A Rugged Duo: Coal Mining and the Depression

My mother often talked about her first husband, Joe Mills [son of James], and the day he died in 1935 during a mine cave-in near Midland.

Mom, Mabel Frances McKenzie, from Garrett County, married Joe Mills in 1928. She was seventeen and he was twenty three years old. I have a photo of them standing together. Smiling, with his left arm around Mom and his right hand holding a cigarette, Joe is slender and looks to be about 5’5″ tall. They lived in Midland.

August 26, 1929 Mom gave birth to a still born baby boy. Unable to get out of bed on the day of his funeral, Joe carried the tiny coffin into their bedroom so Mom could see her little boy. The baby was buried in the Belvedere Cemetery, which later became St. Joseph Cemetery. Joe and Mom had no other children.

A butcher by trade, Joe lost his job during the Great Depression. Mom said butchers were not in much demand during these rough times, and Joe could not find a job. Mom remembered Joe as an easy-going, good-natured guy. When she fretted out loud about owing a business money, Joe would say,
“Well, Mabel, there’s no use in two people worrying about the same bill.”

Mom received letters from her sister, Freda, living in Los Angeles, saying jobs were plentiful in California, and Joe was bound to find one. By bus they traveled to Los Angeles and moved in with Freda and her husband. Joe did not find a job. In fact, they found themselves so broke in California that they returned to Midland by hopping freight trains when no one was looking. Mom said many thousands of poor, honest people traveled this way. When Joe and Mom got hungry they jumped off the train and stopped at “hobo camps.” The camps, constructed of make-shift tents and flimsy structures, were where good men and women, in the same predicament, fed Mom and Joe soup made from begged or clipped ingredients, gathered from surrounding farms and homes. Once home in Midland Joe found work at a Georges Creek Coal Company mine.

Although this tragedy occurred years before I was born, I remember details of what Mom said about it, because it struck me as so eerie.

That morning began as usual. Mom and Joe awoke early. In the kitchen Mom made his breakfast and packed his lunch bucket, while Joe sipped coffee and tied up his boots. Suddenly, a rocking chair began rocking, by itself, with some force. They watched it for a time when Joe said he knew it was an omen. Mom said she had no idea what an omen was. Joe explained that it was a warning that someone, in one of their families, would soon die. He assured her that, since they witnessed the omen, it would not be one of them. He said, that to be on the safe side, he did not want her to do the laundry as she had planned that day. It was better, he said, if she did not go outside to hang the wet clothes on the clothes line. (At this point in the story, I always thought about how much Joe loved Mom, to be more concerned about her than himself.) Joe went to work.

Later that day Mom heard the loud, shrill mining alarm whistle. She ran outside to watch people pouring from their homes and racing toward the mine. She joined them. When she neared the mine, she passed a man who had already been there and was returning to town. She asked him if anyone had been killed in the cave-in. He said, “Yeah, a little guy.”

Joe was buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Midland. After a State Industrial Accident Commission hearing in Cumberland, the commission ordered the Georges Creek Coal Company to pay Mom a lump sum of $432.68. Joe’s funeral cost $416.80.

Authored By: Mary Beechie Schmidt

How can you help?

The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of the state Route 36 and the national Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor our Georges Creek Valley miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donantions can be mailed to the Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.

Please email: Polla Horn or Bucky Schriver to share your thoughts and stories.

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