Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Coal Corner

Larry's coal collection. On the wall beside the shelf is a miner's belt (name on it is S.E.Bragg), a miner's pick and a coal shovel.

My husband has been quietly collecting coal-mining items for the past two years, and has quite a nice collection now. His stuff frequently goes a-storytelling with me. We had to make a place for his collection, and it finally settled in the log room.
Larry remembers many of these tools from his childhood, but like all of his father's mining things, no one thought of saving them--they were to be used and discarded when their use was over.

This picture shows many of his items:

left to right: on the wall, his Dad's mining certificate (dated 3-19-42, when he was 26 and had just joined the union). Below the certificate is a collection of Larry's family photos-grandparents, his parents and his Aunt Cora (pronounced Cory); on top of the shelf a miner's lunch pail (it has three parts--the lid, then a section that holds the lunch that nests into the lower section that holds water). The miner's cup is hanging onto the pail by a piece of
cap wire, or wire used to detonate blasting caps. Next to the lunch bucket is a miner's safety lamp, with a protective screen that keeps the flame contained. The picture of a miner is not a family picture, but one I found in a junk shop and was so struck by I had to bring it home. That man looks proud of his work.

On the next shelf is a miner's hardhat, this one for working in low coal (usually described as 30"-50" high seam); my bottle of turpentine (often used as medicine in my husband's childhood), and an old miner's lamp. Behind the lamp is a frame that holds scrip, the coins paid out to miners as loans by the coal companies, and to be redeemed only in the companies' stores.

Next shelf holds an assortment of carbide lamps (these hang on the front of the miner's hardhat) a box that held a carbide lamp originally, a miner's self-rescuer kit, and my collection of Prince Albert tobacco cans. Since the can features prominently in a story about Larry that I tell, I try to keep a stock of them in case I misplace one (as has happened on two occasions).

The bottom shelf holds an old cloth miner's hat that predates the hardhat by 40 years or so, a battery powered miners light, a crow call (to go with a story about Larry's pet crow he had as a boy), a carbide can, an old patent medicine bottle and a couple of books about mining. Under the cloth cap is a container of carbide. We have occasionally lit the carbide lamps, but not often because of the smell. It's astounding to think that with the danger of methane open flames were used for years in the mines.

The most recent item added is the dynamite box, found at a flea market. Larry remembers many such boxes from his childhood, but like all his father's mining tools, no one thought of saving such things--they were to be used and discarded when their use was over.

And last, but definitely not least, this eight-foot breast auger. These tools were used by miners to drill back into the coal face. Dynamite charges were then rammed into the hole and set off using the cap wire (more involved process than that, but that's the basic idea). Larry used one of these when he was a boy to drill in the columns left by the strip miners. They'd drill the columns and blast them to get "house coal," or coal to be used in the home for cooking and heating. What they did was illegal and very dangerous (think "retreat mining" as the miners who were recently trapped in Utah were doing). But it provided coal for their home, and in the times when his Dad was injured, laid off or working non-union it helped keep them warm and fed.

We found this breast auger in two parts--first the auger, then the breast plate--at Chester Bills' shop in St. Mary's over a period of a few months. Usually selling for over $100 these days, we were able to get ours for $15 per piece. Larry painted it, and found sturdy brackets to hang this heavy piece of metal in the log room.

That's the collection so far. The more I learn about mining the more it fascinates me. It's the people, really, that draw me. What manner of man will go below ground got 8 hours or more a day, crawl through tunnels that might be 5 or more miles long, and know that at any time the top could cave in on him, or that he might get into a pocket of deadly gas, or the wall might break through and water come rushing in? Who could face that every day?

Much as I try to fathom it, I cannot get my mind around it. Today there are still men doing this job, and although safety has improved, the danger is ever-present. I think of them, and pray for them, every time I turn on a light switch.

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