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A Tale Of Coal & Classrooms
Learning In The Early Days Of Coal Mining
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of Canal Stories, a series brought to you by the Canal Corridor Association to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the communities that were shaped by its legacy. This Sunday, September 17th, songwriting historian, Bucky Halker, will be hopping aboard the I&M Canal Boat in LaSalle to perform his free Illinois Humanities Road Scholars Speakers Bureau presentation, “Down In The Mine: American Coal Miners And Their Songs, 1890-1960.” The coal mining boom of the late 1800s brought thousands of people to northern Illinois, and workers had a long-standing tradition of writing poetry and music related to their occupation. While you might not immediately think of coal miners as bards and folksingers, there were actually quite a few scholastic paths that gave coal miners and their children the tools needed to foster artistic expression and creative freedom. Today, we’re taking a look at education in the early days of Illinois mining. This story comes to us from the Coal City Library District. It was written by Dianne Thorgmorton, and was originally published in "Concerning Coal: An Anthology."
Pioneering coal mining families moved their meager belongings wherever and whenever was necessary to be close to the mines for work. Children of those families often were put to work in the mines at an early age, to help their fathers make a living digging coal. Some children were employed as oiler boys, breaker boys, or slate pickers, and some were put in charge of the animals. Others were employed for general work, or to just bring food to the miners.
Education was sadly neglected before child labor laws were introduced. Parents, needing the welcomed addition to the family income, did not object to the youngsters joining their fathers in the mine. They also believed they were helping the children to learn a trade, accepting the general belief that once a miner, always a miner, and that sons would follow in their father's footsteps.
Children of the first mining families gained their education at their mothers' knees. Usually this consisted of stories of their culture and history, along with the wages of sin and the ways of the Master. Early public education continued at church prayer meetings and community sings, in private homes, and later in brush arbor revivals and pioneer churches. The church schools opened their doors to all denominations, abandoning their strict theological principles for the good of the children.
As the mining camps grew, coal-camp schools were established. Some schools served several camps, making it necessary for children to trudge through mud in spring and fall, and snow in winter, and to walk along lonely roads across wooded mountains, often without proper clothing. Supplies, such as books, pencils, and paper, were rare. Children were expected to furnish their own books, and thus, many had none. No maps, library books, or even a dictionary existed in many of the schools. One writer tells of a school reporting that its "equipment consisted of 'nothing but a bell.'"
In the early 1900's, coal companies began to funnel great amounts of money into local schools in some areas. In one four-year period, companies in Logan County, West Virginia spent around $100,000 on education. During the same four-year period, coal companies in the county supplemented the teachers' incomes with monthly bonuses amounting to $6,000. This drew good teachers to the coalfields; however, it also gave coal companies enormous control over the educational system. Schoolteachers were not allowed to discuss labor issues, or they would lose their monthly bonuses and their jobs.
Teachers who were available to the mining camp schools were often preachers who had no formal education to speak of, and were usually young, inexperienced, underpaid, and overworked. They were expected to be housed from week to week with different mining families. The curriculum consisted strictly of the traditional three R's (reading, writing, and arithmetic), allowing no other vocational or intellectual courses to be taught.
These teachers may have been ridiculed in other areas of the land, however, they were held in awe at the mining camps. Miners, having had little chance for formal education themselves, deplored the lack of good schools for their children and appreciated the value of the teaching profession all the more. Most camp mothers and fathers never objected to spending something for improved schools for their children, even when it meant substantial sacrifices.
Improved schools coincided with organized labor unions. When a union entered a district, its first concern was the schools, which spurred many miners to support the union.
School buildings were usually of the same architecture as the company row houses. Some were log cabins constructed in cleared areas accessible to several camps. The log structures were one-room affairs with five corners, the fifth containing a huge wood-burning fireplace. Part of the boys study time was spent keeping its great maw plentifully supplied with logs. Seats and desks, if there were any, were sawed slabs of rough oak, and the seats had no backs. Some schools had boxes donated for children to sit on, and in others, the children sat on the floor.
Improvements to the interior of a school might consist of a huge horizontal sheet-iron stove with a big door at one end. Large logs could be burned in these stoves, providing better heat for the one room, but making the supply of logs harder to carry for the small boys. The task was not shied away from, however, since going for wood was a great opportunity to get outdoors and away from studying. Teachers had to develop a strict turn system, so that each boy could have his turn in order.
Age and previous progress determined the class a pupil was assigned to. Innovative teachers might inject additional courses into the three R's curriculum, but this was not always possible. Spelling bees between pupils and spelling matches between rival schools were both popular ways of teaching. Math problems were completed on the blackboard, if one was available, and recitations were in order for all classes.
If a child went on to high school, it would be necessary for him or her to hike several miles into the nearest town, since only elementary schools were available in the camps. A college education was out of reach of most miners' children, even at a tuition that today seems extremely low: $60.
Aside from the education of miners' children, coal miners themselves received training of a different kind. Early education for miners was on-the-job training. Miners, whether they were men or boys, learned by doing, observing, and by making their own mistakes. Formal education was abandoned early for most of them.
As the mines grew and the communities became more permanently established, other forms of education for miners became available. Safety concerns prompted government agencies to set safety standards for coal mines, resulting in the development of new safety equipment. Experimental blasting galleries were established to test explosives used in the mines, while rescue training schools were established to demonstrate and teach methods of rescuing miners from explosions or gassy mines.
The early 1900's brought new educational opportunities for miners. The coal companies believed that accidents were the fault of incompetent workers, and they hoped that a better-educated work force would not only reduce accidents, but increase coal production. Many companies created special schools to teach their workers to read and write. A less publicized reason for the coal companies wanting their workers to be better educated was that they believed that more intelligent workers would be better able to resist union organization. This extended to the public schools when classes in the properties of mine gasses, mine ventilation, the geology of coal, mining methods, and the care of mine-safety lamps were added to the curriculum to encourage sons of miners to follow in their father’s footsteps.
In the late 1940's, company magazines known as house organs became popular. They served not only as educational tools to make the miners aware of what was being done and why they were doing it, but they also served as morale boosters by giving recognition to the achievements of different men or members of their families, and to crews who had done something special or unusual.
The method of education that was possibly the most used by early miners was correspondence schools. Many miners who lacked formal education were intrigued by the idea of performing their studies in the comfort of their own living rooms. Courses were developed on many subjects, and miners could not only learn more about mining methods, but also expand their horizons with knowledge about any subject. Even the late John E. Jones, safety engineer at Old Ben Coal Company, used correspondence schools to further his education before he decided to return to college. He went on to develop and invent safety methods and procedures for mining that are still used today.
Another Illinois mining figure, Walton Rutledge, who was state mine inspector for more than 36 years, developed correspondence courses in mining and encouraged younger miners to use them to advance to foreman or superintendent of a mine. Rutledge never asked for, nor did he ever receive, a penny of compensation for these courses. Rutledge, it seems, was a forerunner in promoting the techniques that we know today as networking and mentoring.
That concludes today’s Canal Story. Thank you so much for joining us as we continue our journey through the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. If you’re in the area this Sunday, September 17th, be sure to check out Bucky Halker on the I&M Canal Boat at 1:30 PM. While the program is free, seats are limited, so go to iandmcanal.org to register. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, pass it along to your family and friends, leave us a like or a comment, and we’ll see you again very soon.
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For more resources pertaining to northern Illinois history, especially in Grundy County, check out the Grundy County GenWeb