The Christian County Coal Miners’ Museum, located on the east side of the square in Taylorville, was founded on June 22, 2003 by retired Lithuanian-American miners William (Stankus) Stone and Ron Verbiski. Although the museum is temporarily closed, I had the good fortune to visit its collections with Will Stone, 81, and his retired miner son-in-law, Ted Fleming, the day after Thanksgiving 2014. (I just learned that Will died the very day this post went live on Jan. 3, 2015.)
Born in 1933, Will was the son of Lithuanian immigrants Enoch (Stankus) Stone and Anna Dabulski of Bulpitt, a small Lithuanian-American enclave just outside Kincaid in Christian County, south of Springfield. Enoch came to the United States from Lithuania around 1926 at the age of 38 and married Anna five years later, in 1931. The couple had two sons, and Enoch was employed at Peabody Coal Co. No. 7 in the South Fork area near Kincaid.
Enoch’s son Will also grew up to become a Christian County coal miner. But first, he was a star Kincaid High School athlete known throughout area sport conferences for his agility in football, basketball and track. He made all-state teams in both football and basketball and was a longtime holder of the state’s shot put record. Upon graduating high school in 1953, he was awarded a full scholarship to play football at the University of Arkansas. However, family needs led him back to Bulpitt to support his widowed mother, and after working several factory jobs, Will started mining at Peabody No. 10 (Pawnee) in 1960, from which he retired in 1991.
Will leaves behind his wifeJoAnn (Tonks) Stone, two step-children and numerous step-grandchildren. At about the same time he opened the coal miner’s museum, he placed a granite monument to himself and his fellow miners on the north lawn of Taylorville’s courthouse.
The non-profit museum that Will personally operated since its opening, and in which he said he invested about $10,000, is currently in transition to different management and a new location.
However, the museum’s three tightly-packed rooms and one long hallway still store a wide variety of memorabilia related to coal mining and its importance to Christian County (which was, not by coincidence, ground zero for the infamous Central Illinois “Mine Wars” 1932-36.) Several articles on display that caught my attention were about Mine War “martyrs” from the Progressive Miners of America, the new union that formed from former United Mine Workers of America members in 1932 to strike Peabody Coal. During the “Wars,” dozens of deaths resulted from gunfights and other violent clashes, most of them in the so-called “Midland Tract” around Taylorville where many Peabody mines were located. The county jail in Taylorville was often full of arrested miners, and the city’s newspaper was bombed.
Three of the PMA martyrs mentioned in the museum were Andy Gyenes of Tovey, who was shot and killed in 1932, and Mrs. Emma Cumerlato, who was killed by a stray bullet on the porch of a Kincaid home in 1933 (in the same melee at the entrance of Peabody No. 7 in which PMA miner Vincent Rodems was also killed.) Joseph Sigler was described as the “only law man shot and killed in Taylorville” during the violence, in 1934.
Miners’ uniforms and equipment, including hats with carbide headlamps, lunch pails, gas detectors and emergency oxygen generators, were also on display.
Will made a point of mentioning to me with great pride that Peabody #7 in Kincaid had the highest production numbers (tonnage) in the world at the peak of its operation. Despite mining’s difficult conditions, which improved after the 1930s, Will clearly showed the pride in hard work and production—and his miners’ union, the UMWA–that characterize the profession. I am very happy I got the chance to meet him, even briefly, and visit the coal miners’ museum he loved.
Honoring Central Illinois Mine Casualties
Coal mining was extremely hazardous work during the early years of the 20th century, when labor was cheap and plentiful, and workplace protections few. After ”shot-firers” blasted the coal seams apart (or took down the walls of coal), other men and loaded “trips” of cars full of coal. Timbermen timbered ceilings to create stable passageways and work “rooms,” but as you’ll see from the casualties below, rock or slate falls were common causes of death and injury. “Clod men” cleaned the rooms and passageways of fallen slate.
In the early days, mules were used to haul the trips (or cars) to the surface. Men got to go home after their 10+ hour shifts. The mules spent their entire lives in cramped and dark underground stables, frequently perishing in fires. Unfortunately, men and mules were generally alike in the eyes of the mine owners and bosses, except, as one mine boss was famously quoted as saying, “I have to pay to replace a mule.”
In fact, human casualties were so common that some historical records only log accidents in which two or more miners died. Public blame usually fell on victims, despite routinely dangerous working conditions that would never pass muster today (mainly improperly timbered or buttressed walls and ceilings, explosive coal dust and deadly gases called “afterdamp.” ) There were no death or injury benefits from the company, only from the newly founded union, for surviving families or the disabled.
The local Lithuanian-American casualties at the new Web page I just assembled (please scroll down at https://lithspringfield.com/an-indelible-role-in-our-history/lithuanian-local-history-2/the-mining-life/honoring-central-illinois-mine-casualties/) were almost all immigrants. These dead are dwarfed in number by the much larger group of miners who were crippled or maimed in mine accidents or lost years of health and life due to the complications of black lung. (I personally remember the 1990s Springfield funeral of Lithuanian-born miner Tadas Rizutis, a friend of my father’s, who was crippled during a rock fall in a coal mine in the 1960s.)
Most of the deaths I recorded are from Sangamon County, although a few are from Christian and Macoupin counties, and several from the catastrophic Centralia Mine Disaster. We have this listing thanks to the meticulous research of newspaper articles and genealogy websites by retired Springfield police officer Tom Mann. Among the sources he combed were archives of the State Journal-Register and the Sangamon County Coal Mine Fatalities web pages from “Wayne’s World of History and Genealogy.” The ethnicity of each miner was verified by newspaper or U.S. Census records. (Unfortunately, birth towns and cities were almost never recorded by either of these sources.) Please see http://hinton-gen.com/coal/sangamonfatal.html