hard to understand when you are just five. But most adults could not fully comprehend market gluts, depressed prices, downturns since the end of the war. They just knew a lot of people were out of work, and struggling.
The coal miners’ strike of 1922 was the largest in history. It began on April Fools’ Day, 1922. Both bituminous and anthracite miners struck under the leadership of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. An army of more than 600,000 miners would walk picket lines, or throw rocks, or carry clubs and guns. They would later be joined by railroad shop men. Things looked rough.
The day before the strike began the Terre Haute Tribune listed the issues involved. The miners were fighting against wage cuts, wanted the current wage scale to hold. They wanted their backbreaking days to be shortened to six hours in a five day week. Wanted time and a half for overtime, and double-time for Sundays and holidays. The union-owners… They wanted wages cut back to 1917 levels. They wanted to be able to compete with the non-union-mines. The fight was on. The biggest was in Herrin, Illinois.
Frustration, fear, hunger and desperation erupted in horrible violence in Herrin in late June, 1922. Herrin was a hardscrabble mining town in deep southern Illinois. A local mine owner had imported strikebreakers to work his mine. They had dug over 60,000 tons of coal. He could make half a million dollars if he could get his coal out. Union strikers were desperate. Gun fire followed rock throwing. In a dark, bloody 24 hours, 23 men, strikers, scabs, and mine guards, were dead. It was a red-tinged feast of violence.
Luckily nothing approaching that occurred in Vigo County. There were threats, shouts and occasional rocks thrown, but things mainly stayed calm. But still there was fear, anger, and hunger.
West Terre Haute and its miners tried to help each other out. On Memorial Day 96 miner families received large baskets of food provided by the miners’ relief committee. The West Terre Haute Miners Relief Committee was not an official part of the United Mine Workers Union. It had been specifically formed to aid striking miners west of the Wabash River. Many familiar West Terre Haute names, Waugh, Silcox, Britton appeared on the committee. It had solicitation, finance and auto committees (to pick up food or provide transport for ill miners or their families). Local citizens cleaned out their fruit cellars. Some harvested their gardens to aid in the effort. Spare can goods, chewing gum, last year’s canned corn or green beans \ were offered up.
The committee set up its efforts in an empty store on National Avenue.
Outside the store signs implored them:
“Commissary Visitors Welcome.”
“Leave Orders One Day in Advance.”
“To Get Your Bread, Line Up and Take Your Turn and Keep Order”
“Bread Hours Three to Five p.m.”
“Bring Buckets for Your Lard”
“Bring Sacks for Your Eggs and Potatoes”
It was a well-organized operation. Miners had to register the day before the food giveaway. This allowed the relief organization to plan out equal shares. They allotted .50 per day for adults and .25 a day for each child. Twice a week miners were given enough food to last them and their families til the next week. Women were only allowed to pick up food if there husband was too ill to come himself. This was checked on to make sure her husband was not one of those lucky few to find another job. They did not wish those who were employed to take food from the mouths of those who were not.
People would line up for hours waiting for their name to be called. Once, a weakened miner fainted in the line. The lines were long. One week nearly 500 people stood more or less patiently. It was tough for a five-year old. But there were other kids to play with. And the crowing Rhode Island Red rooster that had been donated to look at. (The committee had coyly named the rooster Donn Roberts, after the former Terre Haute mayor who had served a term in Leavenworth for corruption.).
The five-year old likely did not pay much attention to the talk around him, which concerned the struggles of the union strikers, or that the government was not as neutral as they said. They always stick up for the bosses, not the working man. Old man Debs was right. Or about all the hardship fighting for their rights brought upon them. How many strikers had lost their homes because they could not pay rent. Why did you hear Pete LeClerc has 17 people living at his house? Or like Uncle Robert Fife standing there in line. 88 years old and a miner since he was nine. Or Mose Morgan, 77 years old. You know, he used to hold Gomer on his knee.
Gomer James was one of the leaders of the relief effort. The son of Welsh immigrants, Gomer had long worked in the mines. He wanted to do something to help his brethren. He worked hard for the committee. He worked hard for his fellow miners and their families. Now he stood long hours passing out food, with a broad smile on his face. Just trying to help.
Finally the five-year old and his mom were at the front of the line. Gomer James leaned over and asked him. “What do you want?” “I want bread,” he said looking up at the man. He got bread. And more. He and his mom took the gift of food. Now they faced that six mile walk back to Sandford. Maybe someone would give their tired legs a ride. Maybe not. But the load of food they toted back made their burden easier.
The strike would end in August. How many in that line saw the strike as a portent of what was to come? The strike was just a bitter taste of what was to become of West Terre Haute. Over the next decade mines would be played out and close. The work that had filled the town with such hope would soon splutter. The mines that brought the Welsh, the Italians, the Bohunks (a word that was still be used when I was young) to the area would soon lie upon their deathbeds, slowly fading away. And with them a town of promise.