Labor history in White County, Part I

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 Labor Day has become, for many of us, a vacation day… a go-to-the-lake day, a day to take advantage of sales. The reason it is a holiday, though, is to celebrate the Labor Movement in the U.S. I wrote a couple of columns earlier this year (April 29 and May 6) that looked at the origin of that movement, why it became a holiday, and why we celebrate it in September, while almost every other country does so in May. This time, as my own celebration of Labor Day, I am going to talk about the Labor Movement in White County and the Upper Cumberland.

Early labor organizing in this region, like in the rest of Appalachia, tended to focus on coal miners. Now, the wonderful folks at the Bon Air Mountain Historical Society know a lot more about coal mining in White County than I do, and their museum is a treasure. Go check them out, and you can learn a lot. I can tell you some basics, though. For one thing, while there was a lot of coal mining in Northern Appalachia before the Civil War (Pennsylvania and Ohio, mostly), there was very little in Central and Southern Appalachia until well after that conflict. This is because there were few railroads in the area. In the antebellum period, most railway construction in the South was designed primarily to transport cotton to the coast where it could be loaded onto ships for export. Cotton doesn’t grow well in the mountains, hence no railroads; without trains, it was impractical to dig coal because, well, it’s darn heavy and hard to transport. After the Civil War, especially toward the end of Reconstruction (which officially ended in 1877), northern investors and southern businessmen started to form partnerships that led to railroads entering the region, with the opening of coal mines shortly following. For example, Sparta native and former Confederate General George Gibbs Dibrell became director and president of the Southwestern Railroad Company right after the war, and,, around the time that company was bought out by the Nashville and Chattanooga Company, Dibrell formed the Bon Air Coal, Land, and Lumber Company, which shipped its first coal in 1888. Over the next several years, the company imported around two dozen families from Scotland who had experience extracting coal. In later years, there were also immigrants from Bohemia and other parts of Europe brought in. Meanwhile, former Union General John T. Wilder bought up large swathes of land in counties east of here and also opened up several mines.

There was unrest among Tennessee coal miners by the early 1890s. One of the biggest issues was the fact that the state of Tennessee was leasing out convicts to work in the mines, at a much lower cost than the wages of free miners, putting miners out of work. This led to violence in Anderson County, about an hour’s drive east of White County, as miners not only went on strike but burned prison stockades and mining company buildings, setting the convicts free (on the condition they leave the mines). In what became known as the Coal Creek War, miners engaged in skirmishes with the state militia, with many killed or wounded on both sides. The situation died down when the Tennessee government refrained from renewing their contracts with the mining companies - the miners had succeeded in getting their attention.

The Coal Creek War did not extend into the mines of White County, though. In 1899, the Bon Air company was able to brag it had never used anything but free labor, that their safety record was better than their competitors, and that there had never been a strike in its mines. That did not last, however. The first strike would take place that very year.

More to come.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   

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