Company coal town in Kempton, W.V., 1939. Open ditches carry sewage down the street. Safety film negative. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Photo by John Vachon.

“Why are you scrubbing the floor at nine o’clock at night?” Nicky asked his wife, Anna. “With the coal dust everywhere, it just gets dirty again,” he said.

“There are dirty-faced kids all over this coal town, but my children won’t be one of them,” Anna responded, as she used both hands on the brush to scrub the stained wooden floor.

Anna couldn’t stand the dirt. That’s not how she was raised during her younger years on the farm in western Ukraine where she remembers deep blue skies, the golden hue of wheat fields, the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay.

But now, here she was on her knees scrubbing the dirty floor of the cramped company house in the dust-filled coal town of Farmington, West Virginia, thinking of her children. I can’t keep them clean in this hell hole. Anna thought about the floors, about her children, and about her life following Nicky from coal field to coal field. It was mid-January of 1926, just one week after Greek Orthodox Christmas, and it was cold. Anna had to keep the fire lit in the kitchen in order to scrub the worn floor before it froze and iced over.

“Nicky, I need to go to the store tomorrow to buy milk and flour for making bread for the children. How are we doing on money?” Anna asked as she dipped her scrub brush into the gray, dirty water in the wash bucket, afraid of the answer she would get.

“We already owe them too much money. I can’t get ahead of the bills with what they pay me,” Nicky complained as he looked away from his wife and to the glowing fire in the kitchen stove. “You’re gonna have to make do,” he said, focusing his gaze on the fire.

Life in the coal fields was hard on everyone. The coal companies extracted more than coal from the land. They extracted the health, the livelihood, and the future from the miners and their families. The miners were paid in script instead of dollars because the script could only be spent in the company stores. Too often the script wasn’t enough to make ends meet, especially because the companies inflated prices at the store. That forced the miners to go into debt to the company just to buy food for their families. It wasn’t unusual for the coal companies to make as much money from the miners’ payment for housing and food as they did from selling the coal that the miners dug.

Finished with her scrubbing, Anna struggled to get up from her knees as she winced from the kicking baby in her belly. Not quite 30 years old, Anna had four children and now another was just a few months away.

“C’mon, Anna, you need to rest. Let’s go to bed,” Nicky said as he held out his callused and coal-stained hands to help her up.

Nicky’s a good man, Anna thought, as she gladly grabbed his hands for help. He’s a rascal, but he’s good to me and the children.

Nicky had moved his family from Western Pennsylvania to northern West Virginia because he was being hunted by the coal company’s hired police. Nicky was a “bootlegger,” which in the coal business is a fellow who locates a vein of coal to mine on his own, so he can sell his self-dug product to willing buyers. Of course, this was illegal since the coal company owned the rights to all of the coal under all of the mountains in the region. In Nicky’s eyes, everyone got what they needed. He earned extra money for his family; his friends and customers saved money on coal; and the “boss man coal company” took one on the chin.

The mining companies blackballed Nicky so he could no longer work in Western Pennsylvania under his own name. The pressure became too much, especially with Anna pregnant again. Nicky moved the family to Farmington, West Virginia, and found work using an alias—Nick Zapatosky—the name under which he would die.

Left: Author’s grandmother Anna with her youngest child, Nick, with whom she was pregnant at the time of this story. Photo courtesy of the author. Right: Tipple and elevator into shaft, leads down to mine 200 feet below, in Gary, W.V., 1908. Photographic print. National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine.

The sun rose red the next day in a haze of coal dust. Anna was up early to light the stove and make Nicky his breakfast of coffee and oatmeal. She would have loved to fix him his favorite eggs and sausage, but who could afford that? Nicky finished his breakfast and kissed Anna on the cheek as he put on his well-worn winter coat. “I can go with you to the store when I get home. Maybe we can pry some more credit out of them for food for the kids,” Nicky said as he grabbed his dented aluminum lunch pail and hard hat before stepping into the cold to join his fellow miners trudging through the blackened snow.

I’m going to have to get Johnny to help me haul water and get some more wood for the stove, Anna said to herself. She thought about her oldest who wouldn’t turn seven until the end of March, but when his papa was out working, Johnny tried to be the man of the house. Then Anna thought of Edward, a Quaker fellow who had taken a liking to the kids, even giving them oranges for Christmas. Oranges. Where in the world did he get those?

Edward was a Quaker and a member of American Friends Service Committee, or AFSC. The Quakers were good to the miners’ families. When the mine workers union was just forming in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it was AFSC that made sure the families had food to eat during the bloody and protracted labor strikes.

Anna’s day was routine. When the children awoke, she gave them a breakfast of warm bread with sugar sprinkled on it because that’s all she had to feed them. The youngest, Julia, got what was left of the milk and the other three drank water.

Anna gathered her four children for their daily trek to the community well, where she would pump two pails of water and carry them home, careful not to spill too much. Johnny was in charge of helping the other children find scraps of wood and coal to use for the kitchen fire that day, a job that gets harder as the month wears on and all the miner families are competing for the same scarce provisions.

Once home, Anna began her chores by washing Nicky’s clothes so he would have a clean set to wear to the mine the next day, and figuring out what to make for supper. I do have some potatoes left and a jar of carrots that I canned last fall. That will do, she consoled herself.

Then suddenly she heard a loud Bang! Bang! Bang! Someone was knocking on their door and speaking frantically: “Anna, we have to get to the mine. Anna, come with me. We have to get to the mine. Something happened.” It was Edward’s voice. Anna opened the door, anxious that this was the news every miner’s wife feared but somehow expected.

Once he saw her face, Edward blurted out that there had been an explosion at the mine. Men were trapped; some were certainly dead. Edward had seen this before in other towns with other mines. The women and children could only wait and pray while there was a frantic effort to dig out the survivors—if there were any. To avoid creating a scene, the company would keep the families at a distance from the rescue efforts. Often it took days before the rubble could be cleared out of the mine shaft and the survivors and the bodies of the dead brought above ground. The bodies would be laid out on tarps, side by side on the ground, with no attempt to conceal their bloody and mangled figures from the families.

Anna just stared at Edward, trying to grasp what he was saying while thoughts raced through her mind: Is Nicky alive? Is he hurt? Is he dead? Oh my God, if he’s hurt or dead, this could be the death of all of us, Anna reasoned. If there is no miner to dig the coal, the company evicts the family from their home and cuts off credit at the store.

Anna turned to her children who were huddled near the kitchen table, “Johnny, get everyone dressed. We have to go to the mine. Something happened.” By the time Anna got her brood moving, they could see the other families rushing through the snow, also heading to the mine.

Edward stayed with the wives and family members as they stood vigil, waiting hour after hour for some sign of life exiting the mine. The women were whipsawed by conflicting reports. One of the mine bosses thought that all 48 miners died. Then a mine expert from the state arrived and reassured the families that most certainly there would be survivors. The reality was that no one knew for sure. Each woman was certain her loved ones were alive, but in her heart she was preparing for the worst. After all, that’s what a mine worker’s woman does. She deals with life—no matter how grim or how dirty—and she prepares for death that can come at any moment.

It was just after five o’clock on Friday, January 15, when the first miner walked out of the mine, nearly 24 hours after the explosion. First came one, then another, then a few together. One dad walked from the mine and into sunlight with a son on each arm. In all, 29 miners survived.

The women couldn’t be contained. They rushed to the exiting miners searching their grimy faces, looking with hope and desperation for the ones they loved. Anna found Nicky’s friend Mykola among the living. “Where is Nicky?” she asked, holding the man by his shoulders while staring into his weeping blue eyes. “Did you see Nicky? Is he still alive?” Mykola knew the answer. All of the survivors had scampered to the livery pens 10,000 feet back into the mine to avoid the lethal methane gas filling up the shafts. Nicky wasn’t among them. Mykola didn’t have the heart to tell her. “He wasn’t with our group” is all he could say as he gave her a deep hug and walked quickly away. That’s how Anna knew. Nicky was dead. She instinctively put her hand to her belly and looked at her children who were gathered around Johnny trying to comprehend what was happening. “Come children, let’s go home. There’s nothing more for us here,” Anna said as she gathered her children, turning her back on the mine, and marched home.

Left: Children of coal miners at Sunbeam Mines in Scotts Run, W.V., 1935. Nitrate negative. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Right: Payoff at Pursglove Mine in Scotts Run, W.V., 1935. Nitrate negative. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Photos by Ben Shahn.

Within one week after Christmas, Anna’s husband was dead and the coal company ordered her and her children to move out of the company house and cut off credit to the store. Nicky was one of 19 miners killed by the mine explosion. There were pieces of coal still embedded in his back when they brought his crushed and blood-stained body to the surface more than 30 hours after the blast.

Edward talked with the mine workers union, and between the union and AFSC, they raised enough money for Anna to move her children and her husband’s body back to Pennsylvania. She was starting over, a 30-year-old single mom with five children. Anna, a Ukrainian peasant who could neither read nor write, now had to navigate life in Appalachian America during the coming worldwide economic collapse. And she had to do it on her own.

The day was cold and sunny when Anna brought Nicky’s body back to Western Pennsylvania. She looked up at the vibrant blue sky and vowed, “We’re home. We won’t be crushed by this.”

In June, the air was filled with the clean smell of mountain laurel as Anna walked to catch the streetcar to her job as a janitor, cleaning offices.

Author’s note: This story is a fictional account of real events. The child Johnny was my father. My grandmother Anna never remarried and raised her five children alone, working as a janitor cleaning offices at night while Johnny was tasked with caring for his four siblings. The role that AFSC played supporting the miner families with food and supplies during the prolonged and violent strikes in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia during the early days of the United Mine Workers union is true.

Michael Soika

Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. He is an avid sailor and has been a member of Milwaukee (Wis.) Meeting since 2014.

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