Why were unions so important in the early 20th century? I learned a lot while reading about life in post-WWI Ohio coal country. The working conditions and demographics in the Little Cities of Black Diamonds were such that national labor leaders saw fertile ground for organization. The formation of the United Mine Workers of America in Columbus in 1890 had a lot to do with activities in the Little Cities, primarily in the towns of New Straitsville and Shawnee.
All miners had common concerns—wages, steady work, good working conditions. As early as the 1850s, even before organized unions, miners near Nelsonville, Ohio struck over wages. Many mining towns were owned by one person or a conglomerate that controlled housing and other living and working conditions of the miner’s life. If a miner was fortunate enough to have land off-site of the immediate mining town to farm, or if occasionally an owner would reassign a worker, the miner might have to walk up to six miles to work.
Miners worked ten to twelve hours per day until 1898 when the union won the eight-hour work day—still six days a week. Child labor was less prevalent by 1920, but still an issue. Miners had to buy their own dynamite to clear the way in the mines. One example of the need for improved working conditions had to do with the preparatory work in a mine. One hundred years ago, the miner had to drill a hole, pack it with explosive powder, tap it down with a rod, light a fuse, and run. Known as “dead work,” he wasn’t paid for doing it—only for shoveling coal at ten to thirty cents per ton.
A quote from a character in my novel under development, Little Diamonds, reflects the feelings of those who came to the coal fields hoping for a better life. Steve is one of many Europeans.
Steve stood at the union meeting. “Look at them now—same thing. The company owners prosper, even in lean years, and if things go bad, they just sell, move on and find something else—maybe another coal town with cheaper labor; switch to oil, or move out west. Where does that leave the rest of us? My family came here from Hungary, and some went back.”
American Economics: 1919
Little Diamonds begins in 1919. A general deterioration of economic conditions in the United States was becoming evident by late that year. Federal programs and procedures put in place during the war were being disrupted, and Woodrow Wilson’s administration had no plan in place for demobilization. As a result, soldiers returned to a shortage of jobs, falling wages, and no benefits. That meant large inventories of goods with no American consumers just as American exports dropped sharply at the end of the war.
Farm prices and the production of war essentials like coal, both integral to Ohio’s economy, were especially affected. This resulted in labor strikes and race riots in the Red Summer of 1919, an increase in violence in more than two dozen cities as returning veterans competed for jobs. Things didn’t improve when Wilson put new wage controls in place in September.
Labor organization in Ohio earlier in the century provided a platform on which unions could build on in the early 1920s.
Still Burning in New Straitsville
Of the many important Ohio events in early labor history, perhaps the most lasting and tangible, is a cave near New Straitsville. Frustrated union activists set a mine fire there during the great 1884 Hocking Valley coal strike, and it’s still burning today, the smoke and odor still present. Efforts by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s couldn’t stop the smoldering, and for many years it remained a tourist attraction.
The town of New Straitsville was developed in spring of 1870. It became the first of the region’s boom towns when the Hocking Valley Railroad arrived to transport coal. Robinson’s Cave looks much as it did a century ago. A secret meeting place for local union sympathizers, it was there in 1890 that a major meeting of national labor leaders was planned for Columbus, Ohio. In Columbus, the local labor assembly joined the National Progressive Union to form the United Mine Workers of America.
You can still get to the cave by starting up the hill at the New Straitsville History Museum, at Dunkel Hall, named for Hubert Dunkle who was behind funding for restoration of the cave. After climbing many steps into the hill, you come to a large, flat rock overhang. I could picture groups of men standing, some squatting as the rock is low in places, around a fire sharing grievances and discussion their future.
There’s also an Annual Moonshine Festival. It seems that abandoned mines and caves gave good cover for another popular product, especially during prohibition. According to its website, New Straitsville was once the moonshine capital of the world, and during Prohibition the town produced more moonshine than anywhere else in the country.
Shawnee: A Window into the Past
Shawnee is only two miles from New Straitsville but not easy to get to in the early 1920s given very hilly and curving roads. Shawnee, is ranked as one of the best-preserved former coal boom towns in America. Established in 1873, it has survived intact better than most because of a dedicated group preservation volunteers. For that reason, it’s a good place to start if you’re curious to experience the unique history and architecture of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
Workers needed to extract the extensive coal and clay deposits, increased the population from 1,300 in 1870 to 3,000 in 1900. Millions of tons of black diamonds were hauled from local mines and brick plants annually.
One well-preserved building is The Knights of Labor opera house, Assembly Number 135 headquarters. Historical markers tell the story near the statue of a miner (above). It was one of two opera houses on Main Street, and one of the first labor halls in the country. The Assembly was led by William Bailey and William T. Lewis. Unions created leisure time activities for their members and families—vaudeville, sports, and other activities.
Given depletion of resources, economic concerns of cost and competition in nearby states with newer technology, and labor unrest, most industries slowly left the Little Cities between the 1920s and 1950s. The populations as of the 2010 census were 655 in Shawnee and 722 in New Straitsville.
John Winnenberg runs a consignment and gift shop in Shawnee with locally made items, the Community Exchange Gift Shop, and he is also with the Sunday Creek Association. An article in a special issue of Black Diamonds: A Series on Southeastern Ohio Coal Towns notes that the area provides a good quality of life due, in part, to the short distance from the cities of Athens and Columbus. It also describes examples of pastoral qualities to be appreciated as well as many new cottage industries and a growing entrepreneurial spirit among current community members as well as newcomers who are finding ways to entice the public to the beauty of the area. I hope you visit the hills of the beautiful Hocking Valley some day and map your trip around the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
Bibliography: In addition to my recent visit to the Little Cities and website links in the post, the following resources were used:
Black Diamonds: A Series On Southeastern Coal Towns (Commemorative Issue), Author and date unknown, provided by John Winnenberg
Images of America’s Little Cities of Black Diamonds by Jeffrey T. Darbee and Nancy A. Recchie (2009)
Next time: Ohio Entrepreneur John R. Buchtel
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and prepared for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com.