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Page 2 of Mountain Life & Work vol. 08 no. 1 April, 1932

Part of Mountain Life and Work

This economic phase is well known and may be summed up briefly here, merely by listing the factors which tend to decrease the need for men to dig coal. The burning of crude oil and the development of hydro-electric power have greatly decreased the absolute demand for coal. A greater efficiency in combustion of coal has decreased the relative demand. The mechanization of mines-a trend likely to become more and more effective in the future-has made it possible for one miner to load many times as much coal as he could formerly load by hand. Expressed in terms of human beings, the above facts mean that perhaps 200,000 miners will not be needed to do the only kind of work for which they are trained. Keep that fundamental and irrefutable fact in mind, and then let us return to our original conception of America as Walt Whitman saw it. Before modern civilization (in the form of coal mining organizations) invaded the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, this was what more urban centers would describe as a "backward country." The standard of lip ing was a pioneer one. There was an amiable social life in the form of cornhuskings and a great willingness to help people in trouble; there were unamiable gun-totings and feuds, but on the whole this was a rugged, salty people, able to live on what they could produce and cherishing their independence. Most significant of all, they were childish in their complete ignorance of the ways of the world. Accordingly, when the industrially sophisticated world discovered a need for the coal over which these mountain people were living, the latter were unprepared for a sudden transition from agrarian to industrial life. Suppose we put this in terms of an individual. What should a mountain boy think of the offer to make several dollars a day digging coal? He has hardly ever seen that much cash before, so heagerly says goodbye to the hill life and enters the strange black world underground. In time he becomes accustomed to work in the narrow drifts, careless of the danger always lurking in the loose slate overhead. He grows to like the coolness of the mine in summer and its warmth in winter. He is paid for the amount of coal he loads into the cars, so that the independence of a taskmaster is a congenial thing to him. He will marry, rent a company house, and raise his half-dozen chil MOUNTAIN LIPS AND WORK April, 1932 dren to be miners after him. In effect he has established a mining dynasty for his descendantsbarred them from the soil, dedicated them to the sooty valleys where the railroad track is the public highway and the home belongs to that same company which runs the store, supports the schoolhouse, and governs every important function of the miner's life. It is a delusion, then, that this is the independent life of Walt Whitman's happy mechanic. 1t might not be if the miner had some rudiments of education, if-like the miners of Wales-he had a philosophical bent leading him into studies and a strong intellectual life. That has been denied the American coal miner. He is the victim of environmental handicaps-and of economic circumstances. Some of the operators too are victims of the system. During the War and for a few years thereafter the demand for coal was so insistent that new mines opened by the score, and tens of thousands of new miners were lured to the work by wages which reached the absurd heights of from $30 to $50 a day for coal loading. The result was the doubling of mines, the increase of miners to 750,000 by 1922-a structure hastily erected to meet current demands, and as certain to collapse when the demand should cease. It happened. Coal prices went down the skids; miners were thrown out of work; there came strikes, bloodshed, mutual antagonism-the whole sorry phenomenon of coal field unrest, and now produced on such a gigantic scale that it has become the most pressing economic problem which the United States faces today. It is not intended here to offer panaceas for the economic side of the question. Coal is a basic need of a machine civilization, and we must presume that the proponents of that civilization will find a way to let coal be produced on a basis of decent profit to operators and decent wages to miners. Nevertheless there will remain this great body of miners and their families-numbering nearly a million people-who will not be wanted even if the coal mining industry is stabilized. They sold their farms during the war boom; they have spent the high wages they made then; they are at present a hapless people. Last autumn the evident distress in the coal fields led to the allocation of $225,000 from American Relief Administration funds for the feeding

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