Union War, Part One


West Terre Haute was a union town.  The clay workers, railroaders and miners all had unions.  The United Mine Workers of America was the largest and, many thought, the strongest of the unions.  My grandfather, and his father and brothers, were members of UMW local 414 in West Terre Haute.  So was a man named Joseph Claypool.

Founded in 1890 The UMW had led the fight for better wages and working conditions for miners across the country (though it could do little in the universally anti-union South).  Figures like Mother Jones and the bushy-browed, stentorian  John L. Lewis pushed for worker’s rights and humane conditions in the mines.

The union’s greatest successes came during good times when work was steady and demand for coal was great.  Then, the threat of a strike was a weapon feared by mine owners who knew a prolonged work stoppage would siphon their profits.  But by the late 1920s the good times were long gone.  They had ended with the armistice that ended WWI.  UMW membership had dropped from a half million miners to just over 100,000 by 1930.  Worse yet for miners, their wages had dropped by 23% since the war as the industry was buffeted by competition from cheaper fuels and non-union mines.

Those numbers left the UMW and its leader John L. Lewis in a perilous state.  Some members began to feel Lewis, once respected and feared as their firebrand leader, was making too many concessions and becoming too close to mine owners.  Additionally, Lewis had spent the decade trying to cement his own power by consolidating control of the union in his central office.  This was contrary to much of the union’s past when the locals had a strong voice in their own areas. 

Lewis was also a paranoid, a man who saw enemies and conspiracies lurking everywhere.  He had purged (the Stalinist image seems apt) many union officials, particularly those he saw as standing on the left.  So by 1930, Lewis’s enemies were real and present.  And some wanted to wrest control of miners’ union from him.

That is where the lives of John L. Lewis and Joseph Claypool intersected.  One district that Lewis did not control was District 12 in Illinois.  The district was home to many of Lewis’ most potent adversaries.  Feeling that Lewis had sold union members down the river, the leaders of District 12 formed what became known as the Reorganized United Mine Workers, hoping that it would become the “official” miners union.  They appointed about a dozen organizers to seek support for the new union.  The organizers were to go into the coal fields of the Midwest and East and explain what the new union was attempting and gain their support (and union dues).  The organizers were well aware that they must be careful, for the pro-Lewis forces were well known for their penchant to use violence, intimidation and bribery in their cause.

Joseph Claypool was one of those organizers.  Claypool was born in my “other hometown,” Marshall, Illinois.  Born in 1896, he worked as a farm laborer and was described as tall with brown eyes and dark brown hair.  He appears to have lied about his age to join the Army in 1911.  Perhaps he found the army more than he bargained for because he was arrested for desertion in 1912 and placed in the stockade at Columbus Barracks in Ohio.  He served his time and remained in the Army, becoming a printer.  He was invalided out with a honorable discharge in 1916 and seems to have received a pension for a damaged index finger on his right hand.

He returned to Clark County and by 1920 was married and working as a pumper in the oil fields that were scattered around the area.   By 1925 he had moved to West Terre Haute and was working in the mines.  He and his family (he and wife Stella had had a son and two daughters) lived in several rented houses around town.  At one point the family lived only a few blocks over from my grandparents.

Claypool became disenchanted with what he saw as John L. Lewis’ lack of leadership.  He was one of the “renegade” miners who attended an alternate miner’s union “rump convention” in Springfield, Illinois in 1930.  For this he was kicked out of Local 414 in West Terre Haute.  Soon after the convention he began work as an organizer for the Reorganized United Mine Workers (RUMR).  It was dangerous work and the organizers were warned to keep their heads down, lest they excite the wrath of the Lewis organization.

Claypool was committed to the work.  He visited several mining camps and locals around the area trying to gauge the feelings of other miners about Lewis.  He claimed to find many dissident miners who were interested in joining the RUMW, but were fearful of what might happen to them. 

One of the areas he thought showed promise were the coal fields in Sullivan County, Indiana.  He temporarily moved to Shelburn to recruit others.  His activities were noticed. Claypool increasingly looked over his shoulder.  On July 29th, he wrote to the RUMW Secretary-Treasurer that he had learned that two of  Lewis’s strongest supporters in the area, Frank Barnhart and Dale Stapleton  had been issued gun permits.  Fearful, Claypool went to see Sullivan Sheriff Williams.  Williams advised him to seek a grand jury investigation.

Claypool was walking near Shelburn on the night of July 30, 1930.  He was grabbed and forced into a car by several men (later reports indicated the number was five).  They grilled him about his efforts on behalf of the RUMW.  They accused him of meeting with powerful mine owner John Templeton in order to negotiate a contact with the new union.  When Claypool denied meeting with Templeton, his abductors menacingly discussed what they might do with him.

Finally, they started the car and headed west toward Illinois.  When they reached Clark County they pulled the car over in a deserted area.  Tar and feathers were produced from the trunk.  Holding Claypool down, they poured tar over his head and chest.  Then the feathers came floating down with their grim laughter and a piece of advice.  They warned Claypool to never return to Indiana.

Claypool made it to the Miller farm and Clark County Sheriff Henry Colbrim was called and took Claypool to Marshall, where he checked into the National Dixie Hotel, frightened but alive.

Many others would have ceased their union activities then and there.  But not Joseph Claypool. 

In Part Two I will discuss the aftermath of the story, and what happened next.

Image courtesy Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library


Stolen by Gypsies?


Gypsies and Bank Mules.  Yes, Gypsies and bank mules.  To my surprise this blog has had over 8,500 unique visits to the site, and those are the two most accessed of my posts. 

Bank mules, I guess, because people are looking for the definition of the term.  As for “gypsies,” I assume it is because so many are still fascinated by them and their lifestyles.  And beguiled by the tales, myths, and fears associated with them.  In the opening to blog series I did on the Demetro John murders (October 2011) I mentioned the paranoia and warnings that swept through Consolidated School with the arrival in the early 1960s of a group of gypsies with a carnival in West Terre Haute.  That fear of Gypsies and what they might do or steal was a long standing one in America.

The earliest mention I have yet found of Gypsies in the West Terre Haute area is an article from the March 3, 1859 (Terre Haute) Wabash Express.  It noted that a band of Gypsies was camped just north of the town. It appears that even at this early time negative views of Gypsies were firmly in place.  They are “fortune tellers, of course” said the article and “laboring under the strange hallucination that whatever they see, they have the right to appropriate for their own use.”  It was not quite lock up your women and children and hide your possessions, but the warning was implicit.  And shows that antipathy towards the Rom was inherent, even though few Gypsies were then in the United States.

This band was most likely part of the Romnichel, aka English Gypsies.  According to the Smithsonian English Gypsies began migrating to America around 1850.  Various reasons have been offered.  Many were fleeing from the Enclosure Acts that were “privatizing: common lands in England that had been temporary homes to Gypsies.  Gypsies were horse experts and horse traders and their skills and stock were important in an American economy that relied on draft horse both on the farm and in the city (think of the Budweiser Clydesdales).  Various Gypsy groups from Eastern Europe did not start to migrate to the United States in any numbers until the 1870s.

But many Americans had long standing views on Gypsies based on folklore and 19th-century versions of urban myths.  The reputation of these travelers preceded them and were not good.  In 1885, Charles Godfrey Leland, a writer and early folklorist with long knowledge of Gypsies, tried to set the record straight.  He was featured in an article that was syndicated across the country and appeared in several Indiana newspapers.  Called America’s leading expert on Gypsies, Leland stated that the Gypsies’ reputation as petty thieves and horse thieves was simply not deserved.  If something was stolen within five miles of a Gypsy, he said, the travelers would be automatically blamed.  It was unfair,  Besides he noted, “all Gypsies are rich” and had no reason to steal. They were actually more honest than “many Christian folks of superior standing and higher culture.” He pointed out that their “avocations” were horse-trading and fortune-telling.  Interestingly, Leland declared their culture was an example of “pure atheism.”

Leland’s article did little to change people’s views, and an incident that began in Macksville (West Terre Haute) only confirmed the worst about Gypsies to many.

J.T Brentlinger was a brick mason from Terre Haute.  In the summer of 1892 he was part of the crew building the new school in Macksville.  He occasionally allowed his 14 year old son Albert to accompany him to work.  Albert, pole in hand, would spend the day fishing while his father was on the job.   Near the pond was the camp of a small band of Gypsies.  Albert became acquainted with them.

As he was quitting work and packing up his tools on Saturday, Mr. Brentlinger kept an eye out for Albert.  The boy was usually pretty good about returning to the worksite before his dad was ready to leave.  Brentlinger headed toward the pond, calling Albert’s name.  It is unclear if registered in the back of his mind that the Gypsy camp was gone.  The anxious father headed back along Paris Avenue asking after his son.  Storekeeper Webb Bayless told Brentlinger that the last time he had seen Albert he was with a Gypsy named Sharp.  Brentlinger returned to the camp site.  The Gypsies were gone.  So was his boy.

Brentlinger informed the Terre Haute police about the “abduction.”  Word went out and they thought they might have the band in Brazil, but they got away.  Brentlinger began placing ads in newspapers throughout Indiana, and Ohio seeking information about Albert’s whereabouts.  He described Albert and the clothes he was wearing when last seen, blue cottonade pants, calico shirt and straw hat with a calico band.  In September word reached him of a possible sighting in Bedford, Indiana, but again the band was gone by the time authorities arrived.

There was no further trace of Albert until a letter arrived from Ohio in December.  It was from Albert.  He said he needed money to come home, that he had been very ill, and “blind in one eye and very nearly so in another.”  Mr Brentlinger thought the letter looked forced, scattered and wondered if it was an attempt at extortion or ransom.

He and Albert’s older brother set off for Ohio.  They found Albert living with a kindly farmer named Pierce near Circleville, Ohio.  Albert told his tale.

Albert’s Story 

Albert said he was fishing near the Gypsy camp when they grabbed him, tied him up, and forced him into their wagon.  They covered him in blankets so no one would see him.  They did not untie him and let him up until they were in Illinois.  They warned him they would kill him if he tried to escape.  Giving him a comb and brush they ordered him to clean their horses.  They were quick to strike him with a whip if they thought he was shirking.  His job became to clean and brush the horses each day from dawn until noon.

He said he was only fed a slice of bread and a cold potato twice a day.  He was never given meat during the entire ordeal.  In each town they visited he was sent to the streets to scavenge cigar butts, which were taken to camp, washed and dried to provide pipe tobacco.  One of the women acted as his guards during these forays.  While on his knees retrieving butts in Louisville his leg was run over by a fire wagon on a run.  He was taken to the hospital, but the Gypsies kept a tight guard on him so he could not tell his story or escape.

After his release from the hospital, the band moved on into Ohio.  Near Circleville, he said, two of the men (there were four men and three women in the group) got into a fight over him.  One, named Gypsy Mike, cracked the other over the head with a whip handle and took Albert into Circleville, where he “released” him.  After staying in Circleville for several days, nearly starving, Albert went off into the countryside.  There Pierce found him, looking destitute and with bruises on his face and body that appeared to be from whip cuts.  It was then he wrote his father.

Albert was home by Christmas.

So what to make of Albert’s story?  Many historians who have studied the history of Gypsies claim there has never been a documented case of child-napping.  So was this a case?  Or was it an example of a young man seeking a bit of adventure that spun out of his control?  Was it Albert’s version of running away to join the circus?  And, if it was so bad why did he not seize opportunities (as when he was in the hospital) to runaway, or ask for help?  We now know much more about the psychology of captives and captors (think Patty Hearst) and that it is not always physical constraints that keep people in such situations.  But if he truly wanted to get away, did he try?  And what do we make of the two Gypsies “fighting over him?”  It was only then that Albert was “released.”

Anyone no more of the Albert story?  Or similar ones?  Let me know.

Hop, Skip and Jump to Toad Hop

toad hop bachelors0001

In the summer of 1960 we moved to Larimer Hill, a little sprawl of houses located on a bluff just west of West Terre Haute.  It was named after a Mr. Larimer who had once owned a coal mine near there where he attempted to wrest a living from the coal-packed bluff.

I don’t remember hating the move, possibly for two reasons.  One was we were moving from Terre Haute, which to my 6 year old mind mainly served as memory-host of the most desolate moment of my life.  With the arrival of my stepfather we had moved to a house on north Center (aka Central) Street.  I suppose one of the reasons were located there was that it was only a few blocks from Union Hospital and was walking distance for my mom to go to work.  That was the desolate moment.  I still remember with aching clarity one particular Saturday afternoon.  Mom was working the 3-11 shift then.  So I had all morning to dread her leaving.  My sister was barely a toddler and my brother was simply not an interesting enough 3 year-old to play with.  Communication with my stepfather was not something I sought.  Thus the sight of my mom walking away toward her shift at the hospital, not to be seen again til morning, left me with a sense of total desolation.  It was just me now.  I carry that feeling still.  I remember huddling in a grassy patch just off the back porch.  No sole survivor of an arctic exploration could have felt more alone than I.  Had my six-year old vocabulary contained the word “bereft” I would have described myself so.  But anyway…..

The other reason for accepting the move was the Columbia bicycle.  It was possibly given me as a reward for making it through my eye surgery, which removed both my lens and left me blind in my left eye.  The bike was used, purchased from a second hand store at 4th and Ohio.  It had dents and dings, but had been given a glossy coat of dark blue paint to cover them.  I think my Uncle Danny had some part in procuring this marvel for me.  I loved that bike. 

We moved into a small house atop a hill.  If I remember it had two rooms plus a caboose-like kitchen.  Across the road was Granny Cooley, a kindly ancient woman who still tended her garden wearing a dress to her ankles, a daycap and bonnet and talking softly to her cat.  She was a continuing source of smiles, lemonade (which was too bitter for my taste) and hard cookies.  Behind us was a family my mom did not approve of as the mother was prone to lock her kids out of the house in the morning, only to let them return briefly for lunch and after the father came home.  I remember them always asking for drinks around the neighborhood.  Mom often sent me out with plastic cups of Kool-Aid for them.

The best destination to ride my bike was to Zelma’s.  Zelma was this happy woman who ran sort of a sandwich shop cum ice cream parlor.  Unlike the couple who ran a small grocery store down the hill from her (my interaction with them stemmed from being gullible enough to saunter into the store at the behest of the Harmon boys and ask for a Kotex), she liked kids.  She often treated us or said she would collect from our moms later.  Riding your Columbia bike to Zelma’s on a hot day, knowing what awaited there, was a sublime journey.

So my bike and I made our various journeys of exploration.  One place I was forbidden to go was Toad Hop!

Toad Hop was a scattering of houses down the hill.  It was located hard against Sugar Creek on the east, US 40 on the north, Dresser Road on the west and a long hill to the south.  Of course, like the name Hoosier, there are many thoughts about the origin of area’s name.  General consensus is that because it was bounded by Sugar Creek, whenever there was a heavy rain it was inundated by frogs.  Thus Toad Hop.

Among many, especially one surmises, my mom, Toad Hop had an unsavory reputation.  It was viewed as an inbred little place, filled with ne’er-do-wells, scofflaws, and the generally bad.  A place filled with hard people, not to be trifled with.  Granted, it was not a scenic spot.  Most of the houses were dilapidated, every other one seemed to offer itself as part junk yard, part second hand furniture store.  I vaguely remember what can best be described as a saloon there, with some western sounding name like Blazing Stump, Long Branch or Ponderosa (anyone remember?) that had reputation as a place one might lose and ear or nose should one venture an ill-advised opinion.

I went to school with a raft of kids from Toad Hop at Consolidated School.  They did seem a rough sort.  The type to be avoided in the playground if possible.  There was one large family that totaled about 10 or 11 kids.  I got along well enough with the boy in my grade.  He seemed a bit jumpy and sad, but nice enough to play baseball with.  Later, I learned from another classmate that the boy’s father was the follower of a fundamentalist minister who had a Sunday morning ranting program on the radio.  Each evening the father would return to Toad Hop from work and after dinner would line all the children up, no matter age or gender, and give them five strong whacks with his belt.  It was done, he said, to punish them for whatever sins they had committed that day while he was away.

I also remember my  Uncle Wayne and his family living there for a while, but my Uncle Wayne was the strong, silent, Clint Eastwood type who kept his nose out of other’s business and could handle himself if pushed to do so.

There is some dispute as to whether Toad Hop was actually platted as a community or not.  One source says it was, in 1907.  Another that it just kind of grew up around the mines and clay plant located near there.  Whether because its comical name or the because the people who lived there were looked down upon, Toad Hop was often the object of derision. 

In 1914 there appeared a photo that was carried in newspapers around the state that purported to be seeking brides for the lonely bachelors of the village.  The photo showed a ragtag group of old men, scalawags, and hard cases.  Calling Toad Hop an “historic and unique village,” the caption averred that Toad Hop had a larger percentage of bachelors than any town in the state.  The photo provided ample proof of why that might be.  It was almost certainly a joke.  One of the pranks that some, like West Terre Hautean turned-Hollywood screenwriter Grover Jones (see previous blog entries for more about Jones), like to pull was to see if they could get phony photographs inserted into the papers.  To test the idea I did a census search and found that only 3 of the men in the picture could be found to have lived in or near Toad Hop, according to census records.

Grover Jones later wrote several short stories published in Collier’s and other magazines set in Toad Hop, including one titled The Amazon of Toad Hop.  More on that in part two of this blog coming soon.

The 1936 WPA Federal Writers’ Project guide entry on Toad Hop was succinct:

“There have never been any distinguished persons or families residing in Toad Hop.

The architecture is of a general nature and has no unusual features.

There are no parks or monuments here.

The place has never been noted because of foreign groups that have resided here.

There are three groceries there, and a combination garage and soft drink parlor.

There are no churches there.  There is one school known as the Toad Hop School.  It has the first five grades with one teacher and 19 pupils.”

There may have still been a garage and soft drink parlor there when I was a kid, but I do not remember a grocery store, but then again I was never allowed to venture in to see.

I am currently gathering as many of the Toad Hop stories by Grover Jones as I can find.  Most contemporaries who read them assured others that Jones’ basically only changed the names and slightly caricatured some of the protagonists.  And they knew exactly who the character was based upon.  I will blog about them soon.