John Rice Irwin, founder of the fabulous Museum of Appalachia just off Highway 75 near Knoxville, Tenn, chose coal miners as the subject of his Christmas message this year that I just received from my good friend.
“This year I honor the coal miners,” he began. “No group has sacrificed and gave so much and received so little for their laborious contributions. To paraphrase a line from President Lincoln, they were ‘little noted nor long remembered.’ I am presenting glimpses of a few of these remarkable souls in the hope it will prompt us to appreciate their contributions to America.
Irwin began with Charlie Slover who many called the coal-mining genius of Jellico, Tenn. It was quiet and peaceful when John Rice sat and talked with him, asking about his early years.
“I was born on the edge of Jellico where my daddy worked in the coal mine, on and off, all his life,” Stover began. “There were 5 of us boys and we were as poor as Job’s turkey. I remember one time we went five days with nothing to eat except wild onions that we gathered down in the meadow.
“When I was 10 years old I would hang around the mine entrance and I noticed they had drilled a small hole in the mountain that was only 12 inches high – from the bottom to the top – too small for a man to get in. I was so skinny they said a strong puff of wind would blow me away; so they put me to digging in there. It was way back under the mountain. I couldn’t even crawl into it. I had to scooch in on my belly. I would dig the coal as long as I could and then I’d have to wiggle my way out to rest because I couldn’t turn over.
“When I got to be about 13 they put me on as a regular miner doing a man’s work. I dug until I was severely injured in 1926 in a cave-in and wasn’t able to work in the mines anymore.
“I began reading everything I could get my hands on, items about medicine, electricity, steam engines, science, art and history. I’ve studied all my life and thought a lot about things. I learned to repair anything that had to be fixed around the mine and in the community. I repaired appliances, sewing machines, cash registers HVAC services, etc. I finally opened Slover Electrical Company here in Jellico. Business was so good that with the help of my boys I opened two more stores.”
It proved very successful. John Rice Irwin asked Charlie what he had been doing since his retirement.
“I started painting scenes in the community and around the mines,” he answered. “The largest oil painting I did was a 36 foot X 18 foot mountain mural. It’s really quite large.”
Mr. Irwin interrupted him at this point, exclaiming “Yeah, I bought it and use it as a backdrop for the auditorium stage at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn.
It has been viewed by nearly a million visitors and many of the most famous musicians have had their picture taken with it in the background. I understand you built a steam engine that you made using scrap metal for every part.”
Jim McCoy, the lone survivor of the Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902 was the second miner Irwin referred to in his Christmas note. McCoy was sick that day – May 19, 1902 – thereby escaping what was called the most disastrous mine explosion in America. At 7:30 in the morning, a few minutes after the men and boys had just entered the mine the explosion killed some 200 miners.
“I knew nearly every one of them,” McCoy told John Rice years later when they talked about the disaster. “They were from right here in Fraterville and from the nearby mountains and hollows.”
“Most of the miners died instantly but some lived as many as 7-8 hours. Some of the remains couldn’t be identified. There were messages that some of the dying miners wrote when they knew they were dying: as they were smothering to death.”
Jacob L. Vowell wrote “Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in a bad condition.” Henry Speech penned, “Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie.” Scott Chapman professed, “I have found the Lord. Do change your way of living.” Jacob A. Brooks wrote, “Dear wife and baby, I want you to go back home and take the baby, so goodbye. I am going to heaven. I want to meet you there.” George Hutson said “If I don’t see you no more bury me in the clothing I have.” Powell Harmon, concerned about his sons wrote, “Boys never take up working in the coal mines. Henry and Condy be good boys and stay with your mother and trust for Jesus sake.” The two boys did not heed their father’s warning and were killed nine years later in the Cross Mountain explosion of 1911.
Opal Hatmaker was the Sweetheart of the Mountains living with her parents and 12 children in a small house on the outskirts of Briceville Tenn. One night after dark, her father walked some four miles in the cold rain from the mine where he worked. He arrived home cold, wet and shivering. Soon he developed pneumonia and died.
How could the widow keep and care for her children? Opal’s mother taught her to hand-stitched quilts. She began making them and sold them for a pittance. She taught all of her children, including the boys to quilt. The boys were ashamed to let the neighbor boys know they did woman’s work so they would hide whenever the neighbors came by.
Opal worked for John Rice’s Museum of Appalachia later, demonstrating old time quilting and other crafts. When the World’s Fair came to Knoxville in 1982 she became an instant hit, the World’s Fair people saying she was one of the most popular in the Folk Life Center. Opal, the humbled coal miner’s daughter was a warm and gentle soul who touched the lives of people from around the world.
Cas Walker, the most colorful coal-miner of southern Appalachia, started working in the mine at a young age, working two eight-hour shifts a day. He saved his money until he accumulated enough to open numerous grocery stores in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky He moved to Knoxville where he became famous for finding talest and advertised his grocery chain on radio and television. Dolly Parton, Tennessee Ernie Ford and many others credit him for their start.
While most miners spent their lives digging coal and died penniless, Cas Walker went on to become one of the most popular men in the area and mayor of Knoxville. Chris and I produced live shows with the premier acts in bluegrass and old-time country music. Cas would always have his nurses bring him to our shows when we presented Hall of Fame great Jimmy Martin & the Sunny mountain Boys who received a gold-record for Will the Circle be Unbroken. We always saved front row seats for Cas and at an appropriate time provided a microphone for him to salute Jimmy and all the mountain folks in attendance.
John Rice Irwin bids you adieu with the time-worn phrase: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (with honest and heartfelt feelings.)
Author’s note; Anyone wishing to send this great American and Tennessean a Christmas and/or New Year wish may do so at John Rice Irwin, 111 Acuff Lane, Clinton, Tenn 37716. It really tickles him to hear from you.
A Voice for God – A Voice for Good
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. After graduating from UK I worked in Missouri for 23 years before my wife Chris and I moved back to my home area in 1985. I did well in the insurance business but didn’t want to continue it indefinitely. I continued to service many insurance clients initially on guaranteed increase options plus their other needs but I didn’t work at securing new clients.
The Wilderness Road Kiwanis Club was starting up and I knew it would be a good benefit to the community and area. I became a member right away and helped in getting speakers each week and took their picture with some of our members, submitting them to the area papers for publication. It was natural for me because as a club member at UK, I got business magnate Garvice Kincaid, U.S. Public Health Service Murray Diamond and others to lecture before our group.
Dr. Gary Joe Burchett, president of Lincoln Memorial University, noticed my efforts for Kiwanis and asked that I come aboard and help with the radio and TV activity at the fast-growing college.
A seed was sown and my life took on a new direction. I did regular on-air radio deejay work on Saturday mornings and a regular “30 Minute With” TV show on the new station. Later it became an hour show “Mountain Music and Conversation” with some national and many up and coming acts. I went out to concerts and festivals, interviewing artists to play back locally. I became the host at Tombstone Junction with weekly shows featuring , George Jones, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and many more. When Tombstone Junction burned in the early 1990’s my wife Chris and I incorporated and started producing our own shows with many of the top artists in entertainment. Our radio show is streamed worldwide each week.
At the time I began working at LMU I expanded my writing to a history column “From the Mountains” and more recently a column “A Voice for God – A Voice for Good.” Both have been and are widely published in newsprint and can be read worldwide on the internet.
Why all this braggadocio? I don’t mean it as such! When we moved back here from Missouri we didn’t even know what we may do…. what kind of work we may do. We prayed for God to lead us.
Chris has always been interested in pets so we considered a store specializing in pet products. In the end she enrolled at LMU and got a degree in Veterinary Medicine and later a Bachelors and Masters in Business.
Our good Lord in Heaven has been so good to us in many respects and he will be to you if you keep Him in your thoughts and prayers… and thank Him for His blessings. Thank you Dear Lord for all you do for me! Help me to be more like you!