By the time these articles were published Grover Jones was a well-established and noted figure in Hollywood. In his career he would write over 120 movie scripts, and direct or produce more than 40 others. He drew on bits of his life and growing up in West Terre Haute in many of those scripts. But these short stories published in the 1930s drew almost exclusively his time in West Terre Haute and Toad Hop. As I wrote earlier, Jones’ contemporaries who still lived in the area averred that they knew exactly who or what he was writing about. Though often highly embellished for hid deadpan, satirical humor style, they contain deep kernels of truth about West Terre Haute and some of its citizens, and are steeped in the mining culture he grew up in, particularly among the Welsh of which he was a part. Wales, of course, was a major coal mining region, so it was natural that Welsh immigrants and their sons would gravitate to the dark pits around West Terre Haute.
Many of his stories revolved around women, though as seemingly minor characters, more “off-screen” than in the middle of the action, but they were the force that drove the stories and their outcomes. Though men were seemingly the central characters, they were undone or “made” by the females in their lives. For good or ill, the males who thought themselves very much superior to, or controlling their women, were but puppets on the string.
The Toad Hop Amazon, sub-headed by the phrase She fought like a wildcat, but she knew the way to a man’s heart was one such tale.
The central figure in the story was one Button (because he always wore a McKinley campaign button) Klegg, a tramp printer who stumbled upon West Terre Haute. It may surprise many, but West Terre Haute was once a lively newspaper town with two weekly papers competing for circulation. Klegg took over a struggling paper named the Weekly Times. He soon made the paper a success. Much of that was due to his humorous take on things in town. Miners loved it when he printed that floods would never reach the mine company store, because it was the highest place in town. Even supposedly dour farmers liked his style. He added further readers by doing “society” pieces that gently satirized those who thought themselves the elite.
But his humor got him in big trouble when he took on Mrs. Matt Wannack. He called her the Toad Hop Amazon and was baffled by the fact that a traveling carnival had not snatched her up for its freak show. She was a big woman, so tall Klegg said that “she could stand flat-footed and look over the saloon fence to see if her husband was in there.” And if he was it was a sure thing that the saloonkeeper would be building a new fence the next day.
Now Mrs. Wannack was also a dyed-in-the-wool labor agitator who loathed mine owners. As women were not allowed in the labor union hall she used her smallish husband to be her mouthpiece, preaching strike to the members. Klegg, who had lived through many a mine strike did not want that and it led him to publish his less than praising article about her. That in turn led to Mrs. Wannack visiting Legg in his office, which led to an epic fight featuring Mrs. Wannack “Casaba-melon” fists versus Klegg’s foot work.
It did not take long for news of this fistic bout to reach the mine in which Matt worked. He left the pit and sped to Klegg’s office. Not wanting further trouble Klegg tried to forestall another attack upon his person by the Wannack clan. To his surprise, Matt did not want to punch Klegg. Instead, he wanted to know “how’d it feel when you popped her?” Matt was ecstatic when another man did what he could not do.
That began a friendship between Button and Matt, initially based on mutual antipathy to the Toad Hop Amazon. They transacted many conversations while fishing together at a used up mine pit. One day they began discussing plum pudding, Klegg’s favorite food. When Matt told him the amazon made the world’s finest plum pudding, the two had their first real disagreement. Klegg, who considered himself one of the world’s great connoisseurs of plum pudding, a “knockin’ pick” he called it, was not buying that story. He told Matt that good plum pudding needed to age and the only place he had tasted good plum pudding was in Western Pennsylvania where a few Welsh miner’s wives knew how to make it right.
The two friends never had a chance to settle the argument among themselves. A few days later Matt, who like some miners had “the insane habit of opening a keg of powder with his pick” paid for his error. They “gathered him up with a whisk broom and a tray.”
Most of the town attended Matt’s funeral, but Button was not among the mourners. The Amazon had decreed he was persona non grata. With Matt gone, and many now sympathized with his widow, there were renewed talks of a strike. The town merchants feared its results. Then Button got an idea. To get miners’ minds off striking, he decided to make a folk hero of the gentle, well-liked Matt. His scheme involved making Matt into a home spun philosopher, and compared his wisdom to Dreiser, Dresser or Debs. Matt was offered as West Terre Haute’s answer to this famous Terre Haute trio. Button began publishing Matt’s alleged “sayings.” Things like:
“Next to a rainy day funeral there’s nothin’ sadder’n seeing a good fiddler playin’ in a cheap restaurant.”
“Man talks about possible disappointments; Women make them possible by talking.”
Matt’s purported aphorisms became the rage. Button had to print extra copies of his paper to meet demands. Soon, all talk of a strike withered on the miner’s lips. Incensed by this the Amazon sought out Button Klegg. She chanced to find him in his office talking with a city slicker. The man represented a newspaper syndicate who was there to offer Button $3,000.00 to publish the wisdom of the dead sage of West Terre Haute.
Now the last thing that Button wanted was for the Amazon to get wind of this. He knew that she knew he had made it all up. He saw the money winging away across Sugar Creek toward Toad Hop. The Amazon took note and so sweetly asked both to dinner that Button nearly gagged. Over dinner, which was good enough Button thought, he and the Amazon parried and thrust. At stake in this duel was a lot of money. As dinner ended Button decided he would announce that thewrote the aphorisms and the money was due him, not their hulking hostess.
Then the Amazon brought in the dessert. Plum pudding. Now would be the resolution. As he bit into it his taste buds agreed it was the best “knockin’ pick” he ever ate. As he became lost in savoring the pudding he heard he heard the city slicker pull out the contract and said the Amazon should sign the agreement which gave her the money in return for Button giving the remaining Matt material to the syndicate. Button. Mouth still filled with plum pudding, managed to say “Right.”
Jones ends the tale by saying that: “They were married in late summer and went on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls. When they returned Button changed the name of his paper to The Labor Clarion.”
Again in the humor are some home truths. There was classic labor-management strife. Most miners hated the mine owners with a deep seething passion. They did the hard, backbreaking labor, while the owners, they felt, literally reaped the rewards of their sweat. Strikes for better conditions or wages were a tool, but an often onerous one. A long strike could cripple the economy of a town like West Terre Haute. Shopkeepers lived in dread of a strike. They could lead to near starvation for miner families. Even some of the more ardent miners were loath to go on strike.
They could lead to financial ruin for miners and eventually pile up more debt for them at the company store. Those familiar with the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “16 Tons” are familiar with the lament of owing ones soul to the company store. West Terre Haute had a company store at Market Street (3rd St.) and Paris Avenue. Such store often had higher prices for goods, but they offered credit to miners. Often it was the only way miners could get what they needed as they did not have the cash to pay for lower prices at competing businesses.
The Amazon is reminiscent of Mother Jones, the firebrand labor leader who fought her entire life for workers’ right.
You can read the entire story online, and other of Jones’ work by following this link and searching for “Grover Jones.” http://www.unz.org
For my blogs about miners, strikes and labor strife see:
Coming soon I will look at some more of Jones’ work