Donning a Miner’s Clothes

Pennsylvania_breaker_boys_1911

No man has been more important in my life than my grandfather, Ray Chrisman. Gramps’ nickname was “Baldy.” That always seemed strange to me as he had a full head of silver-grey hair. Why would people call him that? It was not until last year that I learned that his nickname was “Bawldy,” not “Baldy” as I spelled it in my mind all these years. And therein is a tale.
As I have written before, Gramps came from a family of coal miners. His dad, all of his brothers and many of his cousins all descended into the coal shafts to eke out a hard living. He longed to join them. Each day as his dad and brothers he would stand at the door in their house in St. Mary’s and cry to be allowed to go and work beside them. This went on and on each workday even though they always told him he was too young. His brothers and sisters started teasing him by calling him “Bawldy” because of his weeping and bawling.
Gramps was already part of the coal business in a way. He started hauling buckets of coal for the Postmistress of St. Mary’s Eugenia Doyle when he was seven years-old. Each day in the cool weather he would take her coal to heat the tiny post office.
So, to eleven year-old Ray Chrisman it was only right that he go to the mines. In that fall of 1912 the supposed minimum age to legally go to work (14 in some areas). In earlier times children as young as five or six were a part of mine sites. Finally the family relented. They let the skinny young boy follow in his father’s muddy footsteps to the Sisters’ mine located not far from their door (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/black-diamonds-for-the-sisters/). Young Ray got his wish. Soon he would don a miner’s clothes.
Miners of the period wore certain types of clothing. A wool shirt was preferred because it absorbed sweat, and it was thought, helped prevent colds. Pants or overalls of a heavy duck cloth were necessary to withstand the wear and tear of mine work. As were good heavy boots or shoes (this may be one of the reasons Gramps always insisted Grandma buy their kids the best quality shoes they could afford, even during the Depression). When miners emerged from the shafts into the cold the walk home could be frigid. One man who worked the mines in Sugar Creek recalled that his pants were so frozen on many occasions that they could literally stand on their own when he took them off.
I am not sure what Gramps’ first job was in the mine. There were several available to the young during this time. He likely started as a “breaker boy.” Coal came up from the mine in large chunks. Mixed in with the coal were rocks, slate, dead rats and other debris. Breaker boys were responsible for breaking up the chunks and pulling out the debris, which were later taken to what was called the culm pile in some areas. It was hard work, being bent over and pulling heavy rocks and slate for eight or more hours a day. The sulfur muck in the coal would seep into their skin causing the fingers to swell and the skin to often crack open. It is likely that Gramps’ mother Anna likely had to wash his hands and treat them with some sort of grease to soothe them. Breaker boys were considered day labor and were paid around a quarter a day.
Some boys served as “nippers.” Their job was to quickly open and close the shaft and main doors to allow miners, mules and coal cars in and out. This was important due to the ventilation systems in mines. When closed the doors allowed the system to work properly by forcing air into the tunnels and shafts for the miners and helping prevent the buildup of dangerous gases.
Being a “spragger” was also a boy’s job. Spraggers ran along with the coal cars to control their speed. Runaway cars could be a danger to all. Spraggers worked in pairs had to be agile as their job was to jab long pieces of wood called sprags into the car’s wheels when they were moving too fast.
Gramps’ favorite job would have been being a “butty.” A butty was a miner’s helper. He would have carried all the tools, picks, shovels, axes, etc., that a miner needed to do his job. For Gramps this would have meant working alongside his dad or one of his brothers. He would have gloried in this, handing tools, sharing jokes, being a part of his family’s world.
Many young miners graduated into the adult mine jobs as they grew older and more experienced. One of those was being a mule driver. Gramps talked often about driving the “bank mules” (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/bank-mules/). It was an important time in hislife
Coalmining was a dangerous job for everyone, including the youngest. Maiming and death were ever present. Breaker boys, spraggers, nippers and buttys lost eyes, arms, legs and their lives on the job. That was one of the reasons Gramps’ family resisted so long. But I can imagine him walking home from a long day at the with his dad and brothers, nestling a quarter to kelp with the family finances. That short walk from the mine back home must have flown by.

Ex mule driver with a full head of hair. Ray Chrisman, 1944

Ex mule driver with a full head of hair. Ray Chrisman, 1944

(For further reading on children in the mines I recommend Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartogrampsletti.)

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