|In the Coal Fields of Kentucky
In the early
1912, for reasons that are not clear today (and may
not have been
even at the time), I set out with a friend Milburn
Baker for the
coal fields of Eastern Kentucky. (Actually Milburn was
more than a
my sister Vera was married to Milburn's father, Jim
Milburn was my nephew. But we were friends long before
he became my
Imagine, if you can,
pair of red-necked fourteen-year-olds carrying
miles in one day down the dusty footpath that
connected Norton with
west, on our way to seek our fortune. We spent the
night in a cozy
arising early the next morning to walk over famous
as "The Billion Dollar Mountain," because of its many
rich seems of
on to the mining community of Benham, where John
already had a job in
Milburn and I were
to stay out of the mines if we could. Men and boys
were being carried
mining tipples all over the Cumberlands every day,
killed or crippled
life--and with little or no compensation, either to
themselves or to
families. I have seen men so scared of the mines that
each evening when
they surfaced after ten or twelve hours of
back-breaking labor several
miles underground, they'd fall on their knees and
thank their Creator
delivering them once again to the topsoil. But they'd
be back at dawn
next morning, ready to ride that car down to hell
The sawmill at
run by Carl Lankford--a big, fine-looking fellow who
of John's wife, the former Ellen Mitchell of Harlan
Carl gave me a job
bug-dust" or gathering sawdust in a wheelbarrow. In a
busy sawmill, it
was a job that required a lot of hustle. I stayed
right with it, until
one day when a big circle saw clipped the hat right
off my head. That
chilled me as nothing ever had before. At the end of
the day, I turned
the job over to my friend Milburn. Carl Lankford
understood. There just
had to be some better way to make a living.
recommendation, I went to work for the International
shop in Benham as a helper in the armature room. The
master mechanic, a
man named Nansteel, assigned me to an old machinist
named Vernie Lingarr. My job was to
Vernie in winding and taping coils.
Pretty soon, the job
into a routine. Everything was busy, fast-paced
It was like running on a treadmill for ten hours every
After several weeks
the same routine, an idea came to me. By using
Vernie's lathe, we could
automate the winding and taping jobs. Vernie went
along with the idea,
and we soon were turning out three times as much work
each day, with
half the effort.
One day a Mr.
visited our shop. When he saw how our job had been
automated, he was
"Whose idea is
me. ''It's his'n," he said.
"Son, " said Mr.
"I've got a better job for you. "
on to tell me that he was the owner of the Goodman
Company in Chicago, and he offered to pay my expenses
to Chicago if I
accept a job in his shop there. I'm sure he didn't
realize that I was
fourteen. And anyway, Chicago sounded too big and too
far from home for me in 1912. I thanked Mr. Goodman
for the offer, but
refused the job.
that the Mr. Goodman who offered me that job was the
same man who
invented the coal cutting machine and revolutionized
the coal mining
One night after
working at International Harvester for several months,
whistle failed to blow.
Mr. Nansteel told me
call the powerhouse and ask what was wrong. The man on
duty there, a
named Jess Manes, answered the phone. His voice was
"Tell Mr. Nansteel
sorry," said Manes. "...I had to kill the nigger. .."
I raced to the powerhouse. There lay the big Negro who
shot through the temple. There was a hole in his head
big enough to put
your fist in, and his brains were scattered all over
There had been had
between Manes and the Negro for some time. It was
Jess' contention that
the Negro had lost his sanity. Everyone knew that the
man was given to long periods of silent
and while he and Jess had once been quite friendly
toward each other,
recently they had worked in the same room for several
Just before quitting
that day, according to Manes, he had walked over to
where his coat was
hanging to get a chew of tobacco out of the pocket.
thinking that Jess was going to his coat for a gun,
grabbed his own
and rushed forward.
That was his
Jess didn't have a gun in his coat pocket--but he did
have one under
bib of his overalls, and he promptly whipped it out
I remember the
atmosphere in that powerhouse as news of the killing
spread and a crowd
of angry Negroes gathered outside. By the time the
camp constable (a
with the unlikely name of Joe Sar Creech) showed up,
Jess Manes had
reason to fear for his life.
Manes had placed his
a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, back inside
his overalls by
the time Creech arrived.
The constable asked
for the gun.
"No sir, Joe Sar!"
Jess, and he repeated it over and over.
"No sir, Joe Sar!
give it to you when we get to the jailhouse, but not
now. No sir, Joe
Not with all them niggers out there. No sir, Joe Sar!"
Jess won his point.
didn't relinquish the pistol until he was safely in
jail. He stuck to
self-defense story, which was probably true, and
eventually came clear
of the murder charge that was lodged against him.
on a long-rembered coon hunt with John O'Neill and a
pair of well-known
and well- respected men in the community, Doc Robinet
and Jess Gilley.
We followed a big
hound named Old Lonesome and Doc's bluetick, Little
Rex, way to hell
gone back into Big Black Mountain. By the time we
caught our second
it was well past midnight and we were several miles
from where we had
into the mountain.
None of us being
to that immediate area, all four of us lost our
bearing during the long
chase. From atop the mountain we could see the glow
sets of coke ovens, about twenty miles
We knew that one of the ovens was at Benham and the
other was at a camp
called Rhoda, Virginia (named for the wife of the
we couldn't agree on which one was which.
Jess Gilley and I
sure that the glow that came from off to our left was
from Benham, but
John and Doc thought otherwise. From the time he was
just a boy, John
the hard-headedest, most positive-minded man I ever
knew. It did no
to argue with him. So we went the way he and Doc
thought was right. We
finally stumbled, exhausted, onto a coal tipple at
about five o'clock
next morning--the Rhoda tipple !
There we were , all
out, eighteen long miles from home, and it was time to
go to work. I
that was probably the only time John was ever late to
work in his life.
We cut back across
mountain, hell-bent to get back to Benham within the
hour. John was out
in front, mad enough to eat nails, setting a hell of a
Doc Robinet was
years older than the rest of us and had a sore toe to
start with, but
was determined to keep up. About halfway to Benham,
though, Doc started
to wilt. He stumbled a little bit now and then, his
breath coming hard,
and then he hooked his bad toe under a root and went
Doc cried, writhing on the ground, clutching his toe.
"What's the matter,
"Oh, Little Jesus,
Jesus!" said Doc.
"Do you want to stop
rest a while, Doc?"
"Oh, Little Jesus!"
As if things weren't
enough already, the dogs ran down a skunk and killed
it just before we
reached Benham. In the fight, Little Rex got drenched
When we got to Doc's
he hobbled up to the back door, planning to put his
hunting gear away
taking Little Rex down to the creek for a good
scrubbing. But the
he opened the door, the dog squeezed past
him and went charging through the house.
Having a skunk-hit
around you out in the woods is bad enough. You can
imagine what it's
to have one inside your house!
John and I were
as the bluetick shot past Doc and into the house, and
we looked at each
other in disbelief. There was no outward sound from
the house for a few
seconds--but then came the damndest racket you ever
The first thing out
the house was Little Rex. He jumped through the living
came Doc's three children, screaming like banshees.
And then came poor
hobbling on that bad toe, with a frying pan right
behind him. Doc was
by his clothes. All of them. And then his fishing rod,
his shotgun, and
Last came Doc's
a frail little Irishwoman, broom in hand, red hair
standing on end,
profanities at Doc and Little Rex.
Doc moved back into
home as soon as the odor died down, but it was a long
time before he
on another coon hunt.
I remember two
trips that, took place that same year at Benham,
because of unusual
One evening John and
were hunting with some fellows who had three dogs, one
of which was a
black hound called Big Boy.
After daylight, on
way home, the dogs treed a squirrel, and I shot it.
The dogs rushed to
grab the squirrel as it toppled out of the tree--when,
there was no more squirrel. Not even a
of it. Big Boy, in his excitement, had swallowed it
Another time, we
a coon in a hollow oak. The only way to get to i t was
to chop down the
tree. This we did, but the falling tree killed one of
our dogs, a
bluetick called Little Sailor.
I left Benham
went to nearby Harlan, the seat of Harlan County, a
town later to
famous as "Bloody Harlan" for the many assassinations
that occurred there during the years when the mines
bloodless, even in 1914. It was a rough, mean,
ill-tempered place where
human life was held in low regard.
I went to work in a
restaurant where the main staples were bootleg whiskey
and home brew.
Kentucky was a "dry" state, these were very
The man for whom I
in Harlan was Carl Lankford, the same fellow who
earlier had helped me
out in Benham. A few years later, Carl was convicted
of killing a man
the heat of a business quarrel, and was sentenced to
at Frankfort, Kentucky.
Old Man Nath
(Carl's stepfather and the father of John's wife,
Ellen) went to the
capitol at Frankfort to petition the governor of
Carl's behalf. Mitchell family
has it that Old Man Nath's beautiful blond daughter,
him on the trip, hopped into the governor's lap and
sat there during
conference--though both she and the old man always
scoffed at such a
Whatever persuasive powers were used on the governor,
successful; he gave Carl Lankford a
full pardon soon thereafter!
Getting back to my
story--Harlan wasn't my town. After working a few
months in Carl's
I packed my suitcase and drifted back to Norton.
winter loafing around home, I was restless and ready
to go rambling
in the early spring of 1915. In company with Cot
Stuart and Elmer
Who were also in their mid-teens, I walked to the
mining camp at
Fork, about halfway between Norton and Appalachia,
where the road turns
off to go to Pardee. I got a job in the Roaring Fork
mine, but Cot and
Elmer had to walk on to the next camp, which was
Pardee, before finding
The mine foreman at
Fork was a fellow named Bob Bolton. Bob took a liking
to me, and at his
suggestion I took a room in a boarding house near his
I was a frequent
in the Bolton home, where they had three of the
loveliest young girls
ever you saw. All three could play the organ and sing,
got along just fine. I was working
and the social whirl in the daytime made the drudgery
of digging coal
But then one morning
message came to me from Pardee:
Cot Stuart had been killed in the mine.
After Cot's funeral,
had no desire to see Roaring Fork or Pardee again. Or
goddam coal mine, for that matter. But there was
nothing else to do.
Roger Farmer, I left home again. Roger and I wound up
and another coal mine. The man we worked for there was
I remember our last
at Jenkins. A horse was run over and killed by a
runaway coal car that
morning , just a few yards from where Roger and I were
digging. In the
afternoon, a slate fall killed a mule and crippled the
the line from us. We saw the man being carried out,
screaming in agony,
his leg hopelessly crushed.
When we got back to
boarding house at dusk, my only change of overalls had
did it. Roger, Elmer Boles, and I quit Jenkins and
moved on to
West Virginia, hoping things would be better there.
We had no
work at Coalwood in the winter of 1915-16. It was a
busy, booming camp.
Elmer got a job coupling (or braking) cars on the day
shift. Roger and
I drew the night shift. I helped a fellow named Tom
McAfee on a
We hadn't been at
very long when someone shook me awake in the boarding
house one day to
give me another tragic message: Elmer Boles had just
been crushed to
in the mine.
I remember what a
foreign place Coalwood seemed as I stumbled down the
and headed for the tipple. There were no leaves on the
trees; the sun
had not shined for days; a week-old snow was on the
ground, but the
had been turned dark gray by soot and coal dust. It
was the blackest,
most depressing day I ever hope to see.
When I reached the
nobody seemed to know or even care about what had
happened to Elmer.
what seemed an eternity of inquiring, I was told that
his body had been
placed in a rail car for shipment back to Norton. I
walked the three
to the railroad yard to make sure that the body was
all in one
in a blanket, was all alone in a dark and silent and
I knelt over his crumpled remains--perhaps to pray,
perhaps merely to
positive identification that it was really my boyhood
friend who lay
"Hello, Dave," Elmer
He was still
There was no
in Coalwood in those days, and the one doctor in the
too busy to bother with terminal cases. They had
loaded Elmer Boles,
breathing, into the rail car for his last ride home .
After all these
I cannot recall the exact words of my short, final
But in the darkness of that boxcar he told me he knew
he was going to
and he asked me to tell his mother that he was going
Then he died, in my
body back to Norton, and delivered his dying message
to his mother.
Actually, I didn't
exactly where Elmer had gone, and neither did anybody
else. But I never
in my life went back to Coalwood, West Virginia.
underground in a coal mine--and not all of them are
Bill Kelley, and I roomed together in the Black
camp--a camp in which there was no plumbing,
Housing was scarce,
it always was in a busy camp. We took our meals at a
had to sleep--or try to-- in the building that was
used as a school
It was an old-fashioned "blab" school, with eighty or
all ages thrown together under the care of one poor
Lawrence, Bill and I
the night shift-- and you can imagine what it was
like, trying to sleep
under the same roof with all those screaming kids in
Lawrence was a tall,
fellow of about 17. He and I worked together on the
cutting crew. Our
was to go in at night with a cutting machine and cut
coal that other crews would load out
next day. The coal ran in a seam that was from thirty
high, and cutting it was hard, low, strenuous
One Saturday evening
we went to work, Lawrence and another young miner
named Emmett Petite
into a fight. Lawrence picked up a sprag (a piece of
wood used to block
the wheel of a coal car) and started beating Emmett
about the head and
shoulders with it.
Seeing that young
was in danger of being killed or permanently injured,
I stepped in and
stopped the fight. But Emmett,instead of being
thankful, got as
mad at me as he was at Lawrence. He
away cursing us both and vowing that he'd "get even."
Fletcher and I went
to work, figuring that by morning Emmett would be
cooled off and we'd
be friends again.
work out that way. Around midnight, Lawrence and I had
a main heading three and a half miles under the
mountain, when we saw a light coming
the main entry. Closer and closer the light came, very
slowly. But we
no forewarning of danger, until it was too late. .
The carbide light
carried by Emmett Petite, and in his other hand he had
a big pistol!
sort of matter-of-factly, "I aim to kill both of you.
He pointed the
at Lawrence, no more than six feet away, and fired.
The noise was
"Oh Lord, " groaned
"I'm killed! "
Lawrence crashed to
ground hard, and didn't move or make another sound. I
knew he was dead.
Emmett whirled to
me, struggling to aim the big .45-caliber Colt
revolver that he was
with both hands.
There was no time to
for my own pistol, in my coat pocket a few feet away.
My only chance
to talk, and talk fast and persuasively.
It's easy to "freeze
when you're looking into the business end of the 7
1/2-inch barrel of a
big "Forty-five." But if your life depends on it, you
can become very
I turned on the
I flattered Emmett Petite to beat hell, telling him
what a fine young
he was--but knowing in my heart that he was a no-good
After a few minutes
listening to my bullshit, Emmett lowered his pistol,
turned, and walked
away. He didn't say a word, and he didn't look back.
The main heading in
mine is straight. I could see Emmett's light, moving
slowly away, until
it disappeared a half-mile up the tunnel.
Up to that point I
concerned myself with Lawrence--I knew he had to be
dead. Finally I
over to where he had fallen, fully expecting to find
with his head blown off .
But when I struck a
there was my young friend in a sitting position ,
propped up in six
of "bug dust"' (as shavings made by the cutting
using his forefingers to plug the bullet holes in
either side of his
After placing a
(fashioned from a bandana and a hammer handle) above
Fletcher's knee, I
went to get help.
That walk to the
of the mine was one of the scariest experiences of my
told me that Petite had changed his mind about killing
me. After all, I
was the only witness to what he must have believed was
a murder that he
had committed .
Emmett could have
waiting for me at any point along the way. I had to
carry a light in
to see where I was going--because there's nothing but
inside a mine. Having a gun of my own was little
would undoubtedly set up the ambush at a place where
he could get in
first shot, from close range.
I imagined him
at every break-through, waiting in every crevice,
every piling. Each time a big rat would scurry across
the floor, I aged a few years. It was
that every step of the way, for three and a half
miles. I knew he had
When I reached the
Emmett's strategy became apparent. He would be waiting
to pot me as
stepped out of the mine!
Lawrence, alone and wounded, deep in the mine. I had
to get help. I
out my carbide light and sat for several minutes,
courage, praying for the Lord to guide me.
the entrance. I waited for a cloud to come along and
giving me a greater cover of darkness. At last, one
It was time to move.
Bolting out of the
I dove head-first over the mountainside, tumbling
loose slate and dirt. Pistol in hand, I scrambled to
my feet and ran
a jackrabbit to the boarding house.
A dozen miners
the boarding house volunteered to help me bring
Lawrence out of the
Harnessing a mule to a coal car, we hurried back to
the scene of the
Lawrence still sat where I had left him, holding the
This story does not
a happy ending. Fletcher's wound became infected, and
he lost part of
leg. But at least it wasn't his life.
When Emmett Petite
brought to trial, he testified in court that he had
been waiting above
the drift mouth to shoot me when I emerged from the
mine. But I
came out so fast, it caught him by
I was over the hill and gone before he could get off a
Petite was found
of assault with intent to kill, but his sentence was
light. He was free
in two years.