It was very interesting to learn about some of the ways they lived a generation ago from us through my wife’s family. I used to inquire by asking my mother in law, Estelle, and some stories from my father in law, Everett who wrote dozens of stories for their local paper in Jenkins, KY.
Note: going back in my wife Tammy’s family nearly every man on either side were coal miners, her father Everett was a coal miner for a short time and joined the Army then later the Air Force where he had a distinguished, high ranking career. His brother was killed in a coal mine.
These are a tough people who in the 30’s-60’s many times made their own soap and used washboards to clean clothes by hand down at the crick (creek). The women worked from sun up to sun down, chores were non stop, they got old fast. This may be a reason why the girls got married when they were 13-16 years old, I guess you would be an “old maid” by 20!
One of our favorite movies is the true story of the Coal Miners Daughter about the life and career of Loretta Lynn who was raised in Butcher Hollow (holler), Kentucky not too far from where my wife’s parents were raised. It was extremely rare for someone to make it out of these small coal mining communities and become successful! Lives were shorter and harder, many times the men took to drinking as a comfort, this added to the rough diets, and black lung made life short.
To eat meant basics from in town and slaughtering their pig or cow, it meant “canning” fruit (mason jars) for the winter, and going hunting for wild game. Staying warm in the winter was about cutting and stacking wood for the stove for cooking that also served as the heater for the whole house which was usually a one bedroom small structure up a dirt road. At night blankets were piled thick on the bed and you could feel the weight of them, wind may blow in a few cracks in the single board walls, rain may leak through the roof in a few places, 5 kids may be in one room or bed.
Water was pumped from a well and the bathroom was a small outhouse out back. Electricity was somewhat common but usually for a washer and clothes press dryer, laundry was hung out to dry on lines. Many had refrigerators and outside contact was a newspaper from in town or a radio, few had televisions.
Another favorite movie of ours is October Sky about high school kids with dreams beyond coal mining. If you haven’t seen this movie put it at the top of your list! It’s great acting and is pretty much exactly how life was, except this takes place in a coal mining town not out in a hollow so life is a bit easier.
My mother in law was born and raised near Pound, Va in a hollow, she left to work in a toy factory in Detroit at the age of 13! We actually have a toy wooden truck she made! This didn’t last long as her dad came and brought her back home being too young yet to be out on her own!
Note: the small town of Pound, Va is also where Napoleon Hill was born who I write about in my post about Think and Grow Rich, known as the father of motivational literature who took his cue from mega millionaire and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
By joining the Air Force, my father in law was able to get his new family away from the harsh life of the coal mining communities and onto base housing from places like HI to Germany. Finally settling at Travis AFB at Fairfield, Ca where I lived and Tammy, the youngest of 8 children, lived only a couple blocks away but I never met her till later.
One time after we were married, we moved in with her parents for a few months while we found another place to live and I rebuilt their old style fireplace area with the help of Tammy’s brother and I added a wood burning fireplace insert stove. I had bought some coal to try out in the stove; I added a few large chunks. In a while I felt an intense heat as I walked by the living room area, a look at the stove and I noticed it was a dull red! The temp gauge on the side was over 700! My mother in law asked me, “How much coal did you put in?“, I told her a few large pieces, she laughed and said you only needed one! Let me tell you, coal, used to melt steel, that stuff burns hot!
Note: my grandfather also worked some as a carpenter in silver mines in northern California.
That’s a little look at life in the coal mines back east, most of us never had to live this way or even understand just how tough this lifestyle was, this is why I asked a lot of questions, it was very interesting! Till next time, God Bless,