MINING TOWNS’ TELLS STORY OF EAST TENNESSEE
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This
article was published in the LaFollette Press.
(This week we shall take from the fine book entitled, "Coal Mining Towns," compiled by Marshall L. McGhee. The title of the text is "Some Memories about Beech Grove," written by William (Bill) McGhee.)
Our story begins with William McGhee telling that his father's name was Joseph Marion McGhee and his mother's name was Mary E. Bennett McGhee. Mr. McGhee was a coal miner and lived with his family in the coal mining community of Beech Grove, about three miles northwest of Coal Creek, Tennessee.
William was born in June 1916 in Coal Creek, and one year later the family moved to Beech Grove where he grew up. William reminiscences about the early coal miners. By the time he was fifteen there was much to be said of his life and his coal mining stories.
In the late 19th and early 20th century's mules deep in the mines gathered coal with mule drivers and muleskinners being hired for that purpose. Mr. Cal Andrews tended a huge mule barn where perhaps a hundred or more mules were cared for. It was during this time that a large powerhouse with many buildings was constructed across the creek from the mine superintendent's house, Mr. Peck. Quite a few large boilers were fired and the steam powered the generators.
Battery operated motors were next utilized which took the place of the mules, thus the extinction of the four-legged workers. A large battery charging shop was constructed with the operators being a Mr. Deal and "Uncle" Sherman Snodderly. Shortly thereafter a fire destroyed the entire facility. It was then that electricity was brought to Beech Grove commercially.
Electric motors were then transported in with electric cables thus being installed in the mines. Subsequently, trolley poles on the motors made contact with the cables and the mining operation was improved. Coal cutting machines also took over most of the pick work. Mr. McGhee states that "a face of coal was undercut by the machines, holes drilled, black powder inserted and blasted and the miner had a day's work shoveling coal into the coal cars. The day of pick and shoves were gone. Of course some picks were necessary."
McGhee asserts that in the village of Beech Grove was the only place he ever heard the word "sprag" used. Sprags were employed to keep coal cars from running over the mules. "A sprag was a piece or rod made mostly of wood that could be stuck in a wheel with spokes and when it came to the frame of the coal car it would lock the wheel from turning."
As a small child Mr. McGhee would rise early to see his dad off to work. Far off on Walden Ridge, Vowell Mountain, and back in the Cumberland Mountains shone a stream of lights (carbide lights on miner's caps) from all directions.
There were two mines in operation; one mine, the oldest was called Number One mine. It was located deep under Vowell Mountain. It has been said that the mine was two or three miles through the mountain. The mine had a small amount of gas and every precaution was taken to reduce the chance of explosion. Carl Armstrong was the safety officer. During his tenure, the carbide light was replaced by battery type electric lights, which were referred to as safety lights. Also installed was a main fan along with some smaller ones to push fresh air into the mine and, of course, this movement of air allowed airways throughout the mines. Because of these safety features, no explosion ever occurred in the Vowell Mountain mine.
The other mine was called the Klondike Mine. McGhee remembers the men talking about six feet coal meaning the face of the coal was six feet high. This mine had water problems and engineers made every effort to find the source of the water. Concrete was poured into every crevice trying in vain to find the leak, however, to no avail. The Klondike Mine was ultimately abandoned.
Beech Grove was a well-managed community when the McGhee family moved in. The neighborhood included a large commissary managed by Wade Mitchell. Also, there was a movie theater with a big game room bordering. A baseball team, a brass band, and a small park were also enclosed within the small community. There was also a hotel in Beech Grove, which had two stories and a huge dining room. The floors were natural wood and buffed to perfection.
William McGhee, our subject, was eight years old in 1924 and remembers work in the mine was slow and at this time his father decided to move over in the "holler," where about four or five acres could be cultivated. William's dad had a "green thumb," figuring that he could grow just about anything.
The McGhee family was the only family in the "holler." They could sit on the front porch and figure just about where everybody lived. But on the back porch, this was impossible because nobody lived in the back.
William's father, Joseph, would work in the mine, come home, feast on supper, and then on to the fields to work by carbide light until ten or eleven at night. Food was plentiful. Hogs, chickens, veal, with every known vegetable, syrup, fruit, were the main selections the family had at every meal.
Joseph was a Deacon at the nearby church and every time the doors were open the family was there. There was plenty of "Sunday visiting" among the locals. Joseph and his fellow Deacons and Preachers would sit on the front porch, each with a Bible, discussing a subject. Sometimes the children would get a little noisy and would have to be settled down because of respect for the Sabbath.
The church was the center of community social life and worship. Everyone knew just about everyone else in Beech Grove. Crime was practically unheard of in the small community, and in consequence, no windows or doors were locked.