Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields moves from buried darkness—“the black hell”—of coal forming underground and a roll call of martyred miners toward radiant light—garden flowers intoned by women’s voices and Phoebe Snow in her immaculate white gown (“Phoebe” being an Anglicization of “dazzling” in Greek, phoibos). A later blog will examine the organization of men and boys producing coal, but let’s first look at the lives of women and families in “patch villages,” the coal company towns. Special thanks to CpM bass John Lemly for preparing this entry of Anthracite Tales.
Life for women was similarly hard, if not so deadly as for their husbands and sons. It fell to them to hold the family together, often to manage what wages the men brought home and to eke out subsistence in a company house, all at the mercy of the company store and foremen. “Each day, before it was light out, my mother sent my sister and me out to the culm banks [mine dump] to pick coal for our coal stove. We’d fill the wagon with coal, get washed up, and go to school. The next day we’d go pick coal again.” [Susan Bartoletti] The towns packed together immigrants into mostly separate neighborhoods—Scotch Road, Dago Street, Welsh Hill—teeming with old-world languages and ethnic foods. But more and more the common struggle to survive against powerful bosses united these disparate folks. In the words of Johnny Mitchell, early union president, “It’s not Polish coal, or Italian coal, or Irish coal. It’s coal.”
From the late 19th century on, miners’ solidarity led to some improvements, working and living. Women often headed the resistance, pressuring the men to stay firm. As one said during the crucial 1902 strike, “We might as well starve striking as working.” The legendary organizer, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, was at the forefront of their fight. She recounted:
We are not enemies. We are just a band of working women whose brothers and husbands are in a battle for bread. We want our brothers in Coaldale to join us in our fight. We are here on the mountain road for our children’s sake, for the nation’s sake. We are not going to hurt anyone and surely you would not hurt us. . . [A militia standing against us] kept us there till daybreak and when they saw the army of women in kitchen aprons, with dishpans and mops, they laughed and let us pass. An army of strong mining women makes a wonderfully spectacular picture.from the Autobiography of Mother Jones, first published in 1925.
Later Francis Perkins and John L. Lewis took their cause to Congress, even as the anthracite industry began to wane after World War I. That decline led to some new opportunity for women in the burgeoning garment factories around Pottsville, but for many, marrying a miner was their lot. And if a father or son was killed or laid off, the company could quickly evict the widow and her family from their meager homes.
And yet, these tough women found beauty amid grim conditions. “Flowers,” the fourth movement of Anthracite Fields, is Julia Wolfe’s celebration of the gardens that offered a vibrant contrast to the dominant gray-scale palette of men’s lives in earlier movements. As coal became “king” at the turn of the century, another entrepreneur in eastern Pennsylvania was joining the Montgomery Ward-Sears-Roebuck mail-order revolution. By 1890, W. Atlee Burpee in Doylestown had become the world’s largest seed producer, each spring shipping out their product on the same railroads that carried anthracite. Although at first focused on livestock and vegetables, the rise of experimental hybrids and middle-class aspirations made Burpee’s catalogs and flowers . . . flourish. So that even hard-up, working-class women could grow beauty in small gardens.
Later, in rural Georgia, similar reminiscences shine forth from Alice Walker, who wrote about womanhood, beauty, and creativity at the height of the Civil Rights Movement:
. . . my mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens. . . Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms—sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena. . . and on and on. . . I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible-except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.from Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens
“Poverty seen through a screen of blooms” would be a memory familiar to those women to whom Julia Wolfe gives voice. And in a most odd way, the railroad ads of Phoebe Snow provide a final, disconcerting glimpse of transcendent radiance. Someone accustomed to comfort, she is worlds apart from the dark riches that the miners dug. And yet, like many of us today, she seems blissfully unaware as to whence power comes.
Credit to Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Growing Up in Coal Country (Houston Mifflin 1996), and numerous other sources, particularly explorepahistory.com.
The featured image at the top of this page is of The Mothers’ Memorial in Ashland, Schuylkill County, PA. It features a bronze sculpture based on the famous James McNeill Whistler painting: An Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother. The Mothers’ Memorial was commissioned and erected during the misery of the Great Depression by the Ashland Boys’ Association and dedicated on Labor Day weekend 1938. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) completed the stone masonry work, with the inscription reading, “A mother is the holiest thing alive.”