Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Company Store

At the beginning of this series I'd posted a link to Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "Sixteen Tons", a song which laments the life of a coal miner.  A mainstay in the song are the lyrics "I owe my soul to the company store".   This refers to the lifestyle differences between the mere coal mine workers and the "esteemed" coal mine honchos. 

Back in the heyday of coal mining, the mine owners didn't just own the mines, they owned the towns in which they were located.  The miners lived in company owned homes, shopped at the company owned store, and, in many ways, were kept hostage by the company itself.  Often the miners' pay went straight to the company to pay the rent and heating.  Credits were given at the store, which took payment directly from the miners' wages. 

Eckley Miner's Village is a prime example of a coal mining town, complete with the company store and a doctor's office. You can take a virtual tour of this popular Pennsylvania "attraction" on the website (the links to the videos were not working for me tonight, but I have seen them before so if a link doesn't work for you, try again later).  Eckley is one of my "must-see" spots in PA if I ever make it there for my genealogy trip: My paternal grandmother and her family lived there after they'd returned to PA from Kansas in around 1915.

As we learned last week, miners' pay was generally dependent upon the amount of quality coal they brought in.  If there was too much slate in the coal car of a miner, that miner's pay was docked. Given this and the practice of the coal company taking certain deductions from the miners' pay to cover their rent and food, it was really tough for someone to move up and move on; putting money aside was just not an easy thing to do even outside of the low wages to begin with.

But you better believe that if a miner wasn't pulling his weight, it was easy for the boss to get rid of him!


Apple said...

Eckley is well worth the trip! The day we went there was only one other visitor so we had a really nice tour. One way the families made extra money was by taking in boarders. I was amazed at how many people sometimes lived in a tiny space.

lindalee said...

Same story with the steel workers. My paternal grandparents lived in Woodlawn, PA the company town of J & L Steel company on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh. In this town the managers even kept the various ethnic groups on separate streets.

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Nancy said...

Colleen, thanks for this series on PA coal mining. It was very interesting and I especially liked that you found the youtube videos to include. My coalmining Doyles came from Northumberland, UK, to western Pennsylvania where they mined bituminous coal. I don't know if mining was the same or similar for both varieties but from the research I've done, I think there were many similarities.

My father, his father, and his grandfather dug a coal mine in their property in Stoneboro, PA. They (except for my father) also worked in the mines not on their property. I have a photo of my grandfather and a group of men who had just come up from the mine. My father's half-sister also told a story about my father and the mine on their property. I'll post it on my blog one of these days, though it will be a post about my father, Lee, rather than a post about coal mining. We have other family who worked in other Mercer Co. mines, too, and my gggrandfather operated a little grocery store where he sold mining equipment, though it wasn't a company store.

Anyway, thanks for posting about coal mining.

A rootdigger said...

gosh, I had heard Tennesse Ernie Fords songs hundreds of times and not once had I listened to the words enough to realize "company store" meaning. It was nice to have the song sink in here at your blog post.