Growing Up on Cabin Creek

An Interview with Arnold Miller


Page One

While coal miners fought to build their union, John L. Lewis built his own dictatorial machine to control it. Iron rule served the United Mine Workers of America reasonably well during the presidency of Lewis himself, a brilliant leader venerated by his membership. But the faulty legacy of the Lewis years became quickly apparent when he left the union to corrupt henchmen nurtured under his regime. Thus the final culmination of the fight for labor democracy came decades after the Mine Wars, as southern West Virginians joined their union brothers in a struggle to reform the UMWA. Ironically, the national leader that emerged to carry them to victory in 1972 was Arnold Miller, a son of Cabin Creek in the heart of the old Mine Wars country.
This 1981 interview discusses Miller's formative years in a community saturated with Mine Wars lore, bringing him to the eve of the union reform era.
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When l first knew Arnold Miller some ten years ago he was involved in an awesome campaign for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America, against the entrenched establishment of Tony Boyle. In those days, if you could get a word with Arnold, it usually had to do with some strategic detail of the hectic race. But I caught enough sketchy anecdotes about his past to realize that his life had been forged in struggle, that this controversial would be president was in many ways the embodiment of coalfield experience, and I resolved to find time someday to hear the whole story.
When I visited with Mr. Miller at his apartment on Ruffnet Avenue in Charleston last September I found him relaxed and reflective. We spent a whole afternoon talking about his early life, and I asked him to concentrate on those details of the story which preceded his presidency. Excerpts from that taped interview have been pulled together in this article.
Arnold Miller was born in Leewood, on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County on April 25, 1923, just two years after The Battle of Blair Mountain, which broke the union effort in southern West Virginia until 1933. But union spirit and determination ran deep in his family psyche on both sides. He began by telling about his father.
Arnold Miller: My daddy was born in Bell County, in Pineville in East Kentucky, and was forced to migrate out of Kentucky to West Virginia at the age of 14, ostensibly for his organizing activity. He was a veteran miner at the age of 14, had five years in the mines. It's not common for people to understand today that years ago they worked children in the mines. I had a group picture I could show you somewhere here in Charleston. Showed about 30 miners, only two of which were adults. It's odious from looking at the picture that children did work in the mines in the early days. They worked them like slaves. They didn't pay them but damn little, and they dogged them around. Mining is far different today than it was then.
Michael Kline: Did your daddy come from a big family?
AM: Yes. I believe there was 12 in the family. I don't know exactly the breakdown of boys and girls. I have one uncle and three aunts still living, and the rest of the family on my dad's side is about all gone.
MK: What was your dad's dad's name?
AM: John Miller. He had been a coal miner some in his younger days. He was primarily a farmer and didn't work that much around the mines.

Permission given by author, Michael Kline. Article published in The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars

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Page designed January, 1999 by Gracie Stover