Ginny Savage Ayers on Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks

In 1986, former United Press International reporter Lon Savage published Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21, a popular history of the little known battle between the miners and coal operators in southern West Virginia.

The book influenced, among others, John Sayles, writer and director of the movie Matewan.

When Savage passed away in 2004, he left behind an incomplete book manuscript about a lesser-known Mother Jones crusade in the coal fields of West Virginia.

His daughter Ginny Savage Ayers drew on his notes and files, as well as her own original research, to complete Never Justice, Never Peace – the first book-length account of the Paint Creek – Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–13 – just published by West Virginia University Press.

In the book, Savage and Ayers offer a narrative history of the strike that weaves together threads about organizer Mother Jones, the United Mine Workers union, politicians, coal companies, and Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency guards with the experiences of everyday men and women.

Thunder in the Mountains had a deep imprint on many young people – as did the John Sayles’ movie Matewan.

There was a connection between your dad and Sayles, right?

“John Sayles had traveled through West Virginia as a college student,” Ayers told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “He had heard some things about the mine wars. He was intrigued by it. But he left it at that for many years. At some point, he decided he wanted to make a movie about that and he wrote the script for Matewan. He and his partner Maggie Renzi came to West Virginia in the mid 1980s. When he came, some of the local people asked Sayles – do you know about Thunder in the Mountains? And he said no. And they said – well, you need to read this. He got a hold of the book.”

“Sayles contacted my dad. They met over lunch and they talked. At that point, my dad was working on the second edition of Thunder in the Mountains – the one published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1990. He asked John Sayles to write the forward for that edition that came out in 1990.”

The mine wars your dad wrote about were in 1920 and 1921. Your book focuses on the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Rebellion, which was ten years earlier or so – around 1912. That rebellion led up to the mine wars your dad wrote about.

“There was a lot of commonality, many of the same grievances. And some of the same characters – Frank Keeney, Dan ‘Few Clothes’ Chain, who was a character in the movie Matewan. In the 1912 and 1913 rebellion, the union was undeveloped. Paint Creek had some union miners. In Cabin Creek, the union had been completely kicked out.

Paint Creek and Cabin Creek run north south parallel to each other and they both run into the Kanawha River just south of Charleston. It’s about 100 miles northeast of Matewan, where the mine wars occured ten years later.”

Did you know much about Mother Jones before you began research on this book?

“Not at all. I heard of Mother Jones magazine. And I didn’t know much about that. I didn’t know anything, other than what my dad mentioned in passing, when I was still a teenager living under the same roof.”

What did you learn about her?

“I had this not well formed impression of her being this mythical person. I wasn’t sure how much I believed my dad. I thought he might have been exaggerating about her antics. I learned about her life, especially her earlier life, and some of the tragedy she lived through – it shaped who she became.”

“She was born in 1838 in Cork, Ireland. She was a child during the famine. Her father moved the family to North America during the 1840s. He first came with his son and then the rest of the family came later. She was a young lady in Canada. And then Chicago. And she became a school teacher. She moved to Memphis where she married a union laborer named George Jones. They had four kids.”

“Then in 1867, her husband and all four kids died of yellow fever within one week. She nursed them, took care of them, and watched them die one by one during this yellow fever epidemic. She remained to help care for other sick people. It was a horrible time that she lived through. And she doesn’t really express the full extent of her grief at the time.”

“She moved back to Chicago. She became a seamstress. She worked doing seamstress work for wealthy clients who lived in these nice houses with fancy clothes and fancy curtains. She sewed for them, while she observed these disparities between their lives and the lives of the people she felt more a part of – the laborers.”

“The Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed her seamstress business and everything she owned. At this point, her life had undergone incredible tragedy that most people could not imagine. She still brings herself out of the ashes.”

She was about 33 years old at the time of the Chicago fire.

“Still a very young woman. She disappears for a while. There is not a whole lot that people can find out about her at this time. But she emerges again and starts going to labor meetings. She starts going to rallies. And eventually, she inserts herself into the labor movement. She makes friends with people like Eugene Debs. And she is involved with the formation of the International Workers of the World (IWW). She grows into the labor movement. She takes on the cause of the workers and their families. And that’s how she became Mother Jones.”

Her name was Mary T. Harris Jones. How much time did she spend in West Virginia organizing union activity there?

“She came and went. She first came in 1897. She did some agitating in the northern part of the state. She caused trouble up there. She was put in jail for a few days. At the time, they used injunctions as a tool law enforcement used. The judges would put injunctions saying – you can’t even talk about unions. And Mother Jones would talk about unions and she would be arrested.”

“That was her first visit. And then she came back around 1902. And in that time, the miners in the southern part of the state were trying to get organized. In 1902, she was around the Cabin Creek area. And she did successfully get the union started there. But after she left, that union failed. The operators went back on the contract, wouldn’t honor the contract. And the union was kicked out. That was around 1902 to 1904.”

“The next time she came back to West Virginia was around 1912. She came all the way across the country from Montana, where she was doing some other labor work.”

She was organizing across the country. You report that she made a stop in Kansas with a millionaire socialist friend in Kansas, Julius Wayland, the publisher of the popular newspaper Appeal to Reason.

“He wasn’t there at the time, so she jumps on the train and heads to West Virginia. The day she gets to Charleston, she gets on another train and heads to the coal fields.”

Did you come across any biographies of her?

“She wrote an autobiography, which is entertaining. It’s priceless. But it is not completely accurate. For one thing, she had a penchant for exaggerating. But it is valuable to get her view. It captures her emotion and her passion. And it’s good to get dates and details.”

“Then in 2001 or so, Dr. Elliot Gorn came out with his biography – Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Dr. Gorn’s biography is well researched and in depth.”

When Mother Jones arrives in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912, did the miners know of her?

“Yes, definitely. There were rumors that went around that she was coming. They would come around the train station and line the tracks and wait for her, because they heard she was on the train and she was coming. She would get off the train and they would all just mill around her and be all excited and cry. There were accounts, not just her account, that said that family members and miners would cry at the sight of her because they knew that she was there to help them.”

What was the situation in the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek area when she arrived?

“Their main complaint was the way the mine companies controlled their lives. The companies owned their homes. They were not allowed to buy a home – even if they had the means.”

“The companies would take the rent out of their paycheck even before they got the paycheck. The miners bought everything from the company owned store. The company controlled the prices. They could increase the prices. They would pay the miners in scrip, which was this artificial money that was only good at the company store.”

“Since the company owned the homes, they also told the miners who they could and could not have come to visit them. If there were union people, union organizers who wanted to come in, the operators or their supervisors would say – no, we are not allowing that person to come see you. We own that house and that person can’t come into the house.”

“It was that kind of control over their lives that had been going on for years. Things were getting desperate for them. At first, the strike essentially came down to a disagreement over pay. Part of it was pay. But the miners gave in on that demand. But they still wanted some other changes. They wanted more freedom. But those talks broke down. And that’s when the strike started.”

“Soon after that, the Baldwin Felts guards were brought in to supposedly maintain peace. That essentially had the effect of agitating unrest even more. It was this escalating effect. That’s kind of how things were. There had been some shooting even before Mother Jones got there. There was violence. There was a lot of unrest. There was fear.”

Was it clear that Mother Jones’ presence escalated the violence?

“Some of her speeches fed on the anxiety and fear that was already present. They needed to hear that their cause was just. When they got that confirmation or affirmation from Mother Jones, that encouraged them to continue on. Some of her speeches certainly agitated them more and made them more angry, and made them see how unjustly they were being treated. It wasn’t like she created that violence.”

What was the result of the strike? And how did the violence evolve?

“There were several gun battles throughout the year. There were several deaths – of both miners and mine guards. The Governor declared martial law three times.”

“There was the Bull Moose Special shooting in February 1913. Some mine operators and sheriff deputies were on the train. The Chesapeake and Ohio train company allowed them to use the Bull Moose Special, which was an armored train to transport scabs – strike breakers. I think it was February 7, 2013, the train slowly crept up the track, and when it got to Holly Grove on Paint Creek, there was a gun battle. It was one of those where nobody knows who shot the first shot. But there was some good testimony in a hearing that my dad and I derived a lot of material from.”

“That was a big flash point. One miner died at Holly Grove. He was hit while trying to get his family into safety. He was hit by a bullet and died instantly. That was a huge flash point for the miners. For the next several days, there were these running battles in the hills. Martial law was declared for the third time.”

What is martial law?

“The military rules the area under martial law. Everybody had to turn in their guns. There are some great pictures of stacks of weapons that the military collected. They started sweeping through and arrested dozens and dozens of people they thought were involved in the unrest overall.“

The union was effectively crushed for the next ten years?

“Even when the strike was supposedly resolved, it wasn’t resolved to the miners’ satisfaction. The main demand that the miners wanted was union recognition — the right to form a union, to join a union, to go to union meetings. And that was just one thing that the operators would not give in on.”

Were the workers forced back to work?

“Yes. During the summer of 1913. There was back and forth between the union, the governor, the operators, the rank and file – it was difficult to come to any sort of agreement. The governor at that time was Henry Hatfield. He was adamant that the two sides needed to come together. But it was tortuous trying to come to an agreement. Basically, Hatfield got to the point where he said – miners you are going back to work.”

How did the rebellion in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek lead to the mine wars ten years later in Matewan and Blair Mountain that your father wrote about?

“There was a resolution in 1913, but it wasn’t a good resolution. Some of the people involved in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek – Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney – they became more involved in the local union – UMWA District 17. Things quieted down more or less, under the radar. But there was still a lot of underlying tension and unhappiness. It was inevitable that since those issues were not resolved, they were going to rise again. And they did. There would be more violence.”

Do the politics of this era resonate with you now?

“For one thing, it seems we haven’t learned the lessons. Things haven’t changed that much. The way the wealthy class treats the working class. It has sort of reverted back. There is this attitude that people of lower income classes can be taken advantage of and it’s okay. Somehow, they don’t have the rights of the upper classes.”

“For many people, it’s not an overt conscious way of thinking or of believing, but it’s sort of ingrained in our politics, in our culture and in our economy.”

“In the introduction, Lou Martin quotes one of the coal field operators – Justus Collins of the New River Coal Fields. ‘We are not running a Christian Endeavor Camp Meeting nor a Sunday School,’ he wrote to his brother. ‘A certain amount of decency and order must be required of our people. But never lose sight of the fact that the sole purpose of the organization is to make money for their stockholders.’ Any matters of conduct that worked against that end ‘should be promptly squelched with a heavy hand.’”

“The sole purpose of the organization is to make money for stockholders.” That sort of encapsulates what the attitudes were then and what they are today.

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Ginny Savage Ayers, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 35(12), Monday September 3, 2018, print edition only.]

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..