Johnnie Fyre and Grace Bell Artist
Johnnie Frye & Grace Bell Artist (Frye)
My daddy, Johnnie Frye was born in Boone County at Lake, WV on Hewett Creek. As a young lad, he helped his father on the farm. He was only 12 when WW I broke out. Being too young to join the army, he began at an early age to deliver the US Mail on horseback. Finally, in 1921 he took a job in the mines when ponies were being used to pull the wagons that brought the coal to the surface. Canaries were kept in cages and sent into the mine to check for deadly gas. If the canary lived, it was a signal that it was safe to enter the mine. This was the extent of mine safety in the early years.
My mother, Grace Bell Artist was born in Carter County at Hitchens, KY to William Henry and Maggie Hensley-Artist. Her mother, having died shortly after childbirth left a husband and several children of which Gracie was the oldest female child. As was the custom of the day, the care of the house, her father, and siblings fell on little Gracie's shoulders. Providence had decreed her childhood suddenly over and she learned early the meaning of hard work. This is the period of her life where she learned to "take-up" for herself and it made her a survivor. Dad and mom managed to raise four of their children to adulthood. They were Hattie Mae, Earl Eugene, Robert, and (myself) Geraldine.
For a brief time in 1918-19, the world was engulfed in both the end of WW I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. Likewise in both events, people would be alive and healthy in the morning and dead by sundown. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason for how the flu choose its' victims. Mother lost a baby boy to this horrible flu. In nearly every household a loved one was lost to the outbreak. There was even a shortage of coffins. Those that could--helped those that were struck down. Mother went into houses that were quarantined and cared for entire families when wives and mothers were called to heaven's door. Many, many times she went to those in need, totally selfless, totally giving, always doing for others. By God's mercy, mom was spared from falling victim to that awful epidemic. Again, she was a survivor.
By the beginning of WW II in 1941, mining had changed significantly and dad became a machine operator for Hutchinson Coal Company at the MacBeth mine. Dad's brother, and my Uncle, Joe Fry was killed in MacBeth's 1937 explosion. Dad spent thirty-six years in deep-dark-dank holes in the ground. Many times going in before sunup and coming out after sundown, never seeing daylight for weeks. How it would hurt me to see him walking toward the tipple with his lunch pail to give the company another days' labor, never knowing if he would come safely home to us. Coalmining was the primere definition of slave labor; because the men worked at a job where they risk their lives every minute and at the end of the pay period they owed more than they had made. And yet during those depression years, this is what held body and soul together if they were one of the lucky ones to have the job. Coal mining was a way to survive.
Mother was used to hard work from an early age, so living the coal camp life was normal to her. She was known to put her shoulder to the wheel of many a heavy load. She thrived on giving to others and never turned away anyone in need. It didn't matter if it were the superintendent, a foreman, one of dad's co-workers, blackfolk, whitefolk, man, woman, or child. They would all 'go see Grace' and she would lend a helping hand, as much as was in her power to do so. She and daddy would deliberately raise oversized vegetable gardens, the intention being to have plenty for the neighbors too. Our pantry was always full of home-canned jars of raspberry/blackbery jams and jellies and "pickled" beans and corn. Out of the coal dirt yards of her house she coaxed fencerows of colorful flowers to spread their colors. Her porches entwined with morning glories provided shade for cool evenings spent talking to neighbors --sometimes while stringing beans, shelling peas, or doing mending.
She turned out the world's best-- bacon,eggs, and biscuits with sorgum-breakfasts on her woodburning cookstove. I close my eyes and can see her shuffle skillets around the cooktop and stoke the fire a bit more for just the right outcome on cold winter mornings. It was she, who rose up early to build the fires that warmed the house before the rest of us crept out of bed. Many mornings the rattle of the firebox grate woke me out of sound sleep.
The company doctors, Dr. Vaughn and Dr. Brammer, would call on mom in the middle of long cold nights to help them when God was about to breathe life into a new soul. She took "sickly" babies home to nurse them. When the worst was over she would gently return them to their grateful mothers. Many a first-time new mother was thankful to have mom on hand in her hour of need. Much to my mother's credit.......the common refrain "Saved by Grace" had more than one meaning to her neighbors.
Retiring in 1957, Dad lived another blessed 20 years. Mom was granted another 18 years after dad --passing into everlasting eternity in 1995.
They are still loved and remembered by friends and family whose lives they touched in some small way. While daddy mined the coal from those deep holes in the ground; mom mined the welfare of her neighbors. Together, they were survivors.
The pressures of a hard-scrabble life produced two beautiful diamonds out of the black dust of Logan County, WV. May I be deserving of as much of God's mercy.
Mommy and daddy are not forgotten. May they rest in peace.
Their loving daughter, Geraldine