From Mountain Men to Miners



Robert L. Stevens and Jared A. Fogel

Down in the valley,
the valley so low,
hang your head over,
hear the wind below.

—From “Down in the Valley,” a traditional mountain song


During most of the 19th century, life in the Appalachian region followed a traditional pattern of family farming on small plots of ground in valleys and uplands.1 Families lived in modest houses, tilled the ground with rough tools, and met their few commercial needs in village crossroads or towns. Over time, the natural growth of the population combined with a steady influx of immigrants—especially Germans and Scotch-Irish in the decades before the Civil War—and farms were carved out higher and higher in the mountains. Yet the mountains stood relatively unaltered. As one historian describes it:

Great forests of oak, ash, and poplar covered the hillsides with a rich blanket of deep hues, and clear sparkly streams rushed along the valley floor. No railroads had yet permeated the hollows. The mountain people lived in small settlements scattered here and there in the valleys and coves. Life on the whole was simple, quiet, and devoted chiefly to agricultural pursuits.2

Transformation of the region came quickly, as an industrializing society sought lumber for building and minerals for burning to power its machines. “As the forces of industrial capitalism reached out... the natural wealth of Appalachia grew more and more attractive. And, after 1880, the effort to tap these resources brought about dramatic changes in the mountains’ social order.”3

As families flocked into coal towns, the relationships among their members changed. Work was no longer a family enterprise. Fathers—and sons who were old enough—descended into the mines from dawn to dusk, living most of their lives in a state of darkness. Women and older daughters assumed more responsibility for bringing up children and maintaining the household. This “wrenching transformation of thousands of independent farmers living in lonely mountain cabins into work-disciplined miners swelling into crowded coal camps produced serious social disorganization.”4

Three aspects of the changes wrought by coal mining are examined here: the miners’ working conditions, the establishment of company towns, and the violence that ensued when miners tried to better their lives by joining labor unions. These resulted in a decade of strife between miners and coal operators in Harlan County, Kentucky, during the Great Depression.



The Working Conditions of Miners

We’re brave and gallant miner boys who
work down underground
For courage and good nature no finer can
be found
We work both late and early, and get but
little pay
To support our wives and children in free

—From a union song from western Pennsylvania, late 19th century


Coal mining is well documented as one of the most dangerous occupations in industrial society. Between 1908 and 1935, 50,000 U. S. miners died extracting coal. Mine explosions were commonplace and attracted the most attention. Miners lived in dread of “coal damp,” or methane gas, which could be ignited by a spark from a shovel to erupt in fast-moving flames. In a West Virginia mine in 1907, 366 miners lost their lives in a single explosion. Miners also feared a creeping death from carbon monoxide fumes, and took canaries down in the mines with them as an early warning system.

The vast majority of miner deaths were actually the result of slate falls. These occurred when a miner cut a wedge into a coal wall and drilled above it to place a dynamite charge; the weight of rock above the wedge could cause it to cave in prematurely. A curious phenomenon called “bumps” emerged in the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky, during the 1930s. Bumps were a “sudden violent explosion of coal from one or more pillars accompanied by a large report and earth tremors.”5 Apparently, the drive to extract coal faster caused companies to leave too few pillars of rock standing to support the mine ceiling safely.

In spite of the danger, underage boys became miners along with their fathers. Coal operators found hiring boys profitable because they could be paid a fraction of adult wages. Most boys working in the mines were between ten and fourteen. Although Progressive reformers succeeded in getting some states to pass laws limiting child labor to ten hours a day, enforcement of even this minimal effort to protect children was near to impossible. Typically, a boy could work longer if his parents signed a “miner’s release” swearing he was at least fourteen, and employers could be held responsible only for “knowingly” breaking the law.6

Most youths were “breaker boys” who spent their days sorting coal from slate as cars from the mine were unloaded down a chute in an unending stream of rock. One of the safer jobs in the mine, it nevertheless exposed these boys to asthma from constant dust, curvature of the spine from bending over all day, and occasional death or maiming by the machinery. In the film Harlan County USA, which documents a strike by Harlan coal miners in the 1970s, an elderly man recalls his days in a breaker room:

Well, we breaker boys would have our feet in the chute and we’d be picking the slate out when the breaker boss would sneak up behind us, and if he saw a piece of slate coming through, he’d pick up the slate and hit you in the back with it, and hit you hard. He’d say, “Pick up that slate.”7

Breaker boys were truants from school. Noted a reporter for a labor newspaper: “They play no games; when their day’s work is done they are too tired for that. They know nothing but the difference between slate and coal.”8

A miner’s life cycle thus began in a breaker shed until a youth was old enough to descend into the bowels of the mine. There he picked at rock walls, perhaps lying on his back all day in a low, water-drenched tunnel shaft. A miner could work up to the more prestigious jobs of setting explosives or loading coal, and a rare few became mine foremen. In old age or if partially disabled, a miner might work as a track man or electrician, or return to picking slate.


Life in a Company Town

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

—From “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford during the 1950s


As mountain people moved down into the coal camps sprouting up along railroad tracks, self-sufficiency was left behind. In its place came the company town, designed to provide for all the needs of a miner and his family—but, even more importantly, for all the needs of the coal company. As described by Winthrop Lane in 1924:

These towns are not the independent, many-sided communities that most small towns are...They stand on company land; they were built by the company; the store, the movie theater, the amusement hall, the little bank if there is one, the cafe, the ice cream parlor—all are run by the company. The school is often a company-built project, and so is the church.9

A curious paradox existed in the business class’s prevailing belief in Social Darwinism and the paternalism reflected in the growth of company towns. Social Darwinism applied Darwin’s theory that evolution in the natural world resulted from the “survival of the fittest” to human society. The paradox: presumably the less fit should be left to survive on their own or not; but Darwin’s theory, translated into the Gospel of Wealth, held that the “natura#148; leaders of society—generally identified as the leaders of industry—were obligated to help the unfit. Accordingly, during White House arbitration of the Pennsylvania coal strike of 1902, coal owners’ representative George Baer instructed President Theodore Roosevelt as follows:

The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests in this country.10

At the center of daily life in a company town was the company store. It provided the community with everything from miners’ tools, to groceries and household goods, to boots and dresses. Many people who grew up in coal towns have remembered the company store with at least some affection. For one thing, it was typically their only access to the pleasant things of life. And “going to the store” provided their main daily social occasion.11

But miners paid dearly for goods they were more or less forced to buy at the company store due to two company policies. One was a monopolistic prohibition of competitive businesses within the company town. The other was a policy of paying miners’ wages at least partly in scrip. Miners called these paper coupons or metal coins by many names, including “flickers,” “chinkytin,” “lolly,” “chicken feed,” and “funny money.”12 The advantage of scrip to the miner was that he could draw on his earnings before payday; the disadvantage was that he had to pay interest on this “loan.” Many mining families fell into an endless round of debt. One historian describes the effect of the scrip policy as follows:

Coal town managers insisted that scrip “educated miners to sound credit practices,” an opinion contradicted by cautious investigators of the U.S. Coal Commission who decided that prolonged use of scrip proved damaging to people.13

Perhaps the most potent use of the company store to control miners’ lives was the location of the post office within it. The storekeeper often doubled as postmaster and, while miners might be allowed to nominate candidates for the position, real choice was in the hands of the company. This entailed the loss of individual privacy at best, and the subjection of the community to constant spying at worst. “It was easy for the postmaster to serve the company by scanning incoming mail for radical literature or correspondence from labor leaders.”14

Finally, a company could control the lives of miners by threatening to evict them from their housing in case of a strike, and by the use of mine guards to keep union organizers from entering a company town. “Company-paid policemen ruled the streets and sidewalks of more than two hundred mining towns and camps” in Kentucky coal country, according to historian Harry Caudill.15 These powers were used extensively during the labor strife in Harlan County during the 1930s.


The Troubles in “Bloody Harlan”

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Which side are you on?

—from the 1930s union song “Which Side Are You On?”


“By the third decade of the Twentieth Century,” writes historian R. D. Eller, “the Jeffersonian dream in Appalachia had become a nightmare of exploitation, corruption and social tragedy. While the southern mountains remained a predominately rural area, changes in land ownership, economy, and the political system had left people dependent, impoverished, and powerless within a new alien social order.”16

Harlan County, Kentucky, was an especially hard case even before the labor troubles of the Depression era. In the 1920s, its homicide rate surpassed that of any other county in the United States, and was “seven times as high as Al Capone’s Chicago.”17 The reasons for this are complex, but may center on the recent development of the coal industry in this pocket of eastern Kentucky. In the first two decades of the century, the county’s population had increased over sixfold, from 10,000 to 64,000, with miners and their families constituting 61 percent of the population. Signs that the family structure was breaking down included an unusually high divorce rate (one in four marriages) and a growth in child desertion.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had long been active in the coal fields of Appalachia.18 But the progress made toward unionization during the national emergency of World War I was dissipated in Harlan County during the 1920s. Again, Hevener attributes this in part to the miners’ own stage of social development:

A first-generation industrial worker drawn from the impoverished hillside farms of the surrounding region, he possessed a fiercely independent spirit and had not yet accepted the idea of permanent working-class status...Not until he experienced firsthand the impact of the Great Depression with deteriorating work conditions, inadequate wages, and severe unemployment resulting from economic forces beyond the control of either himself or his paternalistic employer would the Harlan County miner be prepared to join the union.19

The troubles in “Bloody Harlan” began in January of 1931, when the coal industry in Harlan was becoming depressed. Coal companies were undergoing several blows to their profits: low coal use during the mild winter that had just passed, the general economic slowdown caused by the Depression, and a raise in railroad haulage rates higher than what their northern competitors were paying. Coal operators in Harlan County responded to these problems by cutting miners’ wages by 10 percent. Miners in turn responded by staging a walkout.

G. C. Jones was an eyewitness to the strike. This is how he described the methods used by mine operators to prevail in what both sides perceived as a struggle for survival:

The mine owners had organized themselves, and their organization was named the Harlan County Coal Operations Association. This body of men was the cause of many murders and beatings. They sent delegates to Frankfurt, the state capitol, with great sums of money to gain favors from their governor and the other state officials.”20

Although Jones’ account is partial, no one disputes the fact that the coal operators were in charge of the county government. Their successful candidate for sheriff in 1930, John Henry Blair, would say later of the strikes of 1931-32: “I did all in my power to aid the coal operators.”21 What Blair did was to deputize 169 men—among them 64 indicted and 37 convicted felons (all but a handful paid by the coal operators)—to break the strike by keeping union organizers out of Harlan and evicting troublesome miners from their homes. The miners called these men “gun thugs,” and accused them of pistol whipping miners who would not work as well as intimidating members of their families.

When miners retaliated—most flagrantly in the “Evarts ambush” that killed three deputies and wounded two others in May—the state of Kentucky sent 370 National Guardsmen into Harlan. At first welcomed by some miners, the placement of the county under martial law was soon seen by most as being intended not to keep the peace but to bring them to their knees.

Miners suffered slow starvation as they were closed out by the operators. In February, the Red Cross refused a request to send aid to the striking miners and their families on the basis that this was an industrial dispute. The federal government provided some relief to the unemployed, but in May, Kentucky Governor Sampson persuaded it to halt these food shipments. This left relief to the soup kitchens set up by the United Mine Workers. As the threat of starvation loomed larger, Gov. Sampson reversed himself to the extent of inviting the American Friends Service Committee to feed children enrolled in fifteen county schools.

Ultimately, most of the Harlan miners went back to work without any gains having come of the strike. As Hevener points out: “When strikers urged [National Guard] Colonel Carrell to request relief funds, the officer retorted that Black Mountain and Harlan collieries needed five hundred miners, and if the miners badly needed food, they should work for it. Ultimately, the miners were to be starved back into the pits.”22

The labor disputes in Harlan and elsewhere during the 1930s resulted in a series of controversial investigations and reports. One such document was Harlan Miners Speak, a series of interviews conducted in the coal fields by an independent committee headed up by novelist Theodore Dreiser. How the document gave cause for controversy is seen in the words of committee member Lester Cohen:

Today Harlan and Bell counties have heard the rattle of the machine guns, the roar of dynamite, the curse of thugs, and the multitudinous voices of industrial warfare. And the mountain men, once more Union, Republican, and revolutionary, are leaving their blood upon the ground...For the pioneer people have become the rebellious protestants of his majesty, King Coal.23

Controversy also erupted over reports of the Senate Civil Liberties Committee based on hearings conducted by Robert M. LaFollette, Jr, later in the decade. According to historian M. B. Schnapper, these hearings:

produced shocking revelations of ruthless efforts by employers to smash unions and intimidate workers through espionage and strong-arm tactics. A committee report covering the period 1933-1937 disclosed that 2,500 leading corporations relied on spies, stool pigeons, and agents to carry out anti-union activities.24

In Coal Towns, historian Crandall A. Shifflett points to two significant conclusions of the various governmental investigations: (1) the “standardized living and working conditions” of company towns “quickly and ruthlessly” destroyed old cultures, and (2) company towns “created a system of closed, artificial communities” that limited the growth of social freedom and self-determination.25

Although conditions for the miners of Appalachia improved somewhat as New Deal reforms took effect (the United Mine Workers were able to organize 92 percent of the mines in Harlan after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933), the Harlan County miners and their families were undoubtedly the victims of a great social tragedy extending over many decades—and, some would argue, into the present day.26 Their agrarian way of life become an anachronism, and they were forced to adjust overnight to an industrial system that ignored their dignity, stripped them of all vestiges of their former independence, and failed to compensate by recognizing any rights inherent in their new roles as industrial workers.



1. This article considers Appalachia to consist of those states or regions within states represented in the Appalachian Regional Commission. They are West Virginia in its entirety, and the Appalachian regions of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. See “Developing Appalachia,” The Washington Post (July 5, 1999): A19.

2. R. D. Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 111.

3. Eller, 38.

4. J. W. Hevener, “Which Side Are You On?” The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 25.

5. C. A. Shifflett, Coal Towns (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 104.

6. M. B. Schnapper, American Labor: A Pictorial Social History (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1972), 277.

7. Interview in Harlan County, USA, a 1976 documentary film produced and directed by Barbara Kopple and released by Cabin Creek Films. It won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

8. Quoted in Schnapper, 274.

9. Lane’s book, The Denial of Civil Liberties in Coal Fields is quoted in Schnapper, 454.

10. Quoted in Schnapper, 269.

11. Lou Athey, “The Company Town in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage 2, No. 1 (January 1990): 15.

12. Ibid., 11.

13. Ibid., 14.

14. Ibid., 10.

15. H. M. Caudill, Theirs Be the Power (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 122.

16. Eller, 5-6.

17. Hevener, 23.

18. J. H. M. Silett, ed., The United Mine Workers of America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

19. Ibid., 9-10.

20. G. C. Jones, Growing Up Hard in Harlan County (The University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 45.

21. Hevener, 16.

22. Ibid., 48.

23. Quoted in J. Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 84.

24. Schnapper, 501.

25. Shifflett.

26. In 1965, the poverty rate in Appalachia was one in three; by 1990, the rate had been cut in half. The largest pockets of remaining poverty are in West Virginia (most of the state), eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, and northeastern Mississippi. “Developing Appalachia,” The Washington Post (July 5, 1999): A19; Caudill contends that even today “in social and economic terms there are two Appalachias. One is made up of the people who live there, a few of whom are wealthy and the rest poor by national standards. The other, the corporate Appalachia of the combine, is very, very rich...Eastern Kentucky is a colony owned and managed by absentee landlords (151).”


Teaching Resources


Denise Giardina. Storming Heaven. New York: Fawcett, 1999.

—————. The Unquiet Earth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Richard Llewellyn. How Green Was My Valley. New York: Scribner, 1997. (Orig pub 1939)

John Dos Passos. U. S. A. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Wallace Stegner. Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel. New York: Penguin USA, 1990.


Harlan County, USA


The Molly McGuires

How Green Was My Valley


Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC):

Eckley Miners Village (My Trip to):

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA):


Robert L. Stevens is associate professor of middle grades and secondary education in the College of Education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.
Jared A. Fogel is co-owner of Statesboro Fine Arts.


Teaching with Pictures

The graphics in this article represent two periods in the transformation of parts of Appalachia from a rural farming society to an industrial coal-producing region. All of the photographs were taken during the first two decades of the century. The drawings by artist Seymour Fogel were made during the 1930s.

“Miner’s Children and Houses Near Hazelton, Pa.” is a stereopticon view made by the Keystone View Company in 1903. Two other photographs, “Tipple Boy” and “Group of Boy Coal Miners,” were taken by Lewis W. Hine in 1908 to document the working conditions of child miners for the National Child Labor Committee. “Miner’s Families Awaiting News” dates from 1914 and is probably a news photo.

The drawings by Seymour Fogel (pp. 262, 267) were made in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1934, during the decade of labor strife between miners and coal operators. Fogel was an artist with left-wing sympathies who worked with muralist Diego de Rivera and later painted murals for the WPA Federal Art Project.

Provide students with copies of the article and ask them to study the pictures and read the accompanying captions. Then ask students to choose one of the following activities:


Activity 1. Using Pictures as Primary Sources

When using graphics as a primary source in history, it is important to consider not only the subject itself, but the artist’s intention and use of technique in presenting the subject. Choose one photo or drawing from this article and describe it in terms of:

> its historical content (including any background information about the picture or the photographer/artist)

> its ideological content (does the picture appear realistic? does it appear to reflect a particular intention of the photographer/artist? or both?)

> its technical content (any aspects of making this picture that appear chosen to convey a particular meaning)

> its emotional impact as you perceive it


Activity 2. Using Pictures to Promote Inquiry

Adopt the role of an investigative reporter who is working with the photographer/artist who created one of the pictures in this article. Use the picture to create a set of questions you would like to ask the person(s) portrayed in the picture. (For example, what would you ask to learn more about child miners, life in a company town, or the labor strife in Harlan County during the 1930s?) You can extend this activity to create a full interview between the reporter and the person(s) in the picture.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.