Life is Life: A Mining Family in The West
Coal mining was essential to the development of the American West. Mining was labor intensive and spread over a wide area. Miners and their families lived in company towns and small communities with names like Cokedale, Madrid, Rock Springs, and Helper. Mining brought ethnic diversity to the rural West. In 1901 thirty-two nationalities were living in the Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) company towns and 27 different languages were being spoken. The CF&I was not unique: Finns, Greeks, Italians, and Slavs predominated in Utah mines; Polish and Slavish miners composed a large part of the population around Sheridan, Wyoming; Finns, Slovenes, Italians, Scots and Asians worked along the Union Pacific line near Rock Springs. Blacks from the Deep South found their way West, and Mexican immigrants crossed the border to work the mines. By 1921 there were more than 30,000 coal miners working in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Like so many other young boys, Victor quit school and started in the mines as a trapper, opening the doors to let the mule trains through and closing them afterward to keep the ventilation system from short circuiting. After three months trapping, he told the boss in his new language, “Me like driven,” and soon after he graduated to mule driver, making the big money, $2.95 for ten hours. The mines ground harsh edges on men, hardened them, and taught an existential fatalism; “Life is life,” Victor said.
When still a boy, Victor was the last one to leave the mine one evening. He had backed the coal car up close to the face and was loading coal. He chunked up his final car of the day and was ready to go home. As usual, he threw his tools on the car and climbed up expecting to be hauled to the surface. “Gee,” he yelled at the mule, “Haw.” The mule refused to move. The entry was narrow and Victor couldn’t squeeze past the loaded coal car. Trapped! Everyone had gone home. He cursed the mule, called it devil, threatened and cajoled but nothin’ worked; the mule penned him up for hours in the dark mine. When he finally got home it was very late at night. “Nobody was thinking I was working extra,” He said, “Nobody missed me either. Mamma neither. My stepfather either. And I was late from five o’clock on.” The lesson was not lost on the boy miner or the old man who remembered. Victor’s memory catalogued the inhumanity of life in the mines where life was cheap:
Like all the other old timers, he kept a mental tally of those who died unshrivened and unmourned:
THE 1913-1914 COAL STRIKE
There had been major coal strikes in Colorado in 1882, 1893, and 1903 but the bloodiest strike took place in 1913. By the time the strike came along Victor was a hard eyed miner of twenty one. Practical reality, more than political ideology, led him to join the union. Mike Livoda, a local union organizer, analyzed the miners’ feelings this way:
On September 23, in the midst of an early mountain snowstorm, Victor and thousands of other miners were evicted from company property. Armed guards swaggered around jeering as miners loaded their families and meager belongings on wagons and plodded down the canyons. The exodus streamed down to Ludlow where the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) was setting-up a tent colony to house the strikers. In the tents a spirit of camaraderie and community prevailed. The grinding struggle to survive was lessened by the union strike fund which supported the strikers. Victor remembered: “We were kind of happy you know, we were getting three dollars a week for food and we were making it. Potatoes, sometimes a little meat.” Some of the miners played instruments and in the evenings Ludlow rang with folk songs Italian, Hispanos, American, and Greek. Still, there was hardship. Several times Southern Colorado was paralyzed by blizzards. Deep snows collapsed the tents, and when the sun came out the tent colony became a sea of mud. There was a union organizer from each ethnic group. Charlie Costa from Cedarhill was Victor’s friend and the leader of the Italians. Louis Tikas was the leader of the Greeks, Mike Livoda helped organize the Slavs, and John Lawson had overall charge of the strike.
At some point, after the national guard was called out but before Victor’s rifle was confiscated, Victor found himself in a gun fight and probably killed a militia man. In the interview Victor’s son, Aldo, asked: “Did you shoot a militia?” Victor became evasive, “No. We couldn’t. I had no bullets.” There were strangers in the house and, after all, this was murder we were talking about. He changed the topic and the conversation ranged over different subjects. But Victor’s son kept returning to the shooting. Little by little, with some prodding from Aldo, this story emerged:
Aldo: After you were over at the bridge on the corner over here remember? In the ditch, and you had a gun then, right? You and Ancheety. Did you shoot a militia man then?
Victor: Well, I thought I did, but I don’t know for sure. How could you tell? I see him throw his gun away and flop to the ground, but I don’t know. How in the hell I know he was dead or not?
Aldo: Was he shooting at the tent colony?
Victor: He was shooting, right. No he was shooting at me. Three or four bullets right in the cedar below. And he caught that cedar every time, but the bullets wouldn’t go through. A small rifle I guess. Oh he was shooting at me. And then I said where in the hell is he shooting from? And only once I saw a light, kinda flashing light.
Aldo: What kind of gun you have?
Victor: Oh, I had a 25-35. That first gun.
Aldo: That’s the one the militia got.
Victor: That’s the one they got. Yeah it was in the fold of the tent. Yeah.
Aldo: So you saw a flash?
Victor: Yeah, a flash. Like the barrel of a gun, and I watched it. Then I saw him. There’s the bugger. There he is. So I leveled up and hold it about three feet high. ‘Cause that gun wouldn’t carry, you know. 25 35 or something like that. It was a little bullet you know but it wouldn’t carry. It had an awful drop. I took about three foot high and I let him have it. And his gun dropped over. I saw the same light again, the barrel you know, and him fall but I didn’t know if he was dead or not. Most likely wounded. But I’m not sure he was dead.
Aldo: What did you do, take off?
Victor: Oh, I took off, in a hurry too. I didn’t want no more bullets to fly in there. Right in the bottom of the cedar tree come the bullets. Not one of them got me.
Flapping canvas offered scant protection from the bullets swarming through the Ludlow tent colony. Women screamed and children cried as they scrambled into the shallow pits the miners had dug beneath the tents. Automatically Victor reached for his rifle, and remembered with a jerk that the militia had confiscated it only days before. Strikers with guns ran to dirt breastworks that they had constructed and began firing back at the militia. Bullets from 30 30’s were not accurate at this range, but they kept the militia from charging. Victor helped others escape from the doomed colony. Crouching low, they dashed to the safety of an arroyo a hundred yards to the north. There, peering over the dirt bank, Victor spent the day. Afraid to leave the safety of the ditch, the survivors watched sick with horror while the Militia finished the job. In Victor’s mind the events of that day were never laid to rest. His words tumbled out in an agitated rush:
Firing continued sporadically all day. In the midst of the battle, Victor said, a “fellow immigrant” climbed out of the arroyo and crawled “belly down like a snake” to his tent to rescue his concertina. He crawled back with the squeeze box on his back, took it out and played. “Crazy son of a bitch,” said Victor, “ain’t you got enough?” “Oh no, looky,” he said “I’m going to play schottische. And he did, the noise drove us crazy.”
Victor’s memories are entirely different from the carefully weighed discussions of the historians or journalists. As the old man talked, a door opened across sixty eight years; between his sobs you could hear the crackle of gunfire and the wails of women. I will never forget the pale afternoon or the name Bazanele, Victor Bazanele:
Josephine Bazanele comforted her husband, “Now papa, don’t get sentimental.” After a moment I asked, “Charlie Costa was killed too?”
The next day it was discovered that 11 children and 2 women had suffocated in a cellar beneath one of the tents. The miners regrouped in the Black Hills a few miles east of Ludlow. There the union officials caught up with them. The women and children were brought into town and the men formed into fighting bands. Mike Livoda and the other organizers brought food, ammunition, and plans for revenge. Victor went into town to “Camp Beshoar” where the strikers put up a new tents city and the union passed out rifles. At this time he had decided to kill General Chase, in revenge for the deaths at Ludlow:
General Chase had his headquarters in the Columbian Hotel in Trinidad. He was heavily guarded and it would have been suicide to try to assassinate him. Victor left town and joined the other miners in the hills. The miners fought a pitched battle at the Forbes mine, the camp was destroyed and several Japanese strikebreakers were killed when the boarding house was torched. Mines and tipples were dynamited. In their rage at companies that valued mules over men the miners burned their nemeses in the barns. Many died on both sides in the guerrilla warfare, which came to be known as the Ten Days War. The violence didn’t end until April 29 when federal troops dispatched by President Woodrow Wilson arrived in the coal fields and disarmed both sides. Victor was not reassured:
However, of all the thousands of words that have been written on Ludlow, Victor Bazanele’s conclusion rings forever in my mind: “You know everything that happened like this is mostly cruelty, believe in cruelty. Yeah. Because its been done. Lots of it before. Everything is done in cruelty.” Almost every miner knew of the Ludlow strike, and it came to be seen as an epiphany, a germinal event in the development of community consciousness. Communal Identity was forged in life and death struggle with a common enemy. The conflict encouraged miners to begin to set ethnic identification, and animosity aside. The strike was the start of a decades long process of assimilation and community building.
THE “GOOD OLD DAYS:” 1915 1927
After the strike life went on in the dusty coal camps of Southern Colorado. Barbed wire and searchlights came down, miners went back to work, children returned to their classrooms, and company stores did a brisk business. Victor put it philosophically: “You might as well dance with them, you can’t do nothing fighting them.” Conditions slowly began to improve and the miners remember the years from 1915 through the roaring twenties as the “good old days.” John D. Rockefeller, owner of the CF&I, announced the formation of a new labor institution, which he called The Colorado Industrial Plan. The Rockefeller Plan, as everyone called it, was one of the first company unions. Grievance procedures were spelled out in detail; miners could only be fired with cause. Much of the plan had to do with the transformation of barren company towns into livable communities. Under the Rockefeller Plan the company built new houses. And YMCA’s were built in the coal camps to provide recreational opportunities. Life in Berwind and Tabasco improved.
During World War I the price of coal soared and every able-bodied miner was called to the pits. In the midst of the wartime boom, almost three years to the day after Ludlow, another tragedy rocketed the Southern Field into the headlines. Colorado’s worst mine disaster occurred on April 27, 1917 when the Hastings No. 2 mine exploded, killing 121 miners. Victor and the other miners raced over to the neighboring canyon, but there was little anybody could do. Victor’s eyes were again assaulted by bodies, dozens of burned black corpses laying in the machine shop all in a file with identification tags tied to each big toe. War fever was high and jingoist residents of Trinidad blamed the explosion on Austrian saboteurs. Because he still identified with his homeland, Victor remembered that with particular bitterness:At Trinidad was sixty men with rifles and pistols, ready to come up and pick off all the widows and kids. And they’d send them back to the old country. The little ones, kids, after their man is dead laying on the ground outside the mine… and they was coming to take the widows and take them foreigners out, back to the old country.
Explosions and gun fire were the only noises to pierce the veil of silence shrouding the coal fields. After the Hastings tragedy, Southern Colorado returned to obscurity. During the war, and a brief period of post war prosperity, the mines worked overtime. Changes wrought by the Rockefeller Plan benefited both the miners and the local economy. Interurban streetcars connected the coal camps to Trinidad and the economy boomed. With money in their overalls and no longer forced to shop at the company store, the miners brought their business to local merchants. Many bought cars. Movies and radio helped break the coal community’s isolation.
The war in Europe had slowed immigration to a trickle, but ethnic miners had not relinquished their ties to the old country. “We lost the war” said Victor. He meant Germany. Relatives back in Tyrolia were suffering, but in the coal camps 1921 was the most prosperous year ever; almost 15,000 miners were working in Colorado. Victor saved his money, and in that boom year he sent to the Tyrol for Josephine, his bride to be.
As Josephine put it, “He was my third cousin and first love….And I have to marry him and I’ve been getting had ever since.” Her son tried to make light of it: “But you love it?” and she replied “I didn’t have no choice. I marry him, so I have to stick to it.” The future Mrs. Victor Bazanele was detained at Ellis Island but Victor wrote to President Wilson: “I sent Mr. President a telegram. I says, please let my sweetheart loose.” It must have worked. Josephine came on the Santa Fe Railroad. Listen as Josephine’s strong voice adds a new dimension to the Bazanele saga:
During the interview with Victor, Josephine had stood in the doorway listening. A raw-boned woman with steel gray hair and a no nonsense look about her, she wore a homemade chintz house dress. Several times when Victor broke down she quieted him matter of factly “Now don’t get sentimental papa.” But she stayed out of the conversation, this was Victor’s hour, during the strike she was still in Tyrolia. And, I suspect she was sick of hearing about it. At one point Victor tried to get her to tell the story of their wedding but she warned him to leave her out of it. Later we all moved into the kitchen for coffee and once on her turf, even though the tape recorder was still on she joined the conversation. There is a family joke about what happened after the wedding, it was probably not funny at the time but gained humor in the retelling. Josephine had been here for about a week. Victor had set her up in a furnished room in Trinidad and they got married. Then he disappeared. He was going to work and then hanging around with his bachelor buddies just like before. Eventually somebody went looking for him to tell him his wife was looking for him. “My wife?!” said Victor, “Oh Christ almighty. What the hell I’m married!?” (laughter).
There are thousands of photographs of coal mines, strikes and disasters skewing our images of history. It is important to notice that no photographers recorded the day-to-day work life of a coal miner’s wife. Luckily we have Josephine’s words which may be more graphic than any photograph:
To add insult to injury, in the early twenties crosses were burned on canyon walls above the mine camps. In Southern Colorado, Ku Klux Klan activity was not so much racism against blacks as an expression of Anglo American hatred of immigrants. The rigid class system of the mines and towns was breaking down. Immigrants became citizens and occasionally “foreigners” even moved up to become bosses in the mines. Prosperity, union organizing, company plans and new fangled ideas threatened the old pecking order. The good Anglo Burghers and poor white trash hid beneath masks and bed sheets to spread terror and keep Dagos, garlic snappers, goddamn Greeks, and Bohunks in their place. Victor had his trusty Marlin, the one the union gave him to use in the ten days war, and when the “Ku Ku Klan” burned a cross above his house he let it be known that “If any son of a bitch comes down here I’m going to kill him.” The Klan may have been stupid, but they weren’t dumb; nobody came down.
While Victor fought to protect his family, assert his dignity as a man, and make a living in the mines; Josephine struggled to raise four children and do the housework. She remembered a different set of hardships:
The Bazanele’s made a home out of the company house at Bear Canyon. They paid rent to the company but upkeep was their responsibility. Josephine’s summer gardens were always the most beautiful in camp. She prided herself on Dahlias as big as dinner plates, and vibrant stands of gladiolus to brighten up the drab coal camp. Something good was always cooking, fresh bread, jams and jellies in late summer, and wonderful berry pies. But, this meant a lifetime of hard work for Josephine. She scrubbed the floors on her hands and knees, and white washed the walls:
The song Dark as a Dungeon eloquently expressed the men’s attraction to the work: “Like a fiend for his dope, or a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mine.” “It gets in your blood,” the old timers tell you. Making a living loading coal by the ton was physically demanding, it hardened your body. But strength wasn’t enough. If you wanted to live, you learned practical knowledge quickly: seat of the pants geology, engineering, and a working understanding of explosives. You became a carpenter, a blacksmith, a mule skinner, and more. You utilized fluid mechanics to ventilate the room, and surveying to drive a straight tunnel. Miners lived and died by the shear and stress of rock mechanics. Mining practices literally created the conditions under which they worked. If a bad shot fractured the roof, you might have to eat your lunch under that spot every day.
Miners worked as a team, from the partners who looked out for each other to the entire brotherhood of miners. Coal miners created a union which at one time was the most unified in America. Among the miners, there was an endless conversation about coal mining. They joke that they talked about sex in the mine and mining in the bedroom. Night and day the bars were full of men drinking beer and talking about the mine. Even today the old timers gather in the parks and on the courthouse steps to “mine coal.” Part of the miners’ bond was danger, part challenge; there was an existential fatalism in the face of death. The mix of sinew, hormones and male bonding, like that experienced by combat teams in wartime, forged strong attachments between men.
The lot for women was different: isolated and oppressed. Lucy Parsons the wife of Albert Parsons the Haymarket martyr, called working-class women “The slaves of slaves.” Josephine Bazanele described the intimate burden: ”When everything go wrong in the mine he come out and take it out on the women, you know, or the kids. My old man used to do it a lot of times. I don’t know for why; and so little by little I understood. He says, something was wrong in the mine and got to let the steam go someplace else.” When Josephine was asked if the women all got together, she replied: “No, No, No, there was no gathering. No everyone they tend to their own business. Everyone to their own house and by the time they are ready to lay down and go to sleep they had no interest to do anything else.”
Josephine gave birth to two boys and two girls. When her first son was born Victor was at work: “He just came and that’s all. Nobody. I was alone. And I just got through washing mind you, in the tub. When grandpa come from the mine, why, his son was there.” Later she learned to plan the births better: I used to bake bread, a big batch of bread and wash all the clothes, iron on the clothes, be ready, because for a couple of days I have to stay put. (she chuckled as if realizing how strange this sounded in the 1980″s) The mine mouth was up on the hill, the Bazanele’s house down along the creek. and a boulder loosened by rain was shaken free by the endless rumble of the mine cars. It came crashing down on the house where Josephine and their new born son were:
THE END OF THE ERA
After the mid twenties the coal economy began to collapse in a depression which would not bottom out until 1933. The Bazanele’s stayed on in Bear Canyon but the mine worked steadily only two or three months in the winter, in the summer it went down to only one day a week. Josephine saved a pay check stub from 1932 which showed that Victor made five dollars a shift. Deductions included: $2.00 for lights, $1.50 for the doctor, and fifty cents for the bathhouse. The bottom line was forty one dollars for eight days work in two weeks. During those years of hunger Victor traded the rifle that the union gave him after Ludlow to pay a milk bill.
Victor and his two sons scavenged the old Tabasco mine site for lead pipes and copper wire to sell for scrap. The money went for flour and potatoes. “My kids they was always hungry,” Josephine said matter of factly. “On the side they was swiping this and swiping that if they could, ain’t it?” “Had to eat,” said Aldo. “Yah, that’s right,” she agreed. They used to buy big tins of crackers, sardines by the case. Kept them in the cellar, Aldo laughed:
Things got better in the late 1930’s. After the National Labor Relations Act was passed the miners voted in the United Mine Workers Union. War once again propelled the fortunes of the coal community. In 1945, Victor’s check showed eighteen shifts and nine hours at time and a half. Overtime. And in May, a warm month. He took home $125.00. However, the burst of prosperity was an illusion. World War Two was the last gasp for the Southern fields. As the war drew to a close, so did the reign of old king coal.
Diesel trains now howled past the Ludlow depot. Fifty-three railroad cars a day whistled north; hauling all the coal needed by the Pueblo steel mill. This demand came to be met by a single mine, CF&I’s modern Allen mine which was opened in 1951. A few independents hung on, selling coal by the truck load to those who couldn’t afford to switch to gas. But, one by one the railroad tracks up the canyons were abandoned; the old timers retired, Victor in 1954. He was always good with his hands. After he retired he made Josephine a present: a beautifully finished dollhouse, with a white picket fence around it. Here, he said, it’s the home that I never could buy for you.
There was still one Bazanele mining coal in Southern Colorado. Aldo, gained his first work experience earning a dollar a day in the CCC camps. During the war he was offered a coal miner’s deferment but chose to enlist instead. But after VJ day he worked in small mines for a few years, and about the same time that Victor retired, Aldo went to work at the Allen mine. After 20 years as a union miner, Aldo rose to company work as an assistant master mechanic. He serviced the mechanical miners and expensive long wall machines that had been imported from Germany and England. The Allen mine was one of the most modern mines in the country. However, in 1983 CF&I announced that it was going out of business. The Allen, the last major mine in Las Animas county, was sold to the Wyoming Fuel Company. Not feeling bound by history; the new company intended to run a “union free operation.” They could not immediately get out of the union contract that they inherited from CF&I, but they could begin to replace the old guard supers and company men, who they felt were “soft” on the union, with tough minded newcomers. And certainly in Aldo Bazanele’s case, there was a blood tie through Ludlow that transcended his position as a company mechanic. Aldo chose early retirement.
Victor’s grandchildren are not coal miners and live far from Berwind canyon. In fact, Mark Bazanele was responsible for making this paper possible. A student in a sociology class at The University of Colorado, Mark heard about my interest in oral histories of coal miners and suggested that I might find it interesting to interview his grandfather because he had been at Ludlow. And indeed I did find that interesting, but over the years I found something richer in the story. Individually, and as a family, the Bazaneles worked, acted, and made difficult individual choices based on the fields of possibility that they perceived. Their decisions and labor, alongside the decisions and labors of thousands of others in similar situations, are usually obscured in great historic movements of the 20th century: immigration, union organizing, assimilation, women’s movements, upward mobility, and so on. In the oral history of the Bazaneles I came to understand individuals not just as the product of historic forces, but as makers of history.