Medieval West Virginia

Page Two

Cluster Homes

Cluster Homes (Kincaid)

Dirt Roads beside the  Homes

Road through Elkridge (Kincaid)

These are photos of Elkridge, Raleigh County, West Virginia, in the 1930’s. The homes were hardly more than shacks hastily erected to house the miners. These poor conditions continued up to 1946, when the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery of the U. S. Navy made a study of West Virginia Coal Camps. Their report stated, “Ninety-five percent of the houses are built of wood, finished outside with weather board, usually nailed direct to the frame with no sheathing. Roofs are of composition paper. Wood sheathing forms the inside finish. The houses usually rest on posts with no cellars… The state of disrepair at times runs beyond the power of verbal description or even of photographic illustration since neither words nor pictures can portray the atmospheres of abandoned dejection or reproduce the smells. Old, unpainted board and batten houses batten gone or going and boards fast following, roofs broken, porches staggering, steps sagging, a riot of rubbish, and a medley of odors.
“There is the ever present back-yard privy, with its foul stench-the most common sewage disposal plant in the coal fields. Many of these ill-smelling back-houses, perched beside roads, along alleys, and over streams, leave their human waste exposed, permeate the air with nauseating odors, and spread disease like death.
“…then there is the camp dirt-a mixture of coal dust, dust from the dirt roads, smoke from the burning ‘bone pile,’ which blend into a kind of grime that saturates the atmosphere, penetrates houses and even clothing, and sticks tenaciously to human bodies” (qtd. in Lee).
The first drive to unionize in West Virginia was in 1901, but they did not have much success except in Raleigh and Fayette Counties, which made up the New River Field. They did manage to unionize 80 locals and 5,000 miners, which may be exaggerated, because most miners simply weren't interested. Those that were interested didn't trust the organizers because they had seen cases where union representatives had sold out to the coal operators. And if they did try to join, the company would evict them from their homes or persuade them to go back to work with threats against them and their families. The union wanted to take the operators to court, but the miners told them that it would do no good as the operators owned the court and local government. Most of the state's congressmen were operators (Corbin, Rebellion).

Miners at Marfork

Miners at Marfork in Raleigh County
The second one on the right was my grandfather

The two traditional issues of American labor unions were higher wages and shorter hours, but these were not major issues for the West Virginia miner. Although their wages were the lowest in the business, increased wages meant nothing when the company store just raised the prices on them. The greatest drain on a miner's income was the company store; yet they had ways to supplement those wages. Before the company came, they lived off the land, so they continued this by having gardens, hunting and fishing. Another source of income for them was moonshine (Corbin, Rebellion).
As for shorter hours, the miners pretty much worked when they wanted to work. They got paid by how much coal they loaded, not by punching a time clock. If he wanted to leave early, he did. Miners got paid according to the amount of coal they loaded, and many chose their own time to do this. If the miners had been drinking and celebrating, he often missed work recuperating, but then he would go to the mine and load up his amount of coal. Factory workers worked under the eye of his bosses, and miners were free to go by their own pace, and underground they were their own bosses and responsible to themselves. Operators were afraid to take that from them, because the miner could just quit and go to another town and find employment (Corbin, Rebellion).
When a national strike was called in 1902, the miners in the New River Field answered the call, but although several thousand of them went on strike, there were still too many men working to cripple the company operators. On March 14, 1903, an article in the Charleston Daily News announced a trial beginning against nine miners who had been fighting against deputies at Stanford, Raleigh County. The men were S. R. Webb, R. B. Bryan, Silas Raines, Pearl Stover, James Stover, John Reddin, Oliver Reddin, R. L. Crews and Stonewall Jackson (an African American). It was announced in the article that a committee had been investigating and more warrants would be issued (Charleston). The operators discharged men, evicted their families and blacklisted miners. The operators obtained injunctions against the union, union organizers, and the striking miners. Men were arrested, jailed and fined. They were also beaten, shot and some disappeared without a trace (Corbin, Rebellion).
In 1904, a national strike was called to obtain a “closed shop” and “check off” for the union miners and the Cabin Creek miners walked off the job; but in less than ten days, they had returned to work on a nonunion basis. In 1907, there was a strike because their wages were cut, but miners returned to work when the company began throwing people out of their homes. From 1907 to 1910, the union thought the lack of support was lack of money, so they lowered their union dues, but this failed. There were still not enough miners interested. The operators being able to make their families homeless, was too high a price for the miners to pay. But the operators feared the union agitators would convince them to join and they would lose their control of the people. By 1910, “thugs” were everywhere. “Thugs” were men who worked for the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who the coal operators hired as guards and strike-breakers. Union organizers and union miners were beaten and killed, and the operators banned the right of assembly, which they defined as three miners at a time talking together. The company stimulated class hostility among the miners towards the company and the thugs because of their brutality to the people. By 1912, the operators and thugs had successfully convinced the miners that they did need a union, to protect themselves. By cutting the miners off from the national union, they guaranteed that the eventual uprising would begin with the rank and file miners themselves, without the influence of the national union. By their own treatment of the people, they caused anger and hatred in the miner’s hearts. The West Virginia Miner, having nowhere to turn, would fight this battle his own way (Corbin, Rebellion).
The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was owned by Thomas Felts and W.G. Baldwin. They began by protecting the railway and mine payrolls, and they also took on work of the state and federal governments. They were efficient and highly controversial, because their work was of such a secretive nature, and they were hated and feared (Toney). Before Thomas Felts died, he had all the records burned, so we will never know most of the activities of this agency. What few records have been found, the men were referred to by number, not by name (Hall, Interview).
The thugs had the backing of the authorities in the area since those authorities were paid by the coal operators. Thugs had a “legal license” to use whatever brutal tactics they chose. Everyone feared the thugs from Baldwin-Felts because of their wicked reputation. Some of them were ex-convicts and one requirement for their job was that they had to be tough and brutal. The miners knew they could be beaten, killed, and their families thrown out of their homes by thugs and there was nothing they could do to stop them. Women and children also suffered from the actions of the thugs. It was common knowledge in Southern West Virginia of what to expect when thugs would come to town (Savage).
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