I have written several entries about Grover Jones. Son of a miner, the precocious Jones left West Terre Haute to attend the birthing of Hollywood. He went on to become one of the glitter city’s most successful screenwriters, raconteurs and storytellers. He was also a sought after magazine writer, his short stories appearing alongside such heavyweights as Damon Runyon and Kathleen Norris in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.
For inspiration, Jones’ stories mainly drew upon the two worlds he knew best: West Terre Haute and its mines and people and Hollywood. His humor was broad and satirical, but as with all good humor there was a core of brutal truth. At times it seemed almost written slapstick, appropriate for a screenwriter who worked on the slapstick movies of the Twenties and Thirties.
He seldom had to look far for his characters. He drew them from the folks he grew up around in West Terre Haute, and those he observed sharply in Hollywood. To those in the know it was not hard to point to the real persons upon whom Jones drew his portraits. A Terre Haute Saturday Spectator article from the 1930s mentioned that the people of West Terre Haute knew exactly who he was writing about in his farcical tone.
What do his articles tell us about West Terre Haute? In the next two blogs I will look at three stories and try to divine the truths behind the humor. I will start with “Soft Coal.” It is the story of West Terre Haute miner Dowdy Swisher and and Birdie Stipp, daughter of the company store manager. Now Dowdy, had “a chest thicker than nine dollars of lettuce and weakness for pie without top crust.” And Birdie was a pie-maker supreme (as will be seen a future story, food was often ajn important pivot point in Jones’ stories). Entranced by Dowdy’s magnificent singing voice, Birdie set her cap and china doll eyes for him. They were married, went to Terre Haute for their honeymoon and began their married life.
Dowdy was thrilled with his pretty, pie-making wife, but soon began to wonder what he had to offer her besides his voice and paycheck. Dowdy was the taciturn type, not much given to talking and with no real education or interests outside of baseball, while Birdie was an inquisitive sort who read the Chicago papers and liked to discuss things. Enter Papini, a much-travelled miner/mule skinner who drifted into West Terre Haute looking for work when the Peabody mine he worked went on strike. Papini bore a resemblance to Dowdy, who invited Papini to board with him and Birdie and found him work at the mine.
Papini was a talker and it seemed he had been everywhere. He made Birdie laugh with his tales, while Dowdy sat quietly. Others in town began to talk behind Dowdy’s unaware back. It all came to a head one day in the mine. An explosion caused a cave-in. Everyone got out of one of the shafts except Papini. Dowdy was set to go in after him when his friend Eddie unfortunately blurted out the news about Birdie and Papini. Let him die in there was the consensus among the other miners. There was nothing to be done, Papini could not be rescued. But miners like Dowdy would never let another miner die if they could help it. He dove into the shaft and pulled Papini out. He then began pummeling Papini for trying to steal his wife. They fought for two hours. When Papini got out of the hospital he returned to Dowdy’s to pay his board and left. It was said that Dowdy missed him afterwards.
In Soft Coal, published in the April 22, 1933 issue of Collier’s, Jones gave a tongue in cheek, but vivid description of West Terre Haute:
“My home town is on the banks of the Wabash. When I lived there it had thirty-six hundred inhabitants, five churches, and thirty-one saloons. Enough bartenders to make three baseball teams and four left over to lend to the preachers—which they did.
There was one main street. It started in Ganzit’s pasture in the carefree manner of a young goat and ended at Stimky’s pop factory with practically no enthusiasm at all. Past Stimky’s there was no place to go, unless you cared to count the Red Horse fishing camp and the place where we went for pawpaws.
Coal mines encircled the town. Their tipples stood out against a perpetually murky sky like teeth on a gigantic saw. Only the farmers in our township ever saw any sunshine; most of us were undershot from blowing soot off our noses.Even the motorman and the conductor on the street car that bounced alongfrom our town to the county seat looked as though they were bumming theirway.
The men-folks worked in the mines. They were down the shaft at seven, home at four and in the saloons by five. Beer and pinochle were the evening pleasures. When a saloonkeeper started a saloon he bought a deck of cards.When he went out of business he usually had the same deck. In the process aging it gradually attained the height and shape of a Japanese lantern. By eleven o’clock every night you could squeeze out a pint of beer with very little effort. The fronts and backs looked exactly alike.”
Those four paragraphs encapsulate so much of what I have learned about West Terre Haute history, both its physical and societal aspects. There was a pasture (who owner’s name I cannot find in my notes just now) that served as sort of a community grazing filed and temporary home to Gypsy camps. At the east end of Paris Avenue was a soda bottling plant owned by Burton Cassaday. Paris Avenue was the main street in West Terre Haute where most of the businesses were located. It was to be THE main street until National Avenue rose to share that designation beginning in the 1930s.
Mines were the driving force behind the West Terre Haute economy. There were at least ten large mines and other smaller ones operating just on the outskirts of town. The miners put in long, hard days and more than a few repaired to the ubiquitous saloons as soon as possible to wash away the dust and seeming futility of some of their lives. There was a grime on the streets and buildings that colored the town darkly.
Another passage speaks to the lives of quiet desperation of women: “The married women were all dried up like left-over apples. They gave birth to children just to break up the monotony of setting dinner buckets and washing pit clothes.”
Or: “A boy seldom finished the common school. At twelve, he was a trapper boy in the mines. If he was born big he buddied up with his father and worked three rooms off the main entry.” My grandfather did not complete the 8th grade. Neither, likely, did any of his brothers, By 12 or 13 they worked with their dad in the mines. Partial school records at the St. Mary’s village school that gramps and his brothers usually only went to school during the dead of winter for six weeks of school. Their sisters attended class the full year.
“Now a coal company store aint much to look at… Trading at the store was obligatory. If you squawked you were out of a job.” West Terre haute had a company store. It often sold items at above what the miners would have paid across the river in Terre Haute. But it was convenient and miners could get credit. Miners were sometimes paid in scrip for the country store instead of cash or checks. As Tennessee Ernie sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
This has been a darker look inside what really was a funny, knowing story. But it shows what you can learn when you dig deeper into a story. Next time, I will look at The Toad Hop Amazon.