The Mining Life

Joseph Pakutinskas, left, Herrin coal miner, 1910s. Joseph later owned farms in Urbana and on Mechanicsburg Rd., outside Springfield.

Joseph Pakutinskas, left, Herrin coal miner, 1910s. Joseph later owned farms in Urbana and on Mechanicsburg Rd., outside Springfield.

To read more about the actual work of coal-mining and conditions in the mines during the years at the turn of the Twentieth Century that Sangamon County led the state in coal production, on the strength of Italian, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Slovak immigrant miners, please visit:

http://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=412

The following excerpt on the sporadic nature of coal mining here and how that affected miners and their families is from the Sangamon County Historical Society’s Web page entitled “Coal Mining: Boom to Bust:”

Irregular work in the second decade of the 20th Century meant that miners earned wages only sporadically. In 1914 a research team from the Russell Sage Foundation commissioned to study industrial conditions in the Capital City noted that “irregularity of employment is greater among coal miners in Springfield than in any other important occupation group.” The coming of spring each year dropped the demand for coal for home heating to a fraction of its winter-time levels; so severe were these warm-weather slowdowns that many mines simply closed down for the summers. The industry also was plagued by the existence of many more mines than were necessary to meet demand; the resulting overproduction meant that few mines worked all the time. Finally, just prior to the spring expiration of the biennial wage pacts between the miners and the coal operators, major coal consumers stockpiled coal in anticipation of protracted contract disputes. Accordingly, demand for coal slumped badly after the signing of each new contract as large customers drew upon these fuel reserves to meet their needs.

These factors, aggravated by occasional strikes and shorter layoffs scattered throughout the rest of the year, kept most miners idle for four out of every 10 working days. In the year ending June 10, 1913, Sangamon County mines worked an average of only 181 days out of a possible 300 working days.

The economic effects of irregular work on the miners and their families were devastating. The Sage Foundation survey team reported:

Miner after miner told the same story of idle days and uncertain work. A few instances will illustrate. An “entry” man who could make $15 to $20 a week counted on work only half the time. A German miner who could make up to $8 a day usually received only $24 to $30 for two weeks’ work. The wife of a Lithuanian complained that her husband’s work was always irregular — only one or two days of work a week. If he could have only three full days of work at $5 a day regularly, she would be perfectly content. An experienced miner forty-four years of age could make $7 a day. Even with three days of work a week his wife declared she could save. She was seen on May 29, and he had had no work since April 1 and there was no prospect of any until September…

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A Sangamon County miner in 1914 was paid from 57 cents to $1.27 a ton for coal, depending on the nature of the seam being worked. At these rates, a miner working steadily could bring in $5 a day, and in some cases as much as $7 or $8; his potential yearly income thus would amount to $2,000. In fact, many of Sangamon County’s 3,500 miners, their potential incomes slashed by more than a third by forced idleness, earned less than $600 a year. “I put in twenty-seven years in the underground coal mines,” one miner recalls, “(and) I was never out of debt in those years.” Many local miners were forced to seek work elsewhere when the mines were shut down. If they did not, they had to buy their groceries on credit (or “on the book”) and let rent and other bills pile up and hope that the pits would reopen before their creditors’ patience ran out.

Art Gramlich, another veteran miner, remembers what layoffs and strikes meant to the miners:

When (the miners) came out on a strike, when the contract expired, you would get yourself ready for a hell of a long goddam time, because you could strike all summer, because (the operators) didn’t need the coal anyhow — at least most of them didn’t. They would just wait until November. By that time you was pretty well wrinkled up in the gut. You’d pretty near sign for anything, because the grocery man was hollering and the rent man wanted you to pay some rent because you been there six months and hadn’t paid a dime.

Against such forces, the lone miner had no defense. Against these enemies he needed the union. The battle to form unions against the mine owners’ opposition, and later factional battles within the union movement itself, formed a violent chapter in central Illinois history. Sangamon County was the scene of some of the worst of the violence during the Illinois “Mine Wars” of the 1920s and ’30s.

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