By James Mack Adams
It was in 1946 that country singer, Merle Travis, wrote a song about Kentucky coal miners. He gave it an appropriate title, “Sixteen Tons.” The song has been recorded by several artists, but the best known and most popular version is the one recorded in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It is the one that rose to the top of the Billboard charts.
It was in 1970 that country music legend, Loretta Lynn, recorded an album featuring what was to become her signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
I haven’t written a song about it yet, but I am a nephew of Southwest Virginia and Kentucky coal miners. So, I know a little about what Merle and Loretta are saying in their song lyrics. I was a youngster during much of the time when coal was king in that part of the country, but I became very familiar with the lifestyles of my coal-miner uncles. And yes, I remember the company store.
Those were the days before machines started doing much of the heavy mine work. The primary tools of the coal miner of the 1930s and early 1940s were a pick and a shovel. The coal was dug out of the mountain with the pick, and the shovel was used to load the loosened coal into waiting coal cars. The cars were then moved to the mine entrance where the coal was loaded onto trucks. At least a portion of a miner’s weekly pay was determined by the number of cars he loaded.
I was never allowed inside the mine with my Uncle Claude, but I recall his daily routine when he got home from work. His coal-blackened face and hands made him almost unrecognizable. After bathing in a galvanized tub filled with hot water heated on the kitchen stove, he would sit down for supper. After eating, he would take out the small notebook and pencil stub he carried in his overalls pocket and record the number of cars he loaded that day. If there were some daylight left, he would likely then do some farm chores.
Another uncle, Uncle John, went to work each day carrying an old dented metal lunch bucket. That lunch bucket fascinated me as a child. I loved to finish off any food he had left in the bucket when he got home. Uncle John knew this and would always save a hardened jelly biscuit for me. I considered it a treat.
One line from the song, “Sixteen Tons,” is “Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.” The company store was owned and operated by the coal company. Miners were required to buy some of their own work supplies and equipment, such as the carbide they used to light the open-flame lamps on their hard hats. Guess where they had to purchase these items required to do their jobs. You guessed it … the company store. The company store was also a source for some food and household items.
Saturdays were paydays at the mines. The miners were usually paid in cash, or partly in scrip. Scrip was a legal money substitute that could only be spent one place. You guessed it … at the company store.
Saturdays were busy and bustling days in my little town. After drawing their weekly pay, the miners and their families would come to town for the day. The wife would shop at Woolworth’s or the town’s only department store. The kids would be given a quarter to go to the movie theater where they would spend most of the afternoon watching a double feature, a serial, previews of upcoming movies, and a collection of cartoons. The miner, if he were so inclined, might have headed to the pool hall or tavern to down a few cold ones while socializing with buddies and listening to his favorite hillbilly tunes coming from the jukebox.
Miners often sacrificed their health to pursue their chosen occupation. Two of my uncles later developed an occupational illness named Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis (CWP), better known as Black Lung. Another uncle lost a leg in a mine accident.
Regardless of the hard labor, as well as the health and safety hazards involved with coal mining, I never heard my uncles express regret about their choice of jobs. Not long after my Uncle John became ill with black lung and retired, I asked him if he would go back to work in the mine if he had a chance. Without hesitation he replied: “I would start Monday morning.”