Labor History in White County, Part III

A Liberal Dose

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Let’s resume our discussion of organized labor and coal mines, which we will conclude next week.

Although booming at the turn of the century, within a decade the Bon Air Coal and Iron Company was in decline due to a significant decrease in profitability. This was, in large part, the result of a bad decision - the company invested heavily to construct two very expensive coke ovens, only to realize the coal in the area was not of high enough quality for the coke process. The company went into receivership and, in 1917, was bought by Nashville businessman William Cummins and several northern investors, including the owner of the New York Yankees and the owner of the Chicago Cubs (and chewing gum tycoon) William Wrigley. A rival coal company started in Clifty was also bought by the group and consolidated with the Bon Air operations.

With World War I over, in 1919 UMWA president John L. Lewis directed a new campaign to unionize in the South. There were work stoppages on Bon Air in 1919 and 1922. During that same time, the famous West Virginia Coal Wars were reaching a crescendo. There was a shoot-out on the streets of Matewan in 1920 (see the movie Matewan), and in 1921 the Battle of Blair Mountain played out over several days - over 10,000 West Virginia miners, police, and strikebreakers in a pitched battle that saw over 100 men killed. Fortunately, things did not reach that point in Middle and East Tennessee.

Bon Air miners also participated in a national UMWA strike beginning in late March 1924, with over 1,000 miners walking off the job in White County in protest of their wages being lowered to what they had been in 1917. In the middle of the strike, suspected moonshiner Ernest Price and several friends were reportedly drunk and waving guns around in Bon Air and DeRossett. They were confronted near DeRossett by A.M. Phillips (manager of the mine’s company store) and a federal revenue agent, Hugh Lowery. Price shot Lowery in the thigh, severing an artery which caused the lawman to bleed to death. Price then backed out of town, threatening to shoot anyone who got in his way, and headed up the mountain. William Cummins offered a $500 reward for Price’s capture, and $2,000 people joined in the chase - a large number of them striking miners. The strike, meanwhile, ended after 10 weeks, with the miners giving in. Around the same time, the price of coal went down significantly, and the company closed down several of the less productive mines - Carola in 1922, Clifty in 1924, and Eastland in 1926. The large mine at Ravenscroft continued production, and several smaller mines in Bon Air and Eastland were leased out to individuals. In 1926, the company merged with two out-of-town companies to reform as the Tennessee Products Corporation, with Wrigley as the chairman of the board.

Late 1929, of course, saw the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression and introduced even more dire financial straits for the company (and its workers). When the FDR administration guaranteed collective bargaining rights with the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, the miners at Ravenscroft once more began to organize. In 1934, the miners and owners were unable to reach an agreement, and a strike was called. The Ravenscroft mine was shut down, and, a year later, the railroad tracks connecting the mines to Sparta were pulled up. As the Sparta paper put it on May 13, 1937: “The once thriving industry of coal mining in this county belongs to the past.” This was not the end of the UMWA connection to White County, though. It was UMWA organizers who would establish the (brief) union at the Sparta Shirt factory in the 1940s.

(My thanks to the Bon Air Mountain Historical Society for the wealth of information they make available to the public.)

--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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