LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — Early days in the coal camps

J.T. Knoll
It’s a good thing the Arma company store didn’t get burned down because it became the Blue Moon Ballroom, which hosted all manner of gatherings over the years — from swinging jazz bands, to rollicking polka parties, to rock & roll rebel rousers to community wedding receptions.

Some years back I received a copy of an autobiography by former Arma native Frank Louis Jeler Jr. Written at the prompting of his family, it presents a compelling slice of local history, not only of his early years here but also camp town life in Arma, Breezy Hill, and Cockerill. Here’s the first excerpt. — J.T.K.

The Beginning

My home was located 9 miles north of Pittsburg in Arma.

This area was best known for its bituminous soft coal. Many of the small coal camps were formed around some of the better known deep mines. The coal camps were named after the mines such as 50 Camp, 51 Camp, and 22 Camp. The miners who lived in these coal camps were able to walk to work. A coal camp would be made up of 500-700 people.

Pittsburg was the biggest city (25,000) in this area. My hometown of Arma (2,000) was surrounded by both deep mines (350 feet) and strip mines (surface).

I was born in 1936 in Breezy Hill, which is 3 miles south and east of Arma. The Sheridan Coal Company owned most of the mines in Breezy Hill, where my father and grandfather worked together.

In the winter of 1936, embers from the coal stove caught our house on fire while my dad was at work. About all that my mother managed to save was me in my highchair. There was no such thing as a fire company in this rural mining camp. I learned later that these fires were a common occurrence because of coal heaters and kerosene cook stoves. There was no running water in Breezy Hill.

After the loss of our house, we moved to Arma. My folks bought a four-room house. There were two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen.

This house was also heated with a Warm Morning cast iron coal stove that was located in the kitchen. My mother did all of her cooking on a kerosene cook stove. This cook stove had a 2-3 gallon kerosene tank that supplied four chimney burners and a single oven. We had a shanty in the back close to the house. There was a 55-gallon drum of kerosene located there used to refill the kitchen cook stove tank.

This house had running water, but no bathroom. We bathed in a washtub by the heater. We had an outhouse, which was located in the back next to the alley. Quick lime was regularly dropped down the hole of the outhouse. When the hole was full and no longer usable, a new hole was dug somewhere nearby and the outhouse was moved over it.

We did not have a refrigerator but used an icebox instead. During the summer months, an iceman would come by and leave 25, 50, 75, or 100-pounds of ice. In the winter, ice wasn’t needed because the enclosed back porch was very cold and food was stored out there. This was a big improvement over Breezy Hill, and Arma had a volunteer fire department.

My dad was now working for the Western Coal Company at #24 mine. He was a mule team driver down below. This mine was a few miles from Arma in the mining camp known as Cockerill.

When #24 Western mine closed, my dad went to work for Quality (Sheridan) Coal Co. #21 until the mine closed many years later.

At the closing of #21 he retired from the coal mines. It was just as well because deep mines were becoming a thing of the past. Strip mines were taking over and that was not his thing.

My mother’s family lived in 50 Camp 2 miles west of Arma. My maternal grandfather worked #21 Sheridan with his brothers, Tony and Carl, his son Joe, and my dad — so it was quite a family affair.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Pope Pius XII and John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers Union were the patriarchs of our family.

Some of the small towns and coal camps were segregated and remained so until the early '50s. My parents told me that this was wrong and would change someday soon.

Another disservice to the miners was the concept of the company store. The miners were paid with mine scrip rather than U.S. currency. This scrip could be spent elsewhere, but at a discount. The mine company owned you body and soul.

Somewhere around then we moved from Breezy Hill, company stores were burning down and all merchandise lost. The last remaining company store was in my hometown of Arma.

I was quite small, but I can remember going to the company store one Saturday morning. I believe some sort of conspiracy took place that day.

When the company store opened, several hundred people entered and began shopping. The lone clerk was overwhelmed.

In just a short while, the shelves were bare and the cash register had little to show for it. That store closed for good. The mine company got the picture.

At least there was no fire.

— Frank Louis Jeler Jr.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309. — J.T. Knoll