When our fathers were coal miners

You can go home again

 

When our fathers were coal miners. . . don’t think we were a majority, but we certainly outnumbered any of the other kids at Field and Lincoln grade schools. There were a lot of farm kids, but they didn’t really challenge us in numbers until we reached junior high and the students from schools in Fox, Luther and Roscoe joined us. By that time, the mines were closing and our numbers were dwindling. Soon there were no sons and daughters of coal miners in our schools. The industry that had led to the foundation of Red Lodge was gone. When our fathers were coal miners. . .  Most of our dads followed our grandfathers into the mines. Fathers worked with sons; brothers worked with brothers. At least one neighbor, and probably more, was a miner.

One of my uncles spent his entire career in the mines. My aunt’s husband was the big boss of Montana Coal and Iron. My grandfather owned a couple of mines -- including the large Foster Mine at one time -- and my dad started working in one of them in his late teens. Except for a one-year break running a gas station, the mines were his livelihood until the early ’50s, when the Washoe and Bearcreek mines closed and he took a job at the United States National Bank.

When our fathers were coal miners. . .      Coal mining towns were multi-ethnic towns. In the mines, Irish miners worked shoulder to shoulder with Italian miners. German miners rode the ore cars into the shafts along with the Finns and the Scandinavians. They looked out for each other as they worked and sat together when they opened their lunch boxes. When they went home, they went to their own neighborhoods, Finn Town and Little Italy and others. In school, of course, my generation was just as mixed and most of us were 100% German or Irish or Italian or Yugoslavian or Finnish. It wasn’t until my generation came around that marriages across the ethnic lines became common.     

When our fathers were coal miners. . . Almost everyone in town had a coal furnace in the basement, and some moms still cooked on ancient coal stoves. I remember the dump truck backing down a small incline to dump a load of coal in the chute leading to the storage area. Most of our furnaces used large lumps of coal a little bigger than a bowling ball. I remember Mom warning me to stay out of the bathroom, which was over the coal chute, just in case the truck’s brakes would fail and it would break through the wall. Later, we had a coal stoker installed, and our coal was the size of a Little League baseball. It was my job to fill the stoker every day. The first few times, it was fun. Then it became a chore.

When our fathers were coal miners. . . Our family income wasn’t very much. Truth be told, we probably could have been classified as the working poor. Although we wore the same shirt (many of them a hand-me-down) to school for a whole week none of us looked at ourselves as poor. So many other families were in the same situation that we just looked at it as normal. Our dad’s vacations were spent working around the house -- fixing a fence or a leaking roof -- or working at a relative’s farm or ranch. There were no long summer road trips and motels to sleep in. My family’s idea of an outing was a Sunday drive to Cooke City with a picnic lunch. On one trip I forgot to put the shoebox containing bologna sandwiches and potato chips in the car, and dad had to stretch the budget by purchasing hamburgers and fries at one of the Cooke City cafes. My first trip to Yellowstone Park didn’t come until I was in high school and my dad was working at the bank.   

When our fathers were coal miners. . . Coal mining fathers joined the union. The dues were meant to protect their jobs and their future. My dad started paying dues to the United Mine Workers of America as a teenager in the mid-’20s and continued paying union dues for several years after moving to the bank, which didn’t have a pension plan. In the 1960s, the union changed its rules and members had to have worked in a mine within the last five years before retiring to be eligible for a pension. Left without a pension, dad continued to work until illness forced him to retire in his early 70s.   So much for protection.