The Wisdom of Old Blair Mountain

Posted by | September 15, 2014

Wilma Lee SteelePlease welcome guest author Wilma Steele. Steele is the former Mingo County Conservation Supervisor for the Guyan District at the West Virginia Conservation Agency and a retired art teacher from Mingo County schools. She is a board member of the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, WV, which is scheduled to open later this year. “I love the history of Blair,” she says. “A group of people that spoke different languages, had different cultures, and sometimes race, yet they bridged the differences. They became a brotherhood for change.”


Guns are now silent! The blood stained earth, spent shell castings, and unmanned cannon stand as the silent evidence of what happened on old Blair Mountain. Ninety years now she’s kept the past a secret. Her story is only whispered now and then among poets and scholars, or retold by a few of the miners’ sons & daughters.

The edge of Blair Mountain battlefield.

The edge of Blair Mountain battlefield.

Blair Mountain stood strong as the world changed. Don Chafin and President Harding thought their victory would bring them lasting fame, but few remember them, and those who do only remember their shame. Roosevelt, instead, took center stage. He brought in a New Deal and made way for a new powerful union.

King Coal no longer owned his workers! With the UMW, the miners stood united. At the company store script had no value and miners’ pockets jingled with copper and silver. The miners even bought their own houses. They carried in the few precious things that hadn’t been destroyed when Baldwin Felts pitched them out on the streets. Upon their walls they hung pictures of FDR and John L. Lewis in the place of honor – beside of Jesus and their old banjo.

Sounds of music and the whistle of the train drifted in the wind. Blair Mountain stood quietly above the new road and cars. It seemed as if she was watching as big new machines were brought up the mountain. King Coal no longer needed so many workers! Blair watched as many miners packed up their families, their red bandannas, their ginseng hoes, and their banjos: they left their mountains.

It seemed like they took some of the mountaineers’ heart and soul with them. Money was rolling in the hills now but only a few were getting rich. Coal operators were still doing well. Miners’ wages were much higher. The UMW owned 75% of their own D.C. Bank, as well as their own journal. This new UMW president had his wonderful accomplishments printed in their paper.

Under the leadership of Kerr, the miners would soon have new hospitals, and they would really need them. The new machines roll out the tonnage, as well as the black clouds. The miners’ faces looked as if they had been sand blasted with coal dust. Wise doctors saw miners that were old men at age forty and identified the cause as black lung. Our union, which fought so hard for rights of workers, was now as silent as Old Blair on the subject.

The death rattle of the coal miners’ lungs brought Dr. Buff and Dr. Rasmussen to champion their cause. They were joined by Ken Hechler, Nader and his Raiders, and other honest men. The powerful were silent: where were our senators and where was our strong union? The miners marched to Charleston with only a few champions, but they had the truth that would not be ignored. Their wisdom reached across party lines to Cleo Jones. It was a good thing, too, because his sharp eyes caught the sly change of one word that would have made the bill powerless. The bill became the law.

Farmington Mine Disaster. Smoke and flames pouring from the Llewellyn shaft of the Consol No. 9 mine on November 20, 1968.

Farmington Mine Disaster. Smoke and flames pouring from the Llewellyn shaft of the Consol No. 9 mine on November 20, 1968.

A powerful explosion ripped through the mountain; it was almost as loud as the gun powder at the Battle of Blair Mountain. At Farmington Mine, 78 miners perished and 19 bodies were never recovered. Surely Tony Boyle and others would be awakened by such a sound – the miners’ cries were blocked out by the sounds of money. The old champions once again heard their call. Nader and two of his raiders, along with Finnegan, joined Ken Hechler. Their goal was now safety for our men. The ghosts of Blair must have rejoiced when Heckler’s Mine Safety Bill became a law – it even put a limit on the miners’ old foe: dust from the black coal.

The UMW that the Red Bandanna Army had given their life for had now betrayed them under the leadership of one evil man with the blood of many miners, as well as the Yablonski family, on his hands. This dark red stain would be blight upon the union until this day. Fools would sing, “Union against the worker working against his will…” and men that didn’t remember would join right in!

Dark clouds enveloped old Blair. Now the earth trembled with mountain eating machines and sounds of blasts that roared like thunder across our land. Mountains and the union were brought to her knees. A new Don was on the scene! His goal was to make even more money than the old coal barons. The only things in his way were the union and the memories of Old Blair, so both had to be destroyed. This time the weapons were sly propaganda, political might, bought Judges, and dynamite.

Not since Normandy had the world seen such an all out assault. With Reagan and the Bushes in the White House and coal lobbyists controlling all protective agencies, our mountains didn’t stand a chance. The coal miner’s best friends–the union, the McGraws, and even the old Lion Ken Hechler–were thrown out or powerless. Acts of violence against the union miners were common and every act of retaliation was caught on film. The union men once again were brought before the judge. Don cried out, “Remember Boyle, see the tape, the UMWA is nothing but thugs! Good men don’t need any union!” The people bought his lies.

Friends of Coal Ladies

Friends of Coal brought a new education to our schools. Children were given tee shirts and pizza to celebrate Earth Day on top of a blasted away mountain. Children looked out at the glorious vista of sun, clouds, and still untouched mountains and the vision was so grand they didn’t look down on the nearly barren ground. Mighty machines also kept their attention. Gone were the mighty oaks, hickory, and maple; in their place were pine, locust, and scrub grasses. Like the propaganda, it was everywhere.

Coal was even in our classrooms, with coal fairs becoming more popular than science and social studies fairs. If you won at science or history, you got a ribbon but King Coal gave out checks. Only a few, and it’s mostly the younger ones, still thought mere ribbons were worth their time.

The miners were now Friends of Coal! They noticed neither the clouds of dust nor the moment that the old union miners lost their jobs, health cards and pensions. Good miners that worked for 20-30 years were no longer needed. The UMWA had a real struggle now to save union miners from being forsaken in their last years. Old Blair looked down and wept for their despair.

The UMWA had new leaders, ones that really cared, but the Friends of Coal signs were everywhere. New hope rose in the mountains when Bill Blizzard’s own became UMWA President. He spoke about our lost mountains. Before anything could be done, Don was now calling his new miners lazy. King Coal wanted to replace them with new immigrants. The new President spoke out and brought up the past, including old Blair. A few of the Friends of Coal began to listen. Big Coal stopped their talk and repaired the damage with lies.

They had to reign in Roberts and blast away union history at Old Blair Mountain. They gave Roberts an offer for new union members. New members were to be MTR workers who weren’t really miners, but destruction workers. They made their living blasting away our mountains. With declining union membership and many retired miners pensions on the line, Cecil took the bait. Our UMWA now resided over the destruction of our homes and mountains.

Larry Gibson. Art by Robert Shetterley/Americans Who Tell the Truth

Larry Gibson. Art by Robert Shetterley/Americans Who Tell the Truth

Wise mountaineers never forgot. They mourned the loss of their mountains and streams. They held out against King Coal and his propaganda machine. They prayed; they wrote letters; they spoke the truth in the face of their enemy. Old Blair had her own King—Kenny King—a descendant of Blair’s earlier battle. With his metal detector, he uncovered history. Other mountains had their wise defenders: up at Kayford, Larry Gibson was bringing new comers right up to “Hell’s Gate.” Old Mountaineers held onto their minds and wisdom and would never be silenced! They joined with other wise ones, many old union miners, ones that knew the truth and would stand and fight for their mountain homes!

New sounds echoed in the mountains. Old Blair watched as out-of-state cars drove by. The passengers seemed familiar. They wore red bandannas, and on their backs were banjos and fiddles. When they met the old mountaineers, strangers became family. The youngsters hiked through the mountains finding ginseng and herbs to heal the sick: they felt the energy and call of the mountain and they yearned to learn more. Old tired warriors were renewed with the energy of youth. They laughed and danced when called outsiders, tree huggers, and lazy tramps.

Old Blair’s history touched their hearts! Together with the old mountaineers and with the old Lion Hechler, they planned to march. On the anniversary of D-Day, June the 6th, 2011 their march began, and on June the 11th, it ended. Those who forgot their history will not remember the significance of these dates. Wise ones know that June the 11th was never the end, but just the beginning. Back on June the 11th, 1776, our Continental Congress nominated a committee—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—to draft a declaration of independence from Britain.

So listen up! The history of the present King Coal of WV is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over this state. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.[1] King Coal owns our land and our politicians! Instead of wise stewards, their greed leads them to ignore mining safety. Our miners are dying once more. They care nothing for our history, our safety, or our homes. They blast away our mountains, pollute water and air. Our politicians protect coal’s power, even trying to force our nation to allow such crimes. Don’t you remember that all men are created equal? Listen, my friends — Big Coal can no longer destroy our land and endanger our people.

[1] Paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence

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