Editors’ Note: The following narrative is based on interviews conducted in July and August, 1973, and is intended for use by people in the area where the events took place. It is one experiment in helping local people preserve their own history and pass it on to their neighbors and children.
This is the story of a coal miners’ strike on the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau which began in 1932. It was a long, hard, bloody strike, fought to preserve what was at that time the only recognized coal miners’ union south of the Ohio River. It ended in the defeat of the union workers in 1933.
Forty years later, several people in Knoxville became interested in finding out the story of this strike. We had been talking together about trying to learn and save some of the history of our area — not just the history of famous and powerful individuals, but the history of common people, working people.
We knew that there had been a strike at Davidson-Wilder because we had heard some songs about it on a record by Hedy West.1 In the beginning, that was the only thing we had to go on. Since then, we have found that a few things were written about the strike.2 But primarily we have talked to many people who were involved in the strike: strikers and their families, people who left at the beginning of the strike and became farmers, outsiders, and scabs.
The people we talked with have been great, taking long hours to remember what happened and to explain it to us, when they had never seen us before and had no way of knowing whether or not to trust us. As outsiders to the strike and to coal mining too, we now feel we have learned a lot: about the strike itself, about life in Appalachian coal camps during the Depression, and the strength and courage of the people who lived and survived in them.
In the pages that follow we have let the people who were involved in the strike tell the story themselves. We tape recorded our conversations with 14 people, and we made notes about talks we had with about 10 others. The following story is pieced together from things that all these people had to say. We have changed the names of the who appear in the story except for those who are recognizable anyway, from their position, or from something they did.3 This is not because anyone asked us to hide their identity. But there were so many people mentioned, we knew we could never locate them all to ask their permission and so we decided it was best to use only a minimum of real names in the story.
In putting it together we didn’t try to be “neutral.” We believe that working people and poor people need to get together to gain a better living and a say over their own lives. So we felt on the side of the strikers when we began, and the things we learned since then have made us feel that way all the more. But even though we had our own point of view, we tried to get everybody’s side of the story.
Sometimes, of course, people disagree on exactly what happened or what certain events meant. Especially people from Fentress County and nearby may disagree with some versions given here, or may know something else that’s not told. We want to share with others what we have learned so far, as an encouragement to other people to try this way of learning history, and as a tribute to the people who shared their story with us.
• • • •
Davidson and Wilder in 1932 were sizeable mining camps located in the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee. They were strung like beads on a string with two other camps, Crawford and Twinton, in a gorge (“the hollow”) cut by the East Fork of the Obey River in Fentress and Overton Counties.
At that time three mines were being worked there, one at Twin, owned by a New York company, Brier Hill Collieries (which had already worked out an earlier mine at Crawford); a second at Davidson owned by the Patterson brothers, E. W. and Hubert; and the third and largest at Wilder, owned by the Nashville-based Fentress Coal and Coke Company, run by general manager W.D. Boyer and superintendent L.L. Shivers.
The people who lived and worked in the mining camps, almost all native mountaineers, until recently had made their living by farming in the area and working in the timber woods or sawmills of the lumbering industry. Still others had been coal miners in other places before.
We had lived at Wilder when I was just a kid. Then during World War I we left Wilder and went up to Blue Diamond, Kentucky, and then from Blue Diamond back over on the Southern Railroad, and then when the war was over with, we moved back here in May of 1919, and that's when I went to work.
Down around Dunlap, in Grundy, there was a bunch come from down there. Rockwood men, that come from down near Chattanooga, around Soddy and Dunlap.
That’s right. There were mines all up and down the Southern Railroad. Most of them worked around the Rockwood mine. Most of them had been ore miners. They used to mine ore over there.
Just poured in here, these people did. A good part of the Davidson people was from down there.
Conditions in the mines and mining camps were rough, for men and women alike:
I was something around 15 year old, the first work I done in the mines. I went to work chalk-eyeing* for another fellow for a dollar and a half a day and my board . . worked seven months that way, then I got myself a room of my own and went to digging and getting so much a ton myself.
I went to school to the sixth grade. And then I went to carrying water up there around the tip. The war broke out . . . and the foreman come in and said, “How old are you?’’ I said, “I’m going on 17.’’ I was big for my age. He took me in the mines and I mashed my fingers half off on the tailchain. I was thirteen. I stayed in there from then on. I had a big old mule and I had to get somebody to help harness it. I couldn’t reach up to it.
Used to, you’d go in the mines and take a place, a room tieck, and you’d widen that out to forty feet wide, and you had that, that was your place. You set the timbers and you laid your track, and pushed your car in and pushed it out. And what coal you took out of that place, why, that was your living, that was all you made. If you didn’t load any, you didn’t make nothing. So if you made a living, you had to get in there and work, and work hard all day. There wasn’t no stopping. If you could get cars, you didn’t even take time to eat. I’ve went many a day, the only time I took a drink of water is when I put water in my lamp. I never touched my bucket all day. But if you didn’t get cars, why you’d sit there worrying because you weren’t going to make nothing.
Well, it was pretty rough. They didn’t know nothing about safety and didn’t care. We had two or three men burned up in explosions. We had a state mine inspector, but he turned his back when he saw some of the dangers. You was just on your own when you went in there. If it was going to cave
in on you, go ahead and do it. Nobody cared. They’d hire farmers from round here to come in, when they first opened the mines. They didn’t know anything about mining. They’d soon better learn if they lived long! The graveyard down there is full of men killed in the mines.
At the time of the strike, miners were paid every two weeks. The company kept daily records of how much each man made, and if he ran out of money before payday, he could go to the company office and draw “scrip.” (If he had any credit in his account, that is.) The scrip was only good at the company store.
You see, if you had to buy groceries, you’d have to go to this office, and you’d tell them you wanted two dollars or three dollars in scrip and they’d give it. But you didn’t dare overdraw, because if you did, you wouldn’t get a penny. You were turned down. But if you made over that, if you had money coming to you, you could get it.
Most folks just had scrip all the time. Money, why I didn’t see no money til I was 25 years old.
Before you got that money, the company had to have their take-outs on the first of every month—house rent, your coal, light bill, doctor bill. And they held that out whether or not you made anything. The miners had to buy their powder, their fuses, and everything, to shoot that coal down with.
The superintendent was the head man in town; his wife was the head woman in town. The foreman didn’t have any status. It’s like on a plantation, driving slaves. Everybody lived in shacks except the superintendent's family and they lived in a house. A company town.
Well, you take the company doctor back then, he would just as soon tell you coal dust was good for your lungs. And it wasn’t bad for you if you got a leg broke! If he could set it, it was all right. You were just as good as you ever was. You take it at Wilder, the older kids raised there could have had black lung easy. You take sulphur smoke, over by the slate dumps and sulphur in it and it burning. You could hardly breathe in town back when I was a kid there. My wife’s got a sister, and the doctors gave her medicine for black lung. She said it wasn’t anything except breathing that old sulphur smoke. They lived close to the mines.
The mining camps, they didn’t even have electricity. You couldn’t buy a washing machine. And they washed on rub boards most of the time. No running water, you carried water.
Many mining families were large ones and the women were expected to stay home and care for them. And, although the women weren’t allowed to play much of a part in the official union, they were very important to it even so.
I didn’t run around much then, I mean go places or nothing. The children was all just small, and I stayed at home. They didn't get out and gossip like they do these days. They stayed at home, took care of the house and children.
I don’t see how miners’ widows lived at all. Because their folks didn't make enough to make a living for theirselves, much less anybody else. My uncle died and he had two kids, and I don’t know how she got by, she’d just come to our house for a while and go to her daddy’s a while, and finally she got married again. But a woman with a big bunch of kids, I don’t see how she did it.
The women, most of them, just went on about their business, and let the men do what they wanted to do, and they stayed at home. At union meetings, the men would go, and the women didn’t have anything in it—they stayed at home.
Well, women had a bunch of influence in the union more and more. Now, if a woman’s strong for the union, why her husband will be strong. And if she’s against it, it’s hard for him to do anything. My wife was behind me all the way though.
• • • •
Miners and their families had never just sat back without trying to improve the conditions of their lives. Whenever times were good, miners tried to press for a better share. During World War I coal was in great demand and the industry was booming. The War Labor Board supported the right of defense workers to have unions. So when many southern miners went on strike in 1917, the government helped pressure the coal operators into an agreement which the Chattanooga Labor World called “the greatest victory ever won in any union coal field in this country.” They won shorter hours, better pay, the right to a committee, and other things as well. In 1918, the United Mine Workers of America campaigned throughout Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee, signing up more and more mines under the new agreement. Wilder, Davidson and Twinton were among them.
When we started organizing, I know the first time I joined the union, I was up in Twin City up beyond Davidson about two miles. They signed me up out under a bluff in the woods, hid out. It was in about ’18, I guess.
It would crop up from somewhere or another. You had to keep it kind of secret til you got a majority. You just signed the card and you kept your mouth shut until you got enough men together. It’d be some union organizer, but he would start with the man he thought he could trust, that could work through the men. And that one, after he’d signed the card, maybe he’d work on his best friend to get him to sign a card, and just keep working that way until they got a majority of the men and then they’d call a meeting for to talk to the company and have a committee.
This first organization didn’t last long, though. As soon as the war was over, the companies started trying to cheat on their agreement and cut corners wherever they could. In 1921 and 1922 depression hit the coal fields, and the unions lost many of the gains they had made. By 1924, coal companies all over felt strong enough to make their move:
So in ’24, the company just shut down. We didn’t come out on strike, it was just the company shut down in order to break the union. It lasted up ’til ’25. Sometime in ’25 we had to go back to what they called the 1917 scale, $3.20 a day for just ordinary labor.
I was married then and our first kid wasn’t born, soon it would be. And they got an injunction against us and came and notified me we were going to have to move. And in about a month our kid would be born. I told them I wouldn’t move until after we had that. And I didn’t.
From 1924 til 1930 the miners in Wilder were without a union. To get a job, they had to sign a yellow-dog contract, swearing that they would never join a union or go out on strike. Conditions went from bad to worse.
If you belonged to the union, the law and the county officials and everybody was against you. There wasn’t too many miners in the county, and we wasn’t very popular in the county. They thought the work was good. They didn’t understand the trading at the company store and not having a place for a garden. So we lost that strike.
It just kept gradually going down, down, down. The companies would keep fightin’ us with West Kentucky, West Kentucky. That’s all we could hear. West Kentucky would cut the prices on the coal, and they had to come cut us in order to compete with them. And so it was gettin’ ridiculous.
The companies, squeezed by the depression and engaged in cut-throat competition with other coal producers, cut the Davidson and Wilder men’s pay twice during this time. Soon the mines were only running two or three days a week. The miners were destitute.
In 1930 the company tried to cut the miners’ wages a third time. The men decided they had to try to organize. And incredibly enough, with no other mine anywhere in District 19 organized, they won contracts with the three companies in the hollow. This contract prevented the third cut.**
The way we got it, we struck Twin and Davidson. Wilder was the biggest. So the men come on strike at Davidson and Twin: the policy committee decided we’d strike them two, and then go in and talk to the company at Wilder. We had a policy committee of 15 men, five from each mining camp. We worked together all over. We’d have meetings and decide on what to do. We struck them at 12 o’clock noon one day, and all the men come out. And I was the one selected to go and see the management, me and Ray Smith, another man on the committee. Ray was supposed to be the spokesman. He got in there and he couldn’t talk to save his life. He agreed with the president of the company, and we come out and I told Ray, “Now we’ve got to face them other thirteen men up there when we go back, and you never have told him nothing.” He said, “Well, you go in and tell him.” I said, “All right, let’s go back,” because I wasn't wanting to go back up there and tell them fellows we hadn't told him nothing. I went back in and told the president we’d heard his side of the story, and that the miners had struck the two mines above there, and he’d either sign a contract with us, or we’d go on strike, one. “And if you want to do any business, then we’ll talk the thing over. If you don’t, why, there’s nothing else to do only just close this one down.”
So the president said, “ We'll talk to you about the weather, and the date, but that’s all.” So I went back and told the committee if we’d wait a while, a week or two, maybe he would come around. So we went back to him again, and told him what we thought. It would be a good idea for him to do it; we wouldn’t try to even get a living out of it, but just get along 'til times got better and maybe we could get a raise later on. And he agreed to talk to us.
Why the men were able to get the contract is still something of a mystery. A man who used to teach school in Wilder wrote a paper in 1937 about the strike. 4 He wrote that one of the mine officials told him that the management of the three mines had tried to get together and agree on a lock-out, but that the agreement had broken down, and th miners were able to take advantage of the split. A striker told us that there was a union sympathizer close to the management who convinced them to sign.
• • • •
At any rate, the miners in the hollow worked for the next year under a contract. On July 8, 1932, that contract expired. Before it did, the Brier Hill Colleries at Twin signed again to renew it. But before the new contract had even begun, the company shut down indefinitely, saying it would try and wait out the bad times, throwing hundreds of men out of work. Meanwhile, the mines at Davidson and Wilder refused to sign unless the men would accept the cut in wages which they had fought off the year before.
The president of the union at Davidson explained it this way to a newspaper reporter:
We had a union contract, but it wasn’t satisfactory because the company didn’t live up to it. The contract was to expire July 8. Before that time a committee from each of the locals got together and decided on changes we would ask in the new contract that would take care of our grievances. We provided in that contract that miners wouldn’t have to work knee-deep in water and would be paid for removing rock falls.
On July 8 our joint committee met with the operators and presented the contract. The operators turned it down flat and asked us to meet again the next day. We met and they offered a new contract that provided for a 20% wage cut.
We told them that we had bummed and begged for food, had run an aid truck every week, that some miners went into the mine without breakfast or lunch, worked all day, and then at the end of the day couldn’t get a dollar to buy food with because the money earned was held back to pay for house rent and other expenses. We told them that we had to issue orders on our local treasury to buy things for the miners’ families to live on, and we said that under such conditions we could not take a 20% wage cut.
The operators said that they had no other proposal, and they posted a notice at the mine that those who wanted to work at the wages offered could do so. Not a miner went to work, and the mines closed. 5
Other men remembered:
I think I was maybe making 36 cents a ton. Loading a whole ton for 36 cents. It was a toss-up. You didn’t know if you were going to win or starve to death. You was going to starve to death with work!
When they put on that last cut at Wilder, the mine foreman come in and told us they told him they was putting on a cut, and I said, '‘What are you trying to do, organize the mine?” He said, ”I’m just passing the word on.” And he give me five cents a ton, they cut five cents to a ton.
If the committee recommended a strike, they'd work weeks and months to avoid it. Cause it hurt us worse than it did anybody, the strike did. There wasn’t anybody wanted a strike. But it was necessary. The union would be broken up if we just went back to work.
For the rest of the summer, the mines stayed down. Summer was a slack season anyway, and the miners just waited, hoping that the companies would come around, but knowing that probably they would try to re-open the mines with “scabs”—or strikebreakers. Sure enough, in October, the Fentress Coal and Coke Company in Wilder announced that they would re-open on a non-union basis. Boyer, the general manager, told a newspaper reporter: “We offered them a union contract at a 20% cut in wages. They refused. Now we won’t have anything to do with the union. We tried it out a year and it didn’t work.” 6
Wilder was tense before the re-opening. At first the company could find almost no one willing to work, as most people either sympathized with the striking miners or were afraid of them. But gradually they were able to find more men who would go to work.
When the company saw the miners weren’t going back, they scraped the hills and hollers and took farmers out of potato patches and put them to work in the mines.
Chalked signs had appeared on train cars around Wilder before the mines re-opened. One read: “No scabbing—but there may be blood and lives. We understand the mine company is to fire up. We will make it so damn smoky that they can’t see to fire up.”
About a week after the mines at Wilder opened, the Patterson brothers at Davidson followed the lead of the Fentress Coal and Coke Co. They posted a notice that they would re-open in a matter of days. That night their $20,000 tipple burned to the ground. They postponed opening.
Before long though, back in Wilder, the company had managed to accumulate enough coal to be hauled away. On November 15, a train pulled out of Wilder carrying the first load of coal to leave the county since July 8, the day the miners first walked out. The following day one end of a steel railroad bridge, over which that train had travelled, was destroyed by dynamite. At that point Tennessee Governor Henry Horton ordered in the National Guard.
During the next seven months, until the following June, the hollow was the scene of much violence. Strikers and scabs alike were shot at, wounded, or killed; company property was damaged, as was some people’s personal property. There was then, and is now, a lot of disagreement as to “who did what.” For instance, whenever any piece of company property was destroyed, the company and the law immediately blamed it on the strikers. Union leaders, however, often told a different story. The president of the local at Wilder told a news reporter:
I know that the bridges were burned and blown up after the coal had been taken out. If some of the disgruntled miners were going to do such a thing, it seems to me they would have done it before, not after, the coal had been taken out.
I also know that after the mine’s sub-station was blown up, they got out bloodhounds, and the dogs tracked down two strikebreakers. I don’t know why strikebreakers should do such a thing unless they were working with the company’s private guards. You know these guards get $5 a night, and when the trouble dies down they lose their jobs. So it’s up to them to keep the trouble going. 7
Other miners agreed:
The sheriff come over there and investigated where they had blowed up the fan one night. They claimed somebody had slipped in and . . . they had to go inside 50 yards to the fan after they got through the mine guards outside. I asked the sheriff in front of the superintendent, I said, “What do you think of the fan blowing up?” "Bound to have been done from the inside, because a rabbit couldn’t have got through there to that fan.” If there hadn’t been something like that to happen, and everything had been quiet a while, you see, they would have cut the guards off. They’d have been out of work. And they wouldn’t want to work in the mines.
Some others thought that it was union men who did at least some of the damage. And they thought there was a good reason for it:
They went to blowing up bridges, railroad bridges, because they were hauling out coal, you know. The union people did it. And they'd blow them piers out from under the railroad so they couldn’t haul any coal. They slipped in the mines and blowed up fans inside the coal mines.
Everytime there would be some scab shot at, or blowing up coal trains, or beating up scabs, or that kind of thing, they’d say “the ganders” did it. You know: “I don’t know anything about it. I was in the potato patch.” “Well, who do you think did it?” “I don't know. I think the ganders did it.”
There were few who enjoyed living in the middle of all that. People were afraid for themselves and for their children:
It was nerve-wrecking for everybody. Even the ones working.
My children would be playing marbles out in the front yard and the bullets would be whizzing over them. Shooting at somebody going up the little hill right out on the road, you wouldn’t know who it was. And them bullets would just whiz.
On a Sunday night, I believe it was, I never heard such a blast go off and all, and I just felt so sad over it. I didn’t know who’d done it or nothing about it, and I think they’d blowed up some of the front of the mines, wasn’t it? But we don’t know who done it, or nothing. But what I worried about, didn’t make no difference if he was a scab or what not, I didn’t want nobody killed.
It seemed like the main thing that people wanted to explain to us about the strike was how much the miners had going against- them, what a powerful opponent they had, and how the different things people did came after years of mine injuries, hunger and humiliation.
I don’t know what I could tell you about the strike, besides there was a lot of fighting, and a lot of killing, and a lot of good men stealing. And you know over a period of, I don't know how long now, you get people that are just hungry. . . .
• • • •
The union families didn’t mean to take it lying down. But then neither did the companies. We learned enough to fill a book about the ways the company used to break the strike. They knew they had taken a hard stand and they had to be ready to back it up. And back it up they did.
First of all, it was the company that pressured the governor to send in the National Guard. They circulated a petition in the county, and tried to hide the fact that practically all the miners backed the strike demands. Superintendent Shivers said, “In asking the Governor for troops, the people were only expressing the desire to protect them¬ selves until a handful of radicals were finally disbanded.”
They tried to make out like the troops would be neutral and keep the peace. And many people— especially mothers worried for their families— were happy to learn the troops were coming. But when they arrived, the company put them up in one of their fancy houses and made friends with the commanders. Most of the people ended up feeling like they were there to protect the mining and railroad companies, not to protect people’s lives.
They had orders not to take sides, to try to keep peace, but I wouldn’t doubt but that they took sides.
People were glad that they sent the militia. They thought that they would have peace, if they brought them. But it seems to me like it made it worse.
Nights there was just firing and shooting everywhere. And I know one morning there had been a lot of shooting going on up at the powerhouse, about four o’clock. And Captain Crawford, he was the captain of the guards, he decided one morning he’d go up there and see. They had orders to shoot at any lights they saw—if they saw a light at night to shoot at it. If they saw a light over the hill one morning, they’d just shoot for an hour. So he went up there one morning, and it was the morning star coming over the mountain! They’d shoot at that star!
Me and one of my girl friends, we’d been over to visit some folks and had come on back. And she didn't like them militias. She got up and throwed a rock at them and hit their little building. They come out and they started saying, “Howdy honey, howdy sweetheart.” They were laughing and running out and hollering, but we never let on like we heard them.
Well, naturally, we wouldn’t like them, because they were on the other side, you know. They didn’t beat nobody up or mistreat nobody, but they’d get out there and toot that bugle every morning and take off up the railroad, or they’d buy liquor and get drunk, a bunch would. They’d get drunk and have a big time. I don’t believe they kept anybody from getting killed.
Some number of troops remained in the hollow through the better part of the winter. But they were the least of the strikers’ worries. Pretty soon the company got the county court to grant an injunction against the strikers. This injunction said that 104 men specifically named could be arrested for being on company property, for having a picket line, or for eight other offenses including “jeering or sneering” at scabs.
Soon after the injunction they began using another tactic that was common enough in the coal fields: they hired what the miners called “gun thugs,” had them deputized, and set them to guarding the mines.
I’ll tell you—a fellow’s not supposed to talk about his people—I had a uncle that was in that there. He was my daddy’s brother. He was what we called a suck around the mines. He’d lick the bosses around or whatever the bosses would say, well, it was just that way with him. He was one of the thugs, as they called it.
Oh, they got them anywhere they could get them. In ’24 I know of one of them they got out of the penitentiary.
Why, yes, they’d get any kind of scalawags to come in and help break the strike.
And Jack Green was the head thug of the strike. He never worked in the mines a day in his life, and nobody knew where he was from or what he had done or anything. He had a good education. He’d never done nothing in that county except bootleg and make whisky. He had killed a few men in the county, I guess a lot of men in the United States. And he was tough, so they put him in as the head of it. He kept all the guards and the thugs keyed up with moonshine.
I've heard one of the thugs tell about how a man jumped into the air when he shot him. “Jumped high as a brush pile,” he said, “and fell as pretty as ever you saw.”
Myles Horton, from the Highlander Folk School, was trying to support the strikers at that time. He learned about the background of some of the thugs and tried to publicize it, hoping that maybe the company would be shamed into taking them out:
They brought in three gun thugs—you know, professional killers. They had been in Illinois. They used them there, they killed a lot of people there. I got the evidence that they had killed a lot of miners, a lot of union leaders. They were professionals. I told the press that these guys were brought in to kill, and I gave them a record of who they were, and that they were there to kill Barney Graham and other leaders, but mainly Graham — he was the most militant one.
But many newspapers refused to print this information, and what publicity there was did not get rid of the gun thugs.
I didn’t feel too bad about the men that had gone back to work, ’cause I knowed what they’d been through. But these that come on in, now them was the real ones—like Shorty Green and the thugs. Just working, that was all right, that wasn’t so bad, but trying to kill everybody else because they didn’t go back to work. . . .
They’d just run around nosing, picking up all the news they could amongst the union men.
The company would sell them a gun on credit. And boots. Leather jackets was the style for gun thugs.
Oh, them guards wouldn’t work. And them miners from Twin and Davidson, some of them’d walk to Livingston and work on the farm for a bushel of corn or a gallon of molasses, or anything. And they’d walk all that distance and work all day on the farm. In the strike, the thugs would get paid $5 a day for guarding and stuff like that. And free whiskey, free drinks. That was a whole lot of money then.
The company tried dozens of harassing tactics during the course of the strike. They tried to evict strikers’ families, but the union men fought that one and won. Once they took the electric lights out of the homes of 33 strike leaders. Sometimes they tried to bribe people. One man told us they had tried this on him the first time in 1931:
The general manager told me one time, that was when we made that contract, “Now you’re getting $5 a month from the union, and you worked harder for the union than Shivers did for me, and I paid him $250 a month, furnished his house. If you’ll work for me like that, I’ll have your pocket full of money all the time.’’ I said, “When I get ready to be sold, I’ll get on a block and let them bid on me, and let the highest bidder get me. Some of them might pay more than you would.’’
When bribery wouldn’t work, the companies sometimes tried framing people:
One day Captain Crawford told me that somebody fired at some of the guards up there. I had an old gun. It was used in the Spanish-American War. It shot a great big bullet, a .4570. And he said .4570. I said, “How did you know it was a .4570?’’ He said, “Well, it hit a bracket on a light pole.’’ It was glass, you know, and he could tell what size bullet it was! [Laughing.] Hit glass—as if you could tell anything from that! So I just got shut of the gun. I knew what they was up to.
The companies also tried to keep people in the camps cut off from the outside. Wilder and Davidson weren’t easy to get to in the first place:
You couldn’t get over that mountain with anything but a wagon for a long time. Then they finally got some of these T-Model Fords in there. We had twenty-some odd miles to go over that mountain, and what stuff we got you had to bring in a wagon.
During the strike, there weren’t no newspapers in that holler, there weren’t no radio, there weren’t no way of getting no news in there, besides word of mouth. A drummer come through or a coca-cola truck, that was the only thing that run in there anymore. Most of the stuff come in on the train. Actually, until I was up to 17, 18 year old, I didn’t go any further than Wilder or up to Twin. Of course, I knowed the road, but I didn’t know where it went. Now that’s the truth. At that time it wasn’t much, just a trail come across this mountain here.
If outsiders did get to Wilder, then the company tried to keep them from hearing the miners’ side. Captain Crawford said that newspaper reporters should come only to him to find out what was going on. The first day that Myles Horton went into the hollow, he found this out the hard way:
What happened was that I just read in the paper about this strike. I thought there might be somebody over there we could recruit to come to Highlander, and I went over to see what was going on, and learn about the situation. I went over and I started talking to some strikers, you know, like I’d do anywhere. They told me they weren't getting any relief, Red Cross stuff was going to the scabs.
So I checked it out with a bunch of people around, asked how the National Guard was treating them, and women said they were always shooting around and they were afraid they were going to kill their kids.
So, I talked to them awhile, convinced them I was on the level, told them about Highlander. They believed me. I told them what I wanted, asked them to send somebody with me to talk to some of the people. So they did. That way they could keep tabs on me and at the same time help me out. There was a bus that left about 4 o’clock, and I was going to take that bus back to Crossville.
I think I was on my way to the bus, and by that time the grapevine had not only worked its way to the miners, but to the National Guard and they had seen me going around talking to the miners and had decided, I guess, that I was a dangerous person. The head of the National Guard, Boyd from Cleveland, was away. But they stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told them I was going down to catch the bus. They said, “Well, you’re under arrest.” I said, “What?! Under arrest for what?” They said, “You’re just under arrest.” They had their bayonets all punching me, and I knew damn well I was under arrest. They were just young kids, you know, and they’d like nothing better than to push hard, and I didn’t want any of those damn bayonets in me. I was just surrounded. I said, “But you have to have a charge, you can’t just arrest somebody. You have to say what you arrest them for.” And they muttered among themselves, they hadn’t figured that out. One of the guys said, “You’re under arrest for coming in here and getting information and going back and teaching it.” So they knew what I was doing, they knew about Highlander. They were from Cleveland, so they knew about Highlander, and they thought Highlander was the hot-bed of communism, you know, dangerous place. And here was a big conspirator here in their midst and they were going to be great patriots and arrest him.
When I got the charge, I said, “Well, I don’t know what’s illegal about that.” They said, “Well, you’re under arrest." “What kind of arrest?” “Military arrest.” So I said, “Okay, I’m under arrest.” They said when Col. Boyd comes in they were going to turn me over to him. So they took me down to the Shivers’ house, a big fine—it had kind of a club atmosphere. I think it was a company house, but they lived there. The Shivers’s weren’t there; it was the headquarters of the National Guard then. At night they had a big fire and they had some good books there, and a big comfortable chair. So they brought me in and nobody was there. So they said, “You wait here,” and they put guards around me. I looked around and I found a book, so I settled down in front of the fire in the comfortable chair and I started reading. There wasn’t anything else I could do, I couldn’t run away.
Then it started raining, just pouring down rain. And they got fidgety. Boyd hadn’t gotten back; it was ten o’clock and Boyd wasn’t back. They kept looking at me; I was the only one that was comfortable. So Boyd came in, and they told him. He said, “Oh my God, you shouldn’t have done that.” So he came up and he said, “This is a mistake, you aren’t under arrest.” I said, “It certainly was a mistake, but I’m under arrest. When people point bayonets in your belly and tell you you’re under arrest—you're under arrest. They’ve been sitting here guarding me all this time.” He said, “Well, you look pretty comfortable.” I said, “I am comfortable. I made myself at home. I’ve been sitting here reading. I couldn’t catch my bus.” He said, “Well, it’s all a mistake. I apologize. You can go.” I said, “Go? Go where? It’s raining. I’m not going anywhere. There are no buses. I haven’t got any place to go. I’m not going to get out in this rain.” He said, “But you can’t stay here.” I said,
“I’m not going to go out in this rain. I’ve been forcibly detained, and whether I was under arrest properly or not, I was under arrest, and I’M NOT GOING TO LEAVE.” He said, “There’s a little hotel down the way.” “Yeah, but that’s a quarter of a mile away. That’s your problem. I would have been gone.” He said, “We’ll pay for your room and everything.” I said, “I appreciate that but I’m not going to go out in this rain. I don’t have any other clothes to wear, and I don’t want to get wet. I’ll just stay here. I’ll sleep on that couch.” “No, you can’t stay here. This is our headquarters.”
So he called a little huddle. Now the railroad track ran right to the back door or the front door of the hotel—right to the edge of the porch. And he made a couple of these cusses that arrested me, or some others just like them, get out on a hand car and hold an umbrella over me, and they got out and pumped the hand car up to the hotel and took me in. I knew I had him, because he knew that I would expose it, he knew I’d publicize it, and he was really concerned. That’s why he didn’t push me around. I knew when he came he’d be upset.
The company also encouraged the scabs to turn against the strikers. One man told us that when he went back to work, the company guards started trying to get him to stay out with them at night, and to see if he could spy on the strikers and find out what they were doing.
• • • •
The company hoped that with all these tactics, all the fear and the isolation and the plain hunger, they would be able to starve the union out. The miners fought back with everything they had—which wasn’t much. Even before the strike, the union had run an “aid truck” around the surrounding farm country, begging for food for the miners. When the strike came, they needed it all the more.
They run a commodity truck for a while. They’d go through the country and pick up food, you know, and deliver it to the people that didn’t have no work or nothing like that. They’d get truck loads and bring it in and take it to a place, and have people come with their pokes and divide it out with them. They’d have potatoes and cabbage and all kinds of such food. Flour and lard and meal. Meat. It might do you for a week or two at a time that way.
People all over this country give us loads of potatoes. They were in sympathy with us. They knowed we was just nearly on starvation. Well, we was. You just couldn’t get nothing to eat. There was a committee that’d go around.
Some people didn’t think the aid trucks helped out much.
The people in there was starving, didn’t get nothing hardly. I laughed at my oldest boy. He says, “Momma, let me go down yonder to the aid station and see what I can get down there.” I said, “Now, Benny, honey, there’s no use for you to go.” He says, “Well, I want to go.” You know, it’s just like it is out here at the welfare office. You know how they line up and you go in and sign up. When those trucks would come in with a load, they’d line up until all the food was gone. Well, he went down there—I let him go just to satisfy his mind—and he got one old long handled squash and come home with it! That was everything he got. Every once in a while I’d say, “Benny, honey, you want to go back down to the soup line?” He’d say, “Not me, Ma!”
But many were glad to get anything.
We’d been out bumming, and way in the night we was going back through this holler, right between them two mountains, just as dark ... no light, we didn’t have no light. We took sorghum molasses and corn meal (just corn meal now, I’m not talking about cooked), poured it in them molasses and stirred it up—and green onions—and it was pretty doggone good eating, I’ll tell you!
I don't know what to tell! [Laughs.] There were some people got hungry. I know sometimes that the last bite we had was cooked and put on the table and eat. No job, no money, nothing. But somehow or another when the next mealtime came, we had something to eat. It weren’t no steak and stuff like that.
I’d go with my wife and the other women, picking wild sallet. I believe, I’ll say to the boys, I believe every kind of weed that grows makes good sallet. This woman would say, “This weed makes good sallet, but you’ve got to mix it with something else.” And another one would say, “This makes good sallet, but you’ve got to mix something else with it.” So about every weed that grows makes good sallet, but you've got to mix something else with it! [Laughs.]... It was something to fill up the empty places. And we survived on it.
There was a bunch of men who stole for other people’s use, from people who were fighting the union or from a store that wouldn’t give credit. Then they would put the stuff on the porches of needy union families.
They had a bunch down there in that holler called the Meat Committee. They’d get out and kill a man’s cow or hog, and all the strikers would get up the next morning and there’d be a mess of meat at their door. They’d divide it up with everybody. And anybody that had a big corn patch or anything, you’d go out and get roasting ears, and there’d be a big pile of roasting ears on the porch.
If one man got a mess of meat around here, they all got it, and if they got a mess of roasting ears, they all got it, and don’t matter where it was. I've waked up lots of times there at the house and have me a little mess of meat and a sack of roasting ears setting out there.
Miners on the Meat Committee sometimes had funny adventures.
One morning a man who sold chickens found that all his hens were stolen. There was a note on the rooster’s neck saying “Lonesome Daddy.”
Some of these men asked Mrs. Thompson if they might come there for the rest of the night sometime when they had been out engaged in this sort of activity. She told them yes, just to say they were the “Red Cross Committee” when she asked who was there. One night a car drove up, and Mr. Thompson looked out the window, thinking it might be a scab trying to put a bomb under the house. He asked who was there, and the answer came back, “The Red Cross Committee.” When the family let them in, they discovered two strange men— it really was the Red Cross Committee, looking for another family!
It wasn’t that the men didn’t want to work. They would have jumped at the chance. Some of the union men managed to get jobs with the state working on the roads, though it was never full time. Some tried to get work at neighboring coal mines, but found that they were blacklisted.
Now I went over there at Petros to look for a job, and they told my daddy-in-law if I stayed all night down there that he’d lose his job, and I walked all the way from Petros plumb through Wartburg, and camped out under that old bridge over there, and then walked into Monterey and took back down this railroad, and walked 21 miles to Davidson, and I was just about dead.
Others found more individual ways to make a dollar:
I went to work making whiskey! [Laughter.] It’s hard work. You could pack yourself to death, but I was young then, I could take it. I couldn’t wrassle no barrel in the woods now! I’ll tell you the truth, girls, I believe I made as good a whiskey as I ever drunk in my life.
So people found many ways of battling the hunger and of surviving the threats and violence too:
Our kids slept on the floor. Cause they would shoot through the house a lot of times. We’d take the springs and the mattress off the beds and put it on the floor, so they’d shoot over them.
Coming in nights, I had one man tell me not to come around the road. There was a pine thicket down where I had to go around the edge. He told me to go through his lot and cut across to where I lived. Afraid somebody would get me around the pine thicket, and lay there. The next six months I went through there and nobody knowed I had a path down through there.
But at the same time that each striker’s family was fighting to defend itself and simply to survive, the miners were organizing to try and beat the companies together. They didn’t have to try to solve all their problems individually. They had a Policy Committee.
The union members had confidence in the Policy Committee. Five from each camp. We’d get together in 25 minutes, any time day or night. There’d be runners going from each man’s house. And any striker that wanted to come to the Policy Committee would meet so and so at a certain time, and they’d go. Night or day. We had the best organized people; I bet they don’t have any now. I mean everybody was together. But it was so long. And we didn’t have anything to start on.
The president of the local and the head of the mine committee, they was on the Policy Committee. And then they elected two others. The mine committee was the bunch that’d take up any grievance.
It had been the Policy Committee that originally recommended strike rather than taking a 20% cut in wages, and it was the Policy Committee that was responsible for leading the strike. Along with the Policy Committee, each local met regularly:
We had a regular meeting out at the Davidson schoolhouse about once a week. And Wilder had one down there. All of us had a meeting place, and sometimes they all met at Wilder, or all met at Davidson. We’ve had so many people down there in that holler a time or two that we could hardly get them in there.
Supposedly the Policy Committee and the three locals had the backing, help and good advice of their union, District 19 of the UMW of A.
Ben Williams was the field worker then, and Turnblazer*** sponsored it. They come in and met with the Policy Committee.
They didn’t help us—they didn't turn their hand. All they done over there was make a speech. They said, "Stay in the boat, fellows. We’re going to win.” That’s what they’d tell us—stay in the boat. They didn’t care, the big guys, the organizers.
We asked them what was happening to that money we were paying in there for the last four or five years. It was supposed to be in the treasury. They said it went into international dues money. And they didn’t offer to buy anything or do anything to help us. Just told us to take that $400 and buy a truck.
Everyone agrees that the UMW itself was in a rough period. It had few resources and had come under vicious attack in Harlan, Kentucky, a fact that Tennessee miners were very aware of. But in Harlan when the going got too rough, the UMW had pulled out. (It was the Communist-led National Miners Union that stayed and tried to win the fight.) And many Wilder miners felt that the UMW didn’t stand by them in Tennessee the way it should have either:
Of course, the Mine Workers were very weak; they didn’t have no treasury built up then, and they didn’t have nobody to help them strikers, and they just had to do the best they could.
I don’t know why the union was so weak, but them thugs up there in Kentucky had the sheriffs all bought out, and just every time you’d get ahold of a paper there was ten or twelve killed.
The UMW wasn’t near as good, nothing like the shape they are now, but they could have beat that strike.
Turnblazer made that speech down at Highland, and he told us, "There’s too much stuff down here for a man to starve. Too many hogs and things running on this land.” Well, they come over here and couldn’t even organize Petros, couldn’t organize other mines; we was the only place in the country around here organized. And they was killing up in Kentucky, and the union didn’t have no backing from up there, and we was the only place, sitting right here in the middle. And if we went anywhere out of this holler, the union men was just liable to get killed if they went to these other mines. And still that’s all Turnblazer had to say to us.
But with what small backing they did have, the Policy Committee tried to find support for the men and settle the strike.
The railroad men didn’t back us up. No, they started out to, but they got to where they was more harm than they was good. We had one meeting. They met with us one time, trying to get the company to arbitrate, with Bill Jacobs, but other than that they wasn’t going to sacrifice a day’s work.
McAllister was running for governor during that time. He said that the state had been helping the companies, and if he was elected, he’d help the miners. After he was elected . . . why, I was the chairman of the Mine Committee, and I figured it would be a good idea to go down and see him, since we give him a good vote. And Pat Officer, he was the speaker of the Senate, and he got a big vote from us. So we went to see them, and Bill Jacobs.**** He agreed to give us school books for all the union kids. And up to five dollars relief, according to the size family, from $2.50 to $5. Until they got some work for them. And at the same time I asked him if he’d be willing to pick five men and arbitrate the strike. They went to see the company about it, and they wouldn’t let Pat Officer come in the office. They let Bill Jacobs come in, but they wouldn’t agree to arbitration.
Members of the Policy Committee had a lot more contact with and knowledge of outside supporters than most of the rank-and-file miners. They worked with a “Wilder Emergency Relief Committee’’ that was formed by Socialists and others in Nashville to bring food and clothing into the hollow. They also worked some with Myles Horton and others from the Highlander Folk School, though they weren’t always sure how they felt about this connection with people who were labeled as radicals.
Well, we met some of the people from Highlander. They tried to give us some publicity for the mines. I don’t know whether it helped or hurt. Their intentions were good, I would say at that time. And the things they was for was good, but it hurt us, because they had a background that the majority of the people didn’t agree with. They felt like it was somewhat on the red side.
They asked a Nashville church committee, headed by Dr. Alva Taylor, to volunteer to arbitrate the strike, but the company refused the offer.
As the strike wore on into the late winter and early spring, the company’s tactics began to take their toll. More and more miners began trickling back to work:
You know, there’s one of the best bunch of union men ever been in the country here at Davidson, but we did go to work. We was forced to. We didn’t have nothing to eat. We stayed out as long as we could bum anything. We went just as far as we could go without starving plumb to death.
Even families who stayed out, and wouldn’t go back to work, could sympathize with those who did:
There were some people who went back to work, people they called scabs. But there’s two sides to anything. Just like, I don’t blame no man for taking care of his family. I just had one child, we raised a garden, we owned our own house, and we didn’t have no rent to pay or nothing like that. And there’s other families there that had eight or ten kids (them miners, they had to raise big families), and some of them had seven or eight kids. I don t blame them for not letting their kids go hungry.
There are a lot of real good union men that worked, went to work at the last, because it was just too, well, they lived in a company house, they seen the mines were going to be scabbed anyway, so they just went to work. Couldn’t make a living, but they could live there, in a company house.
But the striking miners were in a fight for their lives, and although they might understand the position of the scabs, they fought hard to keep people from going back to work. If a man went back to work, he was liable to find his garden raided that night, or a note left on his porch or fence-post: “You are hereby notified to join the UMW of A. Signed, the Underworld.” Or scabs might be shot at on their way to and from work. Feelings were often bitter between families on opposite sides.
But do what they would, the strikers could not shut down the mines, could not turn back all the scabs. With the lack of strong outside support, the future of the strike looked bleak. Gun thugs still swaggered through town. Pellegra and other signs of malnutrition were evident everywhere.
• • • •
Through all this the Policy Committee stayed firm, and one man, especially, seemed to stand for the spirit of determination among those who still wanted to fight until they won. That man was Barney Graham, the president of the union local at Wilder. Barney had come to the hollow in the 20’s from somewhere else, some say Alabama, others say Kentucky.
Yes. When he first moved up here, he married here at Twin. He married a woman by the name of Nickens.
The men elected him checkweighman. The checkweighman looks after the men’s coal and weight. And he proved to be a standing up man for the men, for the benefit of the men. And so, when he left Twin and went down to Wilder, he was elected checkweighman there, and I reckon he was checkweighman when the strike came on.
Well, I think he was a pretty good union leader. What I mean, what he was in for, he stood for it. Now he was in to try to get the men more to live on. I don’t think he’d do anything unless you tried to hurt him. He was high-tempered, all right. But unless you raised a ruckus with him, I don’t think he’d bother anybody. But he was high-tempered.
He was a fractious type person. You'd say something to him and he’d [slaps his hands] just like that. Just like dynamite. Like fooling around with a cocked gun, messing with him. Just one word and he would fly all to pieces.
Barney Graham was a good man, and he was for the union. He died for the union. He wasn’t afraid of anybody, and anybody’d that’d try to run over him, because he was actually one of the union leaders. He wasn’t a man that got up there and talked and abused someone else. He didn’t have too much to say. There's a lot of people that were afraid—the companies were afraid of him, and they hired him killed.
He was finding out too much stuff on the company, and whatever they’d try to do, somehow he'd find out and beat ’em to the punch, someway or another. And they was wanting to get rid of him. And they way-laid him. . . .
I was expecting it all the time. They thought if they could get rid of him, it would be all over. He was just hard-headed; you couldn’t tell him nothing. He ought to have been watching and careful. But they got him into trouble—they must have gotten him drinking or something. Some woman took him off and then brought him back and set him off there so they could kill him. They had it all planned.
See, they killed the president, Barney Graham. Just a regular mob—just mobbed him. Blood just a-running in the road where they killed him. They said they were on top of the store-house building with a machine-gun and killed him. And the blood now was just a-running in the road. I seen it myself. They had gun thugs there that was working for the company. And they were wanting to get shut of Barney. He was president of the local and they figured if they got shut of him, that would put us all back to work.
I heard Shorty Green cussing somebody. Then I saw a blaze of fire —from at least two guns. It looked like one of them was from behind a car and one other was a few steps out in the open. After the shooting was over, I heard Shorty holler to somebody, "Get that machine gun.” I don’t know how many shots were fired.
A bunch of us was watching our houses that night. We was expecting thugs to come through. Theyd shot in a fellow’s house a little bit before that—the stove was hot and the bullets, lead bullets, would just hit the stove and stick on it. So we was kind of watching our houses then. And we heard the shots where they killed Barney. It sounded like a machine gun except there was some big guns and different sizes. So we figured about that time Barney was going home, and we went over there and John William Thompson—he was one of the thugs—had a machine gun, and he waved it at us to stop. I told Ed and Melvin to not put their hands about their pockets. And so we went on up to where Barney was shot. And his gun laying under him. He’d managed to get his gun out. He was shot, he had eleven bullet holes in him, with his brains leaking in three places. And there was a gun there with the handles off of it where they had beat him.
We asked who killed him, and Thompson said he didn’t know, there was so many shooting. And I said, “Well, we’ll just let him lay here til we find out. Cause he’s dead, so we’ll just let him stay here ’til we find out.” He said, "There ain’t no use in starting anything.” I told him we wasn’t starting anything, they had started it. So he talked to somebody and he come back and said, “The man that killed him is in the office. He won’t talk to you, but he’ll talk to Ed and Melvin.” We decided to let them go on down there. And Green told them he killed him. Self-defense! That Barney was standing up fighting when he shot him the last time! And him with his brains leaking in three places.
• • • •
Many of Barney’s friends had done what they could to prevent what they had known was coming. (Months before three people had overheard some drunken members of the National Guard saying that they were in town to “get Barney Graham.” And the thugs were even more candid.)
I know I tried to get him to move. We told him if he’d move the next day to Twin, above there where he wouldn’t have to go through by them thugs, that we’d move him, and then he could come down to the meetings and there would be somebody with him all the time. But there was only two ways he could go home: by the company store or a path up through a pine thicket, and either place was suicide.
Myles Horton recalled:
We told Barney he was going to get killed. I told him who these people were and that they were brought in to kill him. He knew they were going to kill him.
He was that tough kind that wouldn’t quit, you know. So I went to work to try to get pressure to expose this before it happened, thinking that might bring enough pressure on the company and on public opinion that it might save his life. And that’s when I tried—tried everything I could, put everything in the paper, the names of these guys, their history, said they were going to kill Barney Graham, and I couldn’t move anybody.
That just killed me. That just killed me. That kind of thing is a traumatic experience, I tell you. You get involved with death of people, know it’s going to happen, and you can’t do anything about it. Society’s so cruel. If I hadn’t already been a radical, that would have made me a radical right then. Didn’t do anything to make me less radical, I’ll tell you that.
Nearly a thousand people attended Barney’s funeral. Six hundred were in the march that went from Highland Junction to Wilder to the spot where Barney was killed, and back again. The speakers at the funeral were William Turnblazer, President of UMW District 19; Howard Kester, head of the Wilder Emergency Relief who had run for senator on the Socialist Party ticket the fall before; and H.S. Johnson, a union coal miner and Methodist minister. Kester said:
I knew Barney Graham intimately. I had no better friend. I loved him as a brother, not alone for his own worth, but for his place in the leadership of America’s toiling millions. Those who say that Barney was a "bad man” never knew him. Bryon Graham was a true son of the mountains, straight, fearless, and honorable in his dealings with men. He never hunted trouble and when possible went out of his way to avoid it. He never thought of his own comfort. When his family was in desperate need of food and clothing, I have known Barney to refuse all aid and to give it to others whom he thought needed it worse than he did. I could not keep him clothed because he gave away whatever clothing I gave him.8
Barney Graham is dead; his blood was shed so that little children might have bread, fust as Jesus was murdered by the forces of corruption 2000 years ago, so was Barney Graham killed on Wilder Street last Sunday.9
Meanwhile, Shorty Green was loose on $2,000 bail, with Bully Garrett, the company lawyer by his side. The trial was in September. The UMW had been promising to send down a good lawyer to handle the case. Two days before the trial, Turnblazer had assured the union miners over the phone that someone would be there. The lawyer never showed up.
They tried Shorty Green out here for that killing. Of course, the company had the money and politics all mixed up in it—you know how it works—and they got out of it.
It was a sick sort of a trial, and of course it was a farce. Bully was a big ole fat guy; I hated his guts.
Yeah, they tried Shorty Green. He had plenty of witnesses. He could have proved anything he wanted to. He proved in court that Barney was standing up fighting when he hit him in the head the last time. Our lawyer told them, “Why, an elephant couldn’t have stood up under that.” Brains leaking in three places. A .45 bullet going through his lung, besides ten other bullet holes. But it went through. We didn’t have no witnesses there at all. Of course the whole thing was set up, the witnesses and everything.
Some people thought that Barney’s murder was what broke the strike. But others felt the union had already been defeated.
When Barney was killed that broke the strike. They didn’t get scared, they just . . . you know, their leader was gone. They had to go back and get them somebody else they thought would be trustworthy.
It was lost before they ever killed that man. That man was killed for ... I don’t know why. Because two-thirds of the men were working and the others were just on the verge of starving. Most of them was getting just anything they could find to steal.
• • • •
After Barney was murdered, there were a lot of very angry and bitter people. Shootings and threats on both sides flared again, and one scab was shot and killed from ambush. But by the end of the summer, the quiet of defeat had settled over the hollow.
That fall strike leaders and supporters turned their attention to trying to find jobs for those men who were still holding out. Eventually, through the efforts of union people, politicians, Highlander staffers, and sympathetic agency people, jobs were found for practically all the union men who wanted them. Some went as laborers to work on Norris Dam, first dam in the TVA system. Others went to the Cumberland Homestead, a federal resettlement project designed to put poor people on subsistence farms, where they built their own homes and tried to develop cooperative industry.
The younger men went into the manual labor camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The story of how these jobs were found and how the mining families reacted to their new situations is a story in itself. What it meant for the strike at Davidson-Wilder was that most of the remaining leadership found ways to leave. They had decided there was no hope of winning.
Ben Williams, our organizer, come in here. Up at Highland he made a little talk. “Boys,” he said, “I’ll tell you. If you can get jobs, you better just get them, for this union is shot all to hell.” That's the way he spoke it.
Well, another thing, I think that one thing down there, if the international had had the money to back the men they never would have went to work. I mean, could have got them a little grease or something. He just come in and told us that it was over with.
Not that it was over with for good. As they had done so many times before, the miners waited their time and tried once more.
Ben Williams, he said, “We'll come back again one day.” Which they did. This whole holler went union when these mines finally got organized in the 40’s. And Monterey, too.
But mining is not what it was in Fentress County. That success in the 40’s too, is long ago now. Since then working and retired miners have watched many things happen to their union. Many of them complained to us about favoritism in the handling of pensions, about men having their hospital cards taken away, and about corruption in the leadership. But most of them still get the UMW Journal and are following with interest the progress of the union under its newly-elected leadership. There are no more deep mines in the hollow now. They were worked out long ago. There are some truck mines hauling coal stripped off the steep mountainsides. There are small settlements at Davidson, Twin, and Crawford, and at Davidson there is a friendly and thriving community cooperative store. But at Wilder—as in so many old mining camps in the mountains—there is nothing at all.
People come through here now and they can’t believe it when we tell them there was a whole town down there. There was thousands of people there. They had street lights and everything. If people never saw it then, they don’t believe it.
There’s not anything down there now. One house is all. Used to be a big settlement there.
The railroad come through here in 1900. We lived down that road in a log house behind the school house. I stood in the door watching them lay that track. In 1970 we sat here and watched them take that track up. I seen the first train go in and the last one go out.
The young folks don’t stay around here anymore. They leave, hunting jobs.
The story of Wilder isn’t over yet. Fentress County still has a lot of people, many of them poor and still being used by others. And scattered over the country are the hundreds of children and grand-children and great-grand-children of the men and women who fought and lost one battle there.
One question we asked almost everybody we spoke with was whether they ever talked to their children and grandchildren about that strike, those times, and what they might mean for people today.
Yeah, I tell them, but they say, “Hush talking about those hard times! I’ve just heard about hard times, Momma!”
I’ve worried a lot about my kids, if another depression comes. What they’d do. ‘Cause a lot of them wouldn’t know how to even make a garden.
Children, I’ll just tell you, you don't know what you’re going to go through with in life, nor what you’re going to have to put up with. You sure don’t. But this is the awfulest times I’ve ever experienced. My grandfather fought in the Civil War, my oldest uncle fought in the Spanish American War. And this makes three wars that I went through. I had four boys in the ’44 war. And I would have had my husband in the 1918, but they exempted him for being a coal digger. They needed coal as bad as they needed the soldiers. Of course, that was fighting war. And this, we ain’t fighting war, we’re fighting everything! We’re fighting starvation, and we’re fighting all nations, and everything else. Back in the depression, people was honestly living good to what they’re living now. They’ve got plenty of money and plenty to eat and plenty of everything, but look at the crimes and everything that’s going on. The United States is in the worse shape its been in my history. If anybody would have swore I wouldn’t have believed it. I wouldn’t, really and truly.
Yeah, my children don’t like to talk about it or even think about it. They like to forget those times. But, anyway, I’m kind of proud of it, that I went through it, and helped them out a little.
* A “chalk-eye” helped a coal digger and usually got the lowest pay. Young boys often chalk-eyed for an older relative. We don’t know the origin of the word.
** District 19 of the United Mine Workers of America includes coal miners in Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky.
*** William Turnblazer, then president of District 19 and the father of the William Turnblazer who was later president of that same district and who recently implicated himself in the murder of Jock Yablonski.
**** Then Tennessee State Commissioner of Labor.
We would like to thank the following people for their generous help: Mike Clark, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Crownover, Bessie and Isom Davis, Mart Dishman, Fentress Low Income People’s Coop Store, Hobart Gibson, Myles Horton, Edna and Tom Lowry, Jesse Mills, Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Murphy, Fletcher and Viola Norrod, Mr. and Mrs. Early Padgett, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Randolph and family, Florence and Sam Reece, RESIST, Jane Roth, SAM, Mr. and Mrs. Harlan Smith, Arthur Stultz, Mary Jane Threet, Bradford, Nancy, Ed, Rich, Lucy, Bingham, Bill, Elizabeth, Bill, Jim, Joe, and the Institute for Southern Studies.
1. Hedy West, Old Times and Hard Times, Sharon, Conn.: Folk-Legacy Records, Inc., 1968.
2. See bibliography below.
3. The people who appear in the story under their real names are the following: Commander Boyd, W. D. Boyer, Captain Crawford, Billy Garrett, Barney Graham, Della Mae Graham, Jack “Shorty” Green, Henry Horton, Myles Horton, Bill Jacobs, H. S. Johnson, Howard Kester, Governor McAllister, Pat Officer, E. W. Patterson, Hubert Patterson, L. L. Shivers, Dr. Alva Taylor, John william Thompson. All other names are fictitious.
4. Fount F. Crabtree, “The Wilder Coal Strike of 1932-33,” unpublished thesis, Peabody College, Nashville, Tennessee.
5. Knoxville News-Sentinel, Dec. 2, 1932, “Wilder Miners Weren’t Paid Living Wages.”
6. Knoxville News-Sentinel, Dec. 3,1932, “Mine Union Official Blames Company Guards in Dynamiting of Wilder Bridges.”
8. Nashville Labor Advocate, May, 1933.
10. A note on graphics: photographs in this section are pictures of the Davidson-Wilder area today. The drawings of Barney Graham was done from a 1933 newspaper photo. Other drawings are not from that specific area, but were thought to convey some of the spirit of the people who the story is about.
Crabtree, Fount W. “The Wilder Coal Strike of 1932-33.” Unpublished thesis, Peabody College, Nashville, Tennessee. Includes quotes from strikers and mine owners, but generally not very helpful.
Greenway, John. American Folksongs of Protest. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953. Contains an account of the strike along with the songs. Strike description in many places is not true to the recollections of people we interviewed.
Highlander Research and Education Center files. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wis. A very helpful source. Files contain drafts of press releases and articles sent to various labor papers, letters, papers by Wilder young people later students at Highlander, and reports concerning the relocation of strikers in late 1933 and early 1934.
Horton, Zylphia. Unpublished papers in the possession of Myles Horton. Notes and anecdotes for a Highlander play on the Wilder strike, done with the help of young people from Wilder.
Newspapers, 1932-1934. Papers we looked at included the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Knoxville Journal, Nashville Tennesseean, Nashville Banner, Nashville Labor Advocate, and the papers of Overton and Fentress, Tennessee, counties. The county papers in the Tennessee State Archives are not complete. Best coverage was found in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Nashville Tennesseean.
Perry, Vernon. “The Labor Struggle at Wilder.” Unpublished thesis, Vanderbilt University, 1934.
Tennessee Valley Authority Library and files. Knoxville, Tennessee. Files have some scant information on Wilder strikers who went to work for TVA. The Library staff is very friendly and helpful.
United Mine Workers of America files. UMWA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. Contains correspondence related to the role of the union in the strike.
West, Hedy. Old Times and Hard Times. Folk-Legacy Records, Sharon, Connecticut. Contains two songs from the Wilder strike with some remarks by Hedy West and A. L. Lloyd.