Coal Mining in Illinois
 

South Wilmington

 
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Miners, Mining & Social Life

 
By Richard Joyce
Reprinted with permission from Gardner Chronicle's
South Wilmington Centennial Celebration supplement (July 29, 1999)
 

Who were the people who came to the new coal town? Many of the earlier families came from Braidwood. As many as 60 homes were moved from there to house these folks.

Others came from Streator, Carbon Hill, Braceville, Clark City and other mining towns once the word of new work opportunities became known.

Overwhelmingly, the mine work force was composed of immigrants and their sons. In the census of 1900, taken soon after the town was established, South Wilmington had 711 residents. Of these, 254 revealed ancestry from the British Isles, 199 were of Italian ancestry, 37 were of Bohemian extraction and seven were African-American. Others were Belgian, German, Polish, Russian, French or of other nationalities. A glance at census records reveals a cosmopolitan work force with names like McNulty, Simms and Finn from the British Isles interspersed with Italian names such as Lardi, Ronchetti and Bottino living alongside families originating in eastern Europe, such as Andruskevitch, Smolik and Stepanek.

By 1910, the town reached its peak population of 2403, at least according to census records which were taken every ten years. The rapid influx of workers matched the growing needs for miners, as new mines were put into operation. This need was met primarily by Italians, who by 1910 numbered 1209 or over half of the town's population. Bohemians numbered 295, or one-eighth of the residents. In 1910, ten African-Americans resided in South Wilmington.

The coming to America was a family decision, since spouses and children were often left behind and other family members pooled money for those who emigrated. Italian men often had traveled to other parts of Europe or even Africa to do seasonal work, so a trip to America was often seen as little more than an opportunity to earn money to sustain the family or enhance one's social position, and extended periods of absence from ones' village and family were not rare.

Two regions of northern Italy provided large numbers of workmen for the mines of northern Illinois - the towns near Torino in Piedmont province such as Lanzo, Canischio, Salassa and Pertusio, and the towns near Modena in Emilia province, especially Fanano. The large number of families originating in these two small areas of Italy suggests that friends and relatives kept in touch across the Atlantic, making others aware of conditions, wages and employment opportunities. Many men worked and decided whether to make America their permanent home.

The presence of large colonies of countrymen in coal towns like South Wilmington eased the pain of leaving loved ones, since one would be surrounded in the new setting by many relatives and friends from the home village. Indeed, the arrival of the newcomers was often the cause of celebration. The men usually boarded with relatives or friends, at least until they got their feet under themselves financially. This increased the workload for the local women, but it also brought in much-needed cash for the host families.

Ethnic saloons, grocery stores and fraternal lodges also helped make the newcomers feel quite at home in their new Illinois homes. Coal towns were notorious for their large number of saloons, and South Wilmington was no exception. Since many of the workmen were young, single men who boarded with relatives or friends, the saloon provided a place to congregate and "settle the dust" of mining once the work was done. Here, the men became aware of employment and housing opportunities, enjoyed the company of friends, ate meals, played bocce ball on outside courts, engaged in political discussion, drank away their loneliness and often, a sizable portion of their pay. Saloonkeepers also functioned as bankers and agents for steamship companies, thus providing a variety of services to immigrant workers.

Italians were quick to establish other businesses to serve the large number of their ethnic group who continuted to arrive. Italians have dominated the grocery trade in South Wilmington. Long before there was a Marketti's, families such as Bottinos, Girots, DeFilipis, Bogettos, Ralandos, Jerbis, Piagnos, Menozzis, Callegaros, Bertas, Cimas and Falettis served the needs of the local populace.

A 1914 history of Grundy County reported "It is a noticeable fact that Italians are very clannish, preferring to deal with one of their own nationality, not going to stores conducted by those who do not speak their language and understand their tastes. Because of this, every community in which Italians formed a considerable portion of population, there are to be found establishments conducted by prosperous sons of the country, and these men not only win and retain a large patronage from Italians, but from others who appreciate the excellence of their goods and the fairness of their methods."

Another description of the same history states, "There is no truer saying that to the effect of those of foreign birth who come to the U.S. succeed where native Americans fail. The men and women who came here from lands across the seas bring with them a determination to win at any cost, and they go about their work earnestly and thriftily with the result that some of the most prosperous residents of almost any community are numbered among this class."

Fraternal lodges composed of men of various nationalities were very prevalent in the coal towns. They played a very vital role in the days before workmen's and employment compensation existed. The lodges helped provide for decent burial for members, as well as support for those left behind. South Wilmington Italians belonged to a variety of lodges, including Eagles, Foresters, as well as ethnic lodges, such as Marco Polo, White Tie, Christopher Columbus, Victor Emmanuel, Petro Micca, Solar Resplendent, Minatore di Italia. These lodges filled a need for social activities in the town, too, often sponsoring dances and picnics.

The work of the miners was physically demanding and filled with danger. Gas explosions and rock falls were the biggest threats to the underground workmen, but breathing ailments and aches and pains from working in a crouch position also plagued the miners. They descended into the mine in the morning via the "cage," an elevator that hauled them and the produce of their labor out of the mine. Miners then moved through the roadways to the tunnels to the coal face. Here, working in tunnels four feet high, they undercut the clay and shale from beneath coal or drilled into it to prepare to blast it loose. When the coal was knocked down, they shoveled it into small wooden mine cars. Miners could typically load two to three tons of coal on a good day. When filled, the mine cars were pushed a small distance or pulled by mules that brought them to the cage. The coal was then brought to the surface, weighed and dumped over screens which sized the coal.

Miners were paid according to the weight of the coal that was hauled to the surface. The weighman at the top of the mine would record the weight in a book after taking the miner's check or "brass" from the coal car. Then the coal car was dumped over a screen, a device used to side the coal for sale. The brass was a small washer-like metal disc (some companies used hard cardboard tickets) with a number on it. Each miner (pair of miners) had a different number on their brass. On payday, the tons were multiplied by the pay rate (81 cents per ton) in the early 1900's, and pay was distributed if anything was left after payment for tool sharpening, house rent and items purchased at the company store. Pay, in the form of gold and silver, was shipped by train to Gardner, and was hauled to town by Tom Kaldem on a buggy with Bob Wilson and Lorenzo Callegaro riding shotgun. Ann Louis was paymaster at the mine office and Ed Beam was the clerk.

Miners were compelled to buy provisions and supplies at the company store if they wanted to continue working at the mine. Coal companies also paid their men partially in company money, often called "scrip," which could be taken in trade at the company store. The company store extended credit to the miners, and this was used mostly during the summer months when the work at the mine was sporadic. Some miners had to work all winter to pay the previous summer's grocery bill. When never-ending debt resulted, some families "disappeared" in the darkness of night, moving to another coal town to start anew.

The company store in South Wilmington was located on the northwest corner of Rice Road and Third Street, where Marketti's parking lot is located. For years, the concrete steps were all that remained of the structure. While the miners resented the company store and the favoritism showed by some of the mine officials, relations between the company and the miners in South Wilmington were more harmonious than they had been in previous decades.

By 1900, the miners' union had successfully won the bargaining rights and had negotiated a contract that included the eight hour day, payment for gross weight (for all coal before it was screened), and union recognition. South Wilmington miners belonged to the United Mine Workers locals 467 and 2706 in the early days.

In their spare time, the miners enjoyed sports, picnics, music and family activities. They hunted and fished, picked mushrooms and dandelions to add to their meals. Many miners also had gardens, and many owned a cow, one or more pigs and chickens. These extra sources of food helped sustain the miners during summers in years that work at the mine was slack.