While going to night school in Tulsa two nights a week during the 1950 summer break, I spent the rest of my time working in my father’s office in Henryetta’s Morgan Building at Fourth and Main the intersection where the Doughboy statue was located long ago) trying to help him with the accounting for the Blackstone mine near Henryetta and several other mines in Oklahoma.
All members of the United Mine Workers across the nation had the same vacation week that summer and all unionized coal mines in the country (which included all the Henryetta mines) shut down for that week in accordance with the union contract. Blackstone’s night watchman wasn’t in the union, so he didn’t qualify for the vacation, but Blackstone’s owners decided he should have a vacation, too. I, who would hardly be missed in the office was to be his replacement. I could easily skip two nights at school.
Blackstone’s tipple to sort coal by size and grade and load it into railroad cars was two miles northeast of town, about a mile north after U.S. highway 75 curved first to the west and then back to the north . This was many years before the Beeline highway from Tulsa existed. The tipple was on the west side of the Frisco railroad that was up a small hill overlooking the highway. The mine entrance was a mile northwest of the tipple.
There, trolley tracks from the underground mining faces exited from the side of a hill and continued to the tipple to haul coal out and take timbers in to prop the mine roofs – and to take the miners into the mine and back out.
At that time, there were several mining “faces” (a face was a coal wall where the miners actually dug the coal with drills, dynamite, etc.)_to the shower house near the mine entrance. At that time, there were several mining faces (a “face” is a place here they are mining coal with drills, dynamite, etc.) and they were all four or five miles inside the mine, to places under the ground close to settlement or town called Wilson.
A supply-equipment house- welding shop was just outside the exit of the trolley tracks. Across the tracks was a shower house for the miners to clean up after their work shifts and leave their heavy unbelievably dirty work clothes in lockers.
I started “watching” each evening about 5 p.m. wondering how I would kill time until the non-union top-side employees, Bob Lewis and his welder son “Doc” arrived in the morning to do whatever they did when the mine wasn’t working.
There is more information about Bob Lewis later in this story and there will be still more in a later story.
There was a big globe lamp above the steps and door of the supply house and I spent many hours sitting on the steps under the big globe lamp. It had just been five years since WWII had ended and Life magazine had just issued a pictorial book about it.
Since the U. S. was in the war from my sixth grade year until just before the start of my sophomore year, I perused that book every night. It added to the memories I’ve always had of that horrible war that affected the lives of all children and adults, at home and abroad every day, and many times each day, but unified our country more than it has ever been since.coon hunters
In the first night’s wee hours, my reading was suddenly interrupted by a pack of yelping dogs racing past. Then four men ran past with shotguns. I was in the middle of a coon hunt, and neither the dogs nor the men so much as took notice of me (I didn’t see the coon.) That activity surprised me again the next night, but after that I expected it.
For all I knew, vacationing coal miners had always like to chase invisible coons past coal mine entrances to make the watchman’s hair stand on end.
After the first night’s coon hunters had passed, the Steckleberg mine watchman yelled across the draw between the two mines and asked Blackstone’s watchman (wish I could recall his name) the hunter’s identities. I told him the regular watchman was on vacation and invited him over to talk and kill time, or I could go over there – like what is the chance of a coal mine being stolen if its watchman left his station?
He must have decided I was still wet behind the ears, which I was, because he didn’t answer and I never heard from him again.
So back to the Life book and trying to figure out the use of some of the strange things in the supply house – it was the first time I ever saw things like Timken roller bearings.
miner lampI occasionally crossed the trolley tracks to the shower house to see if anyone was trying to steal the showers or the miners’ heavy black work clothes, and to put on a miner cap what a headlamp, so I could strut around as “Super Miner” for a while.
But I didn’t cross the trolley tracks often. A big and extremely high-voltage trolley wire to run the trolley motor was just 5 feet above the tracks and would fry me in an instant if I touched it.
No part of me ever came within two feet of it – I practically crawled across the tracks. Thinking back, I don’t know how the coon hunters missed it.
Before dawn each morning, I wore a miner’s cap to walk the mile on the trolley line to the tipple to see if it had been stolen – keeping as far from the trolley wire as possible.
I always waited until about 4 a.m. to allow the nightly coon hunt to pass and to give those who wanted to steal something plenty of time to get away before I had to try to stop them. But I always carried a crowbar, on the side away from the wire, just in case a slow thief was still there. If I’d ever had to use it, I would probably have hit the trolley wired and wouldn’t be telling this story.
I didn’t shave all week, but being just 20 and a small person at that, I grew such a puny beard that I shaved off what I had grown and never tried that again. I was never a night watchman again, either – unless I count the many times I walked guard posts to successfully help the U. S. Army keep the North Koreans out of Alabama – thankfully without having a nearby trolley wire.
I never went coon hunting either, but I can still hear those yelping dogs.
It has just recently occurred to me that with the mine closed for the week, the electricity in the trolley wire might even have been turned off, and there was no need to be afraid of it at all. I guess I could have tried to find out by throwing some metal to hit it, but I was so afraid of it that I wouldn’t have even been willing to try that.
Bob Lewis, mentioned near the beginning of this, was the top-side foreman at Blackstone. Ned Wilson was the underground foreman. I first met Bob Lewis when Blackstone’s owners (R. E. Taylor, that my father always called “The Old Man” until he died, and his sons, Ellis and Gene Taylor) had a strip mine near Arma, Kansas, 20 miles north of Pittsburg, Kansas. My family lived in Pittsburg from late October 1935 (I was just five then) to May 1938 while my father was the accountant for that operation.
Bob Lewis was a foreman there, too, and had been the topside Henryetta Blackstone foreman before the Kansas strip operation started. His son, Doc, was a welder in his 20s then, and had also worked at Henryetta’s Blackstone before working for the Kansas strip mining operation. Bob and his family, including his daughter, whose later married name in Henryetta was Geraldine Siegenthaler, lived north of Pittsburg in Arcadia, Kansas.
TCoal Carhe strip mine and my father’s office was in a rural area and my father sometimes took me to work with him on Saturdays. While he worked in a small office building, I ran around on the top of abandoned strip pits full of water, explored a small overgrown cemetery, crossed a little creek back and forth by stepping on conveniently placed rocks, and watched trucks full of coal come to be weighed and to dump their coal into an underground pit where a conveyor took it up to a chute where it could be loaded into rail cars. Bob Lewis sort of watched over me when he was in that area and cautioned me many times about running around on the tops of strip pits full of water.
A few times, he took me up into the cabin of the large strip shovel at the working pit (about a mile from the pits I ran around on near my father’s office). When the Kansas leases were mined out, the Taylors reopened Blackstone in Henryetta, and we, along with Bob and his family moved back there.
Back in Henryetta, Bob also became known by my two sisters (Betty older and now deceased, and Dora, younger and living in Poteau) and all three of us kids thought he was very special, like an uncle or even better, and he even had us call him “Bob” instead of “Mr. Lewis.” He often came by our house to give my father information Bob had gathered from the small cars of coal that had come from the various mine faces that my father used to compute the amount of coal removed from beneath the property of various property owners so the owners of Blackstone could pay them their correct amounts of royalties.mine props
But a serious event took place at the tipple one day in the early 40s. While at the tipple, Bob tried to reach in a part of the moving shakers that separated the coal by size or grade, intending to adjust some moving machinery. One of his arms was caught in the machinery and was tragically yanked off from his shoulder.
After telling the tipple supervisor to call an ambulance, Bob grabbed the veins and arteries at his should and walked down the hill to wait for the ambulance beside highway 75. When the ambulance arrived, the men in it could hardly get him to turn loose. After recovering from that terrible injury, Bob went back to work as the Blackstone’s one-armed top-side foreman.
There will be more about Bob Lewis in another story.
Note: This story repeatedly refers to the “Blackstone” mine, which was the mine’s name. But for clarification, “Blackstone” was merely the name of the last of several mines operated by a corporation named “Ben Hur Coal Company” which was owned by the Taylor family that is mentioned in the story.