Thursday, September 10, 2015

#52 Ancestors Week 36 - Working for a Living - Coal Miners -

Amy Johnson Crow at No Story Too Small has a weekly challenge to write the stories of your ancestors. This is week #36 and the suggested theme is Working for a Living. Days.  

For many generations my ancestors were farmers. Even as they migrated from Virginia to North Caroline, Kentucky and on to Indiana, they earned their living on farms.  Even my German ancestors were farmers that moved to southern Indiana because it reminded them of their homeland.  Some of these ancestors were in in Indiana as early as 1820 and all branches were there by 1880.

The first coal mine in Greene County, Indiana was in 1859.  But it wasn't until the railroad expanded into the area that the coal industry took off.  by the end of the century there were 200 mines in Greene county.  The population of the largest town in Greene county was 3,000 in 1900 and by 1910 it had quadrupled. 

All of my Great Grandparents were farmers. Leright Houchin (1861-1911) was a farmer in the 1880 census but listed his occupation as miner in 1900.  All of his sons were also miners. My great grandfather Jasper Sargent (1857-1898) was a farmer but all four of his sons were miners. His oldest son was struck by a runaway coal wagon in the mine which badly broke his leg.  He contacted blood poisoning and died as a result. My great grandfather Fredrick Moehlmann (18638-1941) grew up in the city. While he was not a farmer he did work for the railroad his entire life. His only son was a miner in the early 1900's.  My great grandfather William  Bovenschen was a farmer. He had only one son and he was the only one of that generation that was not involved in mining.  William did however, sell his land to a mining company and coal was mined from his land.

My grandfather Alfred Moehlmann wrote the following about his mining experience:
"It was to the point that we were merely existing.  I worked occasionally when a farmer could use me.  I would earn a few dollars during the thrashing season, hay harvesting & corn cutting time.  Then a streak of good fortune came my way when I got a job in a coal mine. It was mainly a fall & winter job in what they called a wagon mine which supplied the local domestic trade.  This was hard work – The coal seam was from 32 to 34 inches high and we had a lot of water to contend with.  The cars held about a ton of coal and we had to push them quite a distance from the face of the coal to the place where they hoisted it out.  Two of us worked a room together and we got a dollar a car.  Seldom did we get over eight cars a day and there was blasting powder & fuse to buy.  Boots didn’t last long nor did working clothes but I did learn how to mine coal by the hand method known as pick-work – We had no cutting machines or loaders.  For a light we used a lamp on our cap, filled with hard like grease called Lard Oil.  A wick gave a dingy, yellow smoky light.  But the carbide lamp was introduced about that time and we used them as soon as they were available.  They made a much better light and were not nearly so heavy.  There was a lot of safety measures to learn.  Luckily, this vein of coal did not have gas in it, but in a small mine the ventilation was very poor.  The first thing was to be sure the roof or top was solid.  We would tap the roof with the flat side of a pick and if a ringing sound was made the top was safe but if a hollow or drum like sound, it indicated loose slate.  Then you had to make soundings until you found a solid place. You had to determine how much slate was loose and if you could support it with timbers or props or cross bars or if it would have to be wedged down and make sure that you were always under solid top.  While you were testing the roof you also usually had your lamp in your hand testing for “Damps”  Now damps was caused by a lax of oxygen in the air – There was Black Damps which you would find on top or near the roof.  To detect this you find the flame of your lamp extending far out in long and flickering flame that seemed to be reaching for something.  White damps were heavy and they would be next to the bottom or floor.  They were far more dangerous since they had no oxygen and would soon suffocate a person.  If you happened to be working and accidentally got in Black Damps you would soon get a terrific headache that would last for quite a while.  Fresh air was no immediate cure for it and you would suffer several hours.  You usually went to an entry when this happened for there always was more air there and you would not run the hazard of sitting down in White Damps.  That would be fatal unless someone found you quickly.  I also learned how to set timbers or props to support the roof, learned how to cut coal by hand, how to gauge a block of coal to be shot or blasted, set up drilling machine, make water proof cartridges for blasting powder, make “dummies” for tamping purposes and insert fuse in cartridge.  I also learned how to lay track and switches.  There is even an art to using a jack to put a wrecked or derailed car back on the tracks."  
My grandfather Thomas Sargent earned his mining certificate in 1911 at the age of 21 and mined all his life.
Certification of Qualification to Serve as Minor issued to Donald Sargent, June 1911
Qualifies the miner to work in any mine in the Indiana
from Sargent Family  Collection
You can see the fold marks in the paper.  This was folded into a small square with another piece of paper fold around it and was carried in Donald's wallet at all times. 
Donald Sargent
Arriving home on the mine bus c. 1940.
Sargent Family Collection
Even though Donald was a miner, he also always owned a farm. Here is a picture of Donald and his wife Bertha plowing their garden.

Donald & Bertha Sargent, farming c. 1930's.
from Sargent Family  Collection
So the coal mining changed the lives of my families as well as being a great economic boom to the area.  But it also brought tragedy. When my parents died I found a small metal tackle box that held all the papers from my grandfather Donald. But here is one of the things that he had saved:
Memorial Booklet from the Little Betty mine disaster.
January 28, 1931
Sargent Family Collection
I'm not aware of any relative who was among the 39 victims of the Little Betty Mine explosion, but I'm sure my grandfather knew many of them since he had been mining in various mines for twenty years. It must have been a sobering reminder of the danger in his line of work.

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