The Depression

The Depression in Coal Country: Working For Yourself

Some parts of Pennsylvania were already suffering from an economic downturn before “Black Tuesday.” Farmers, never a well-off segment of the population, struggled during the 1920’s as former international markets dried up after the first World War. The U.S. government placed high tariffs on European goods; if European nations couldn’t sell their goods, they couldn’t buy American produced, and if they couldn’t buy American produce, American farmers lost out.

Coal miners also suffered. Two strikes in the early 1920’s – one in 1923 and one in 1925 – scared some customers into thinking that coal just wasn’t reliable; sure, it worked well, but would they always actually be able to get it, or would the company be on strike again? Many switched to using oil or natural gas instead, and the demand for coal decreased. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, textile mills were also closing, as many textile factories were finding it cheaper to set up shop in the South.

Then came the stock market crash. Most businesses responded at first by cutting short employees’ hours; as the crisis continued, then they laid workers off. Many of the poor, already in shaky financial circumstances, were forced to default on mortgages, rents, or taxes on their homes, and ended up getting evicted. In Philadelphia alone, in 1932, 19000 homes were sold at sheriff’s auctions. In the middle or upper classes, things were also tight; people who did have some savings lost them, as 130 banks had failed by 1931. Doctors and lawyers couldn’t collect fees from financially strapped clients. Teachers’ salaries were reduced, and some school boards who had married couples working within their system would fire the wives, keeping the husbands on the payroll, thinking the salary would at least stay in the family.

By 1933, 40% of the state was unemployed, and 71,000 Philadelphians were reported to be suffering from malnutrition. The state’s “poor boards” were flooded with cases; one town’s relief board reported that one superintendent and one assistant had a case load of 800 families. Restrictive poor laws also prevented grown children living at home from collecting relief if a parent was also collecting.

But some in coal country were actually surviving, albeit through a black market. It had long been a custom among miners to do a little coal-gathering on the side, for themselves – either picking through the “culm”, or waste rock produced in mining, to pick out the often sizeable lumps of not-quite-perfect coal, or by drilling their own small mines nearby the main mine site. Mine owners permitted the culm picking, and grudgingly accepted the secret mines as the amount of coal miners took for themselves was usually negligible. But through the 20’s, improved mining equipment reduced the amount of leftover coal that made it into the culm dumps, and especially during the 1925 strike, more and more miners opened up their own secret holes on company property. Some miners were let go after the strikes, but maintained these secret private mines, taking a little extra to sell to neighbors for the extra cash. Participants in this coal black market jokingly called it “bootleg coal,” in reference to the other black market in alcohol at large in the country.

Then the Depression hit, and the number of coal bootleggers doubled – in some places, it tripled. There’s even evidence that some town relief boards encouraged the practice, telling families who appeared before them asking for fuel that there was one easy way they could get some for free…As for the mine owners, when they complained to law enforcement or to the relief boards about the bootlegging, the authorities pointed out that they were perfectly free to hire these miners back. But if they didn’t, then it was their loss. In the cases when a mine owner got someone arrested for bootlegging, the relief boards countered that if the miner could prove that the coal was being dug for their own use, they should be released. They were, however, very lenient when it came to what constituted such “proof” – usually just the miner’s say-so. Relief boards also reminded that if they cracked down on the bootleg miners, the relief boards would have to increase the mine owners’ tax burden in order to pay for the resultant upswing in relief.

Coal bootleggers stepped up their own production, and in many cases made enough from selling to family and friends and neighbors to put a down payment on a truck, which then allowed them to try to sell their coal in other towns. Usually it was sold for a dollar or two cheaper than legitimately-mined coal, and thus they made quick sales and started getting regular orders. By 1933, nearly 100,000 men, women, and children in coal towns such as Centralia, Shamokin, and Williamstown were being entirely supported by bootleg coal; about five million tons of coal had been mined and shipped to neighboring towns, and to cities as far away as Newark and Philadelphia, and bootleg miners had earned between $30 and $35 million. Louis Adamic, a journalist for the paper The Nation, also pointed out that all that money was staying in those communities, which in many cases was keeping shops open, keeping other professionals in business, and keeping the coal region afloat.

By 1933, coal bootlegging was a big enough industry that some of the miners were even starting to organize into their own union. But other independent miners were beginning to cooperate with the mine owners again, agreeing to pay them a royalty to allow them to mine on their property. Rumors also spread among some mine owners that the government was trying to come up with a way to somehow incorporate the bootleg miners into some kind of New Deal program. But very few people, even among the bootleg miners, felt this would be a permanent solution; even the miners felt that this was just a for-now business, something to help keep themselves and their communities afloat during the Depression. The fact that it was as successful as it was just spoke volumes about the miners’ fortitude and determination.

“A Miner’s Prayer”

In the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, a Pittsburgh woman sang this song for a folklore collector:

I keep listening for the whistles in the morning,
But the miners are still; no noise is in the air.
And the children wake up crying in the morning,
For the cupboards are so empty and so bare.
And their little feet are oh! So cold they stumble
And we have to pin the rags upon their backs,
And our home is broken down and very humble,
While the wintry wind comes pouring through each crack.
Oh, it’s hard to hear the hungry children crying
While I have two hands that want to do their share,
Oh, you rich men in the city, won’t you have a little pity,
And just listen to a miner’s prayer?

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