As we look back to the Father’s Day holiday, I want to take some time to reflect on our fathers and share a brief history on how the day came about. The Father’s Day holiday has a very interesting history. I have heard several stories on how it became a national holiday in the United States. My personal favorite is of a lady in Fairmont, West Virginia, named Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton who suggested a day honoring fathers in recognition of several men that had been killed in December of 1907 in the Monongah Mining Disaster. Monongah, West Virginia is about five miles from Fairmont according to the map. More than 350 men were killed in the explosion and approximately 1,000 children were left fatherless. Although Mrs. Clayton’s minister preached a sermon honoring fathers, her suggestion didn’t reach much farther than her immediate area. Later, in 1910, another lady named Sonora Smart Dodd who lived in Washington State came up with the idea of a day honoring fathers while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon. Although it took many years to reach this point, President Nixon signed a law in 1972 stating that the third Sunday in June would be used to recognize fathers.
Southeast Kansas has a rich history of fathers who were miners. Miners worked extremely long hours on their knees, hardly seeing the sunshine, trying to get enough money to make a better life for their families. Life in the mines was very dangerous for the men and there was constant worry of a mine collapse, explosion, or other tragedy. I have read story after story of men who died in the mines leaving behind a wife and children. Some men became injured and were unable to work in the mines again. These men and their wives had to find another means of support. Some opened their own business; others took their families and moved where they could find another line of work. Life was very hard in those days for the miners and their families.
Some fathers took their young sons into the mines. The sons only earned part of the pay the men earned even though they worked just as hard as the men. At this time, there were no child labor laws so boys as young as twelve or thirteen went to work in the mines. Whenever a miner was killed leaving behind a family, the eldest son, if old enough, generally became the “man of the house” and started work to support his mother and siblings. In the early 1900’s in Southeast Kansas, this generally meant the young man started to work in the mines since mines were the main place of employment in the area.
Some fathers did not want their sons working in the mines because of the dangers of the job. We have a quote here in the museum gallery that is from the book, Coal Mining Days, authored by Debby Ossana Close. The quote was given to her by Mr. August Rua. He says, “My dad took me down in the mine when I was ten years old in 1934…He said, ‘Get an education so you don’t have to work in a hole like this,’ and that is what I have done.” Another story in the same book was submitted by Willie Montanelli who says he wanted to work in the mines like his father, but his father never would let him.
Whether the fathers wanted their children to go down in the mine, or whether they did not; they all loved their children and would do anything for them. I remember reading a very touching story from the book, Raisin Pie in a Miner’s Bucket, by Carolyn Loss Winters and Kaye Lynn Webb. Adeline Senechal Terlip shared the memory of her father taking raisin pie to the mines. He knew the children loved the pie and even though his meal was sparse, he would save the pie so his children could have a treat after he got home from working in the mines.
Some miners died in mining accidents while very young. I’ll never forget the story I was told by Jerry Lomshek of the November 9, 1888, mining explosion in Frontenac, KS. On this fateful day, nineteen-year-old James Wilson set his shot and fired it. He overloaded his shot, creating a “windy” shot. The shot sent fire out of the hole into the air which caused the coal dust in the air to explode and set off the kegs of black powder used for the shots. An account of the accident published in the New York Times on November 11, 1888, listed the fatalities. One very notable entry was “Louis, a boy, burned to death”. According to Mr. Lomshek, forty-four men were killed with the oldest being fifty-two and the youngest thirteen. Several children were left without fathers from this terrible tragedy.
In closing, I would like to honor all the fathers who worked hard in the mines and elsewhere. We should always be thankful for the brave men who etched out a living in support of their families while teaching good work ethics to the next generation. I hope we never lose the father figure in our homes. Without great fathers, this country wouldn’t be the great nation it is today.
If you had a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, or any ancestor who worked in the mines in Kansas, come check out our research library and be sure to look in the accident book for their names.