This story, shared by Robert La Forte (who went on to earn a PhD in history and become a professor and archivist after leaving Frontenac) was printed in my “True Stories” column in 2003. It has been gathered, with other mining stories, in a collection edited by Debbie Ossana Close. The book, “Coal Mining Days,” is available at the Miners Hall Museum.
Most of my male relatives older than I worked in the coal fields of Crawford County beginning in the 1880s until my uncle left the coal field in the late 1940s. My great grandfather, Julius La Forte (Lefort), came with his wife and two children to what is now Frontenac in 1885-1886. He survived the 1888 Frontenac mine disaster at Pittsburg and Cherokee Mine No. 2 (47 lives lost) by staying home the day it exploded because of the birth of one of his daughters (I heard my grandfather call this mine "Santa Fe No. 2").
My grandfather, Julius A. La Forte Jr., went to work in the mines at 9 years old in 1891. His father supposedly began working in the mines around Bethune, Pas de Calais, France at age 6. My father, Modest N. La Forte, was almost 14 years old in April 1917 when he started working in the mines. He was the last member of our family to work in the deep mines of Crawford County, leaving in 1942, although my grandfather did "caretaker work" at a mine operated by Vic "Duke" Simone to qualify for a miner's pension. One of my uncles, Julius "Bud" La Forte III, worked in strip mining until the late 1940s.
My mother's father, Louis Slapshack, also was a coal miner in the area. He came to the United States from either northeastern Italy or what is now Slovenia around 1905. He was a Slovene. He was from a town or village called Piange, which I cannot locate in either Italy or Slovenia. He supposedly sailed in a ship from Trieste. He worked in the mines until his death in 1938 from tuberculosis (miner's consumption). In fact, my earliest memories were of the scourge that TB was for people from our neighborhood. Several members of our family, including me, had the disease, which spread from father to child. My father had black lung disease, although he lived to a ripe old age, 87 plus. As I recall, this occupational hazard was something that families were ashamed to admit they suffered from … at least my family it was.
I know of only three mines where my father worked, although I am sure he worked in many more. He was employed at No. 24 Western, No. 23 Western, and No. 17 Santa Fe. According to my dad, as a young man he, his father, and his brother walked to work in mines about a mile or two from Frontenac. Once down the mineshaft they then walked back to Frontenac along the entryways to their rooms where they mined coal near home.
Oddly, at least for me, my father always said that mining coal was the best job he ever had. In the better times he was paid $1 for each car he loaded, and some days he loaded as many as eight cars. His favorite job was "pulling pillars" - the walls between rooms along entryways. He said "pulling pillars" was a bit more dangerous from rock fall but that the coal was easier to get to and you could make more money. He took great pride in being good at digging coal and enjoyed kidding fellow miners about not being able to mine enough coal to keep a "monkey stove" going. His habit of sitting in a squat on chairs drove my mother to distraction, but he claimed to feel more comfortable sitting that way. A way of sitting we found uncomfortable to say the least.
As one of the first generation freed from having to go into the mines, praise be to God, I know nothing about coal mining per se. What I remember ranges from going to the company store in Franklin on weekends where miners congregated, to helping my dad pick coal marks out of his skin (places where small coal chips were embedded). I specialized in the back of the neck. I recall his mining tools around the house: picks, shovels, drills, dynamite caps, fuses, etc. I was always cautioned to take care to avoid the caps, since they could blow my hand off. He also caught the devil from my mother for leaving them around in drawers.
Like almost everyone in Frontenac, we possessed very little of material wealth. We made do. For example, on the Fourth of July we celebrated with my father lighting a dynamite fuse or two and taking a sledge and hitting it to make it explode. Great fun for a child. He could also burn powder making it different colors.
My grandfather La Forte had a 1920s Essex with a broken crank so that it had to be pushed to be started. Young and old, male and female, we all had to push while my grandfather guided the monster. I still remember running down the dusty streets of Frontenac getting the Essex going. As much as a child can feel sorry, I always felt sorry for my grandmother who was not nimble of foot by the late 1930s and had a very hard time catching up to the car once my grandfather got it going. He did not suffer waiting for people easily. Modern Americans would find it difficult to understand what a dominant force my grandfather was in our family. I often wonder what he would make of "women's lib" or "male chauvinism" or "children's rights." He was a wonderful person, but not at all like modern men.
Going to Franklin Store is perhaps the most memorable of my days as a miner's son. Once at the company store we (my grandfather and I) would deal with the man in charge, a fellow names Jules. Since my grandfather spoke five languages, they would conduct business in whatever the language of the day might be. Jules, like a lot of people in southeast Kansas in those days, was multilingual. I recall that the store, which was in fact rather small, seemed like a grand emporium to me. My mother did not like the shopping arrangement or using the Franklin store for that matter, but that meant nothing. At the time I didn't understand why, nor did I know what was going on. My hope was the somehow we might wind up with something sweet to eat, preferably candy. I don't think money ever changed hands, although I do not know. Money was a scarce commodity in our household. I have either heard the story about, or recall that either a bear or a monkey was kept near the store. Allegedly the miners teased it, fed it alcohol and tobacco, and generally made it mean. (This may have no basis in fact, but it exists vaguely in my memory.)
I am writing this because my aunts (Wynona La Forte Kopmeyer Hicks and Edna Hollenbeck) asked me to. It is good to remember the men who worked the mines. They had little opportunity, a dirty job, and a harsh existence. The pick and shovel, shot-fire mines were dreadful. Hopefully, machine mining is better. I know strip mining was, despite what it did to the surface. - Dr. Robert S. La Forte
— Information, such as this, concerning coal miners and owners, coal companies, and coal camps can be obtained from the research library at Miners Hall Museum, 701 S. Broadway, Franklin, KS. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.