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.[2] 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.

Although these polyglot communities were built by coal companies to house their workforce, they became more than infrastructure servicing the mines. The western coal community developed a unique self-concept. Members of the community learned to work together and act in concert. In hardship and common action strong bonds were forged. To give human scale to the sweeping historical processes that led to the creation, and ultimate dissolution, of the western coal community, this article examines the experiences of a single family. This is the saga of a working family, the Bazaneles, who came from the Tyrol to work and live in the coal towns of southern Colorado.[3] They were among the tens of thousands of immigrants who came west to work in the mines and mills that produced the raw materials for industrialization. The experience of this family is offered as a window into an important western community but the Bazaneles are neither “typical” nor particularly unique. In considering their story we learn something about the labors of men and women, about immigrants, coal miners and the creation of community in the West, but perhaps more importantly we learn something about ourselves — about each individual’s role as historical actor and as the victim of forces outside their ability to control.
Thirteen miles north of Trinidad, Colorado, near Ludlow Junction, two canyons arid open like the arms of a lazy K off the main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. North of Ludlow is canyon Del Agua where the Hastings and Delagua mines of the Victor American Fuel Company squatted. South of Ludlow is Berwind canyon where in 1890 the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) began to develop an integrated mining and coking complex. Two drifts were driven directly into the coal seams where they had been exposed by the stream action which carved the canyon. One mine was named Berwind, after then president of the company, Edward J. Berwind. Between 1890 and 1920, the mine produced nine million tons of coal. The other mine was opened in 1901 and called Tabasco. Perhaps the hot name has to do with the string of coke ovens that burned day and night, processing the coal from both mines into fuel for the open hearths and Bessemer converters at the West’s largest steel mill at Pueblo, Colorado.[4]
As the large mining and coal processing complex developed, immigrants from all over the world came to work in Berwind Canyon. Experienced Welsh and English miners arrived with safety lamps in their wooden trunks; they also brought the dream of labor unions. As early as 1882, Men named Buchanan and Driscoll helped to organize Knights of Labor Assemblies in Southern Colorado. During Strikes in 1893 and 1903, company recruiters imported thousands of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Many Greeks, Italians, Poles, Germans, Austrians and Slavs first came to work as strike breakers, later they joined the union. Victor and his stepfather came three years after the bloody 1903 strike, but whether they were hired as strikebreakers or not, it is clear that the Tyrolians were part of the companies’ calculated policy of replacing trouble making “Johnny Bulls” with cheaper immigrant labor.[5] There was bitterness on both sides. As Victor explained:

The bosses were all Irish and Scotch and They used to treat us bad too, because we were foreigners and I"ll tell you the treatment we got was terrific. Terrible. We were called Dago, garlic snapper, all them kinds of words. But never the name, never the Bazanele, Victor Bazanele. We were Dagos, Wops. No, not Wop, Wop came after, years after.

By 1912 Berwind and Tabasco, Hastings and Delagua, were polyglot communities inhabited by people from all over the world.[6] Tabasco was a typical company town. Steam trains chuffed up the canyon, tipple screens roared, and at night the light from coke ovens flickered a ruddy glow on the canyon walls. As the ovens were fired sulfurous clouds belched from the trunnel heads and when the wind shifted, miners’ wives were quick to rescue their laundry from the line. George McGovern described Berwind this way:

In 1912 some 300 miners were digging coal for 55 cents a ton wrenched out 362,939 tons for the CF&I and, after deductions for powder, smithing, house rent, and medical insurance, a miner’s net wage for the year scarcely exceeded $600. The children of Berwind and nearby Tabasco attended an overcrowded school -- sixty-five pupils in the intermediate class -- which was, however, electrically lighted, steam-heated, and provided with drinking fountains of pure mountain water. In other respects the sanitation was deplorable. ‘Refuse from kitchen, sick chamber, laundry room, stable, is dumped promiscuously in and near every camp...[7]

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 I met him, Victor was a strangely brooding man; perhaps it was senility coming on. Some months after the interview, when I called the family to do a follow-up, his son Aldo told me that Victor was in the nursing home. I couldn’t talk to him because he was no longer living in the present but passed his time in the old days with friends and enemies long since dead. At the time of the interview I did not see senility, but Victor’s talk had a quality of terrible immediateness, of reliving experiences rather than reflecting on them. With words that were not so much a narrative as a running account of events happening before his eyes, Victor transported us back in time.

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:

People was worth nothing, a mule was worth everything. If you kill a mule, look out. I missed a sprag one day. My lamp went out and I missed a sprag. That mule went down and he was kinda scratched between the ribs.... It was just a little scratch but I lost a week off of work.

Like all the other old timers, he kept a mental tally of those who died unshrivened and unmourned:

I remember two Bulgarians. They were under three feet of sandstone. Just the feet was hanging out. And they put three jacks, three ten ton jacks, under and we raised it about a few feet and took them out. Just like a newspaper. Flat. Two fellas they threw them in the coke ovens, they had a bunch of black smoke and that's all. One after the other. That's where they buried them.


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:

It wasn't a situation that these men got love of union because it was the case that the union was a necessity and it was the only source for them to get some protection and some freedom [8]

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.

The strike developed into a protracted struggle between the strikers who tried to shut the mines down, and the coal operators who sought to keep the mines open with non union labor. Even before the strike, the CF&I had contracted for mine guards with the Baldwin Felts Detective agency they provided “detectives” fresh from the hateful mine wars with the UMWA in West Virginia. [9] At night huge searchlights played on the roads and hillsides. Gun fire was common. The light on Tabasco hill was manned by “a bunch of scabs,” according to Victor, “They look all around, and find out everybody that’s walking kinda slow, you know, try to murder somebody.” The company towns of Berwind and Tabasco became armed fortresses. Barbed wire secured the perimeter, company guards questioned anyone seeking to enter the canyons. In order to get to the mines strikebreakers had to change trains at the Ludlow station. The tent colony functioned as a twenty-four hour a day picket line. “Scab,” “Yellow belly,” “Wop;” strikebreakers were confronted by mobs of angry miners and screaming women and children. Armed guards met the trains to escort workers: “Scab herders, scab herders” jeered the pickets. There was little the strikers could do. They were no match for the heavily armed Baldwin Felts detectives. On the other hand, the output of the mines slowed to a trickle. As Victor explained: “We used to load all the coal we could get….but the scabs didn’t. They just make a car or two. They didn’t know how to dig coal. And that’s where the company lost money on that fight. Rockefeller lost money on that fight.”
Violence and retaliation continued through the long cold winter of 1913-14. Company guards mounted a light machine gun in an automobile that they had armored at the steel mill in Pueblo. Miners called it the “death special” when it raced past the tent colony firing into the tents.[10] At the Forbes Colony, eight miles south of Ludlow, a young boy was hit by nine machine gun bullets fired from the armored car.[11]
On October 27th, 1913, Victor took part in his first battle. A squad of company guards commandeered a coal train in Trinidad, intending to take it up the tracks to Ludlow and shoot up the tent colony. Victor explained that one of the “Brotherhood of Trainmen” called the strikers to warn them, and the miners grabbed their rifles and rushed to the railroad bridge to defend their families. When he was a boy Victor had gotten his first twenty two. Hunting rabbits to put meat on the table taught him to make every bullet count. As he said: “I was a damn good shot, impossible to beat just about.” Some of the other miners were trained soldiers, a few of the Greeks had even seen action in the Balkan wars. The strikers waited patiently for the train to emerge around the curve beneath the Ramey tipple. Victor clutched a small caliber rifle, a 25 35 with an octagon barrel. Victor remembered that the guards started shooting as soon as they came into view while the miners held their fire till the train was in range. Then they returned a ragged volley with their motley collection of saddle guns and deer rifles. However, one of Victor’s friends had an Italian Army gun with armor piercing shells. The steel jacketed bullets ripped right through the coal cars. The engine had its lamp blown out and the guards became afraid for the boiler. The train stopped and reluctantly chugged backwards towards Trinidad. A triumphant yell rose from the throats of the defenders. They had won a battle but the long war was only beginning.[12]
The next day, Victor and more than 300 other armed miners climbed the steep hillsides and arrayed themselves above the towns of Berwind and Tabasco. On signal they attacked. Several guards and deputies were killed. That same day the Governor of Colorado, Elias Ammons, called out the state militia to restore order. The militia were under the command of General John Chase, a Denver physician who had seen duty in Cripple Creek during the notorious hard rock miners’ strike of 1903. Most of the troops were simply young civilians from Denver, including a contingent from the University in Boulder.[13]
When the militia first arrived in Southern Colorado they were welcomed by the strikers who believed the officers when they said that they would disarm both sides and impose peace on the strike zone. The miners met the troops with a brass band and a militia encampment was set up just across the railroad tracks from the Ludlow tent colony. One group of company guards was actually disarmed, and the miners were told that the guards would be given safe passage out of Colorado. In a show of goodwill, strikers at Segundo and Sopris turned in their guns. But rumors began spreading that the strikers’ guns had turned up in the hands of some of the guards. Further, the guards who were to have left the state reappeared, armed once again. When General Chase ordered the strikers at Ludlow to turn in their guns, only 37 were surrendered.[14] The tents were searched repeatedly, and in one sweep Victor’s rifle was found hidden in a fold of canvas; the militia confiscated it.
From the miners’ perspective, a disturbing series of events occurred in early November. When it became apparent that the troops would be in the field for months, many asked to be relieved so they could return to jobs or school. General Chase allowed the replacement of these “weekend warriors” with mine guards previously employed by the coal companies.[15] Company B, under the command of Karl Linderfelt, was composed mostly of company guards, some still receiving pay from the coal operators. Karl Linderfelt, who had recently been one of the most hated and feared mine guards, was in the reserves and was activated and given a commission as a Lieutenant in the Colorado National Guard. A career soldier, Linderfelt learned “counterinsurgency” while serving with the U.S. army in the war against the Moros in the Philippines. According to Barron Beshoar he had a “blind hatred for ‘red necks and Wops.'” In the words of Mike Livoda: “He was a sonofabitch. A man that if you don’t do and believe as he does, he thinks you ought to be dead.” Linderfelt and Company B were left guarding Ludlow.[16]
Of course, the company perspective on their hired hands was somewhat different. J.C. Osgood of the Victor American Fuel Company had only good things to say about them:  “The troops under the command of Adjutant Chase acted with energy and great discretion in maintaining order, as is evidenced by the fact that although frequently attacked and sorely tried at times, not a single striker was killed or seriously injured. The state of Colorado had no fund from which to pay the troops, or their expenses, but public spirited merchants and bankers cashed warrants to a large extent for this purpose.” It became difficult, however, for Governor Ammons to secure funds to maintain the troops in the field, and in the early part of March he began to withdraw them gradually.[17]

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.

April 19, 1914 was the Greek Easter, and the Greek residents of Ludlow held a celebration for the strikers in the tent colony. Greeks had been one of the most recent immigrant groups to arrive in the western mines. Large Greek communities could be found in the coal camps of Northern New Mexico and Eastern Utah. The Greeks had little experience with unions, coming from a pre industrial society; but they were a proud people, quick to defend their honor.[18] The coal operators viewed the Greeks with suspicion. J.C. Osgood of the Victor American Fuel Company claimed that:  “A large number of the men in the Ludlow camp at this time were Greeks, Bulgarians and Montenegrins, who had seen service in the Balkan war, mostly young unmarried men without families. These men were armed with high power rifles and were the leaders in all acts of violence.”[19]
A ball game was held as part of the Easter festivities. During the game a small group of militiamen rode by the ball diamond and Mike Livoda heard one soldier say: “Have your fun today, we’ll have ours (or our roast) tomorrow.” This was interpreted later as evidence that the attack the next day was premeditated.[20] Victor believed that: “They were coming to wipe us out! Coming, I’ll tell you what … Years before in 1904 they took the people and put them on a freight train and let them off in the desolate country of Texas. No water, no food, no nothing….Nothing but rattlesnakes and tarantulas…and we were afraid of that..[21]

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:

You couldn't see one militia, you couldn't see the machine gun, it was down in a hole... all rushing bullets.... bullets flying all over, hitting pans and stoves, dishwater pans and boilers, tubs.

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.”  

Late in the afternoon the miners ran out of ammunition and with a blood curdling cry Company B charged the colony. Linderfelt was in the lead. George Titsworth, whose father was a camp guard at Segundo, raced up and down the rows with a flaming broom and set the tents on fire. According to Osgood and others on the company side: “In some manner, which can probably never correctly be explained, a fire started in the tent colony. This fire spread rapidly and destroyed the colony. It is possible that the rifle fire of the militia may have set fire to a tent, or that it started from an explosion of ammunition, which was found in large quantities in the private tent of John Lawson, strike leader.” Whatever the true story, the Ludlow colony was destroyed by fire.[22]

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:

The man with the gallon of gas, coal oil, Titsworth. Titsworth, that was his name, but we didn't see him put the coal oil on exactly, because we couldn't exactly see from the ditch. But we saw Tikas there. At first he was close to the poll, telephone poll. He put his hand like this, he said 'stop. Women and children.' Well, the first bullets...kind of nicked him, you know. He went down a little bit. The second bullet, we could tell that he got a second bullet. Even then he didn't fall exactly. He went down to his knees, that's all. But the third got him. And even Mrs. Costa, she was pregnant six months, she had bayonet wounds in her belly too. Mrs. Costa, because I remember, we told her, I said I want to see Mrs. Costa for the last time. She said, 'you can't.' (crying) 'Its impossible, she's all wounded, full of blood and stuff you know.

Josephine Bazanele comforted her husband, “Now papa, don’t get sentimental.” After a moment I asked, “Charlie Costa was killed too?”

Yeah, he got a head wound here, in his brain. He was killed too. All his kids died there and his woman and she was pregnant, that was never mentioned, and the bayonet wound isn't mentioned either. that is true.... There were 11 kids, I know, 11 little… (Victor's voice began to break again) I don't know. It gets to me you know. Whenever I look at it I can see it. A cry of anguish broke from Victor's throat. His son, Aldo, interrupted, "Okay papa, now take it easy. Take it easy." Victor, sobbed "I can see it, I can't help it." Aldo soothed his father "Take it easy, its past and gone now." Victor said: "I know its past and gone, but I can't help it. Its still in my guts now all the time, I never done nothing about it." Victor's cry was an open wound. There was a hush in the room; the hair prickled on the back of my neck and I didn't want to look at anyone. Victor's voice got stronger: Now just a minute. There's another thing here coming. The man that saved the tent colony was a Scotsman. A trainmaster. He stopped the train right about, a long freight you know, he said 'get the hell out of there.' He knew we were under fire. He said, 'get the hell out of there.' That's why otherwise ohmygod all would have been killed. And then they burned the tents. What did you do? Oh, we all went down the creek, a bunch of people, I don't even know. When I reached Hoehne I couldn't see my feet from the cactus. And then we went by the Black Hills.

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:

Victor: I went to Trinidad again where they furnished me with that rifle and about 60 bullets. Three boxes of bullets. I was looking for that General. I said by god he's in town, I'm going to look for him...kill the son of a bitch...I really had it in mind to kill him. Oh no. I says ah (crying) I can't help it. I saw that hay wagon...Yeah, (crying) whenever you look at a hay wagon full of eleven not Tikas, not Rubino, none of them, all little ones. well you'd get mad too. That's what I saw a hay wagon full of them little corpses. Well, you get mad too. I was looking for him. They told me he was in town. And they said he was not in the court house he was somewhere in the hotel. And I passed close to him, but I wasn't the only one looking for him. There was more than one, must of been two or three hundred of them. [23]

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:

They said the Federals were going to come. They took my rifle again and I went down the track and went to Hoehne. I saved myself. Because we thought we were going to be imprisoned. The way the law was you know. The law kill us. We didn't know the difference.... I stayed down there for about 15 days and came right back and went up to Cedarhill. So scared, yeah. No militia. No nothing.

In December 1914, low on funds, its leaders exhausted by expensive legal battles, the United Mine Workers of America capitulated to the Colorado mine operators. Frank J. Hays, Vice President of the union, summed up the strike: “Thus passed into history one of the greatest conflicts ever waged by any body of workers on this continent.” George McGovern’s analysis of the bloody strike was more pessimistic: “Although unequaled in bitterness and strife, (the strike) was in essence a manifestation of the social instability and labor turmoil affecting all America. No major lasting reforms led directly from the conflict…. Bitterness in Colorado’s coal fields diminished, but no permanent peace had been achieved.”[24]

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.[25] 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.

But there was a horrible shock in store for those who wanted to blame the Hastings explosion on foreigners. According to the official U.S. Bureau of Mines report, the explosion was caused by the Mine Inspector. David Reese had apparently smuggled in matches and the magnetic key to open the safety lamp. His body was found next to an open lamp. Twenty-two matches lay scattered around the charred corpse.[26]
For Victor, the disaster confirmed what he believed about the bosses that had made his life miserable:

The fire boss was drunk all the time. All Irish, they were all Irish.... Oh hell, they were half drunk all the time. Drinking from one and another, from a Dago here and a Dago there and a beer here and a drink there. Mooching you know. They were drunk when they went in so what the hell are you going to expect? At Hastings they found the fire boss...he had a magnet to take out the little magnet piece, you know, that unscrews the lamp...That was the explosion that blowed up Hastings, because he had the lamp unscrewed in two pieces. And he must have put the flint in and light it again and boom. They say there was more than 100 people. There were 90 when I went over.

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: 

I didn't know what I was coming to anyway, but I was prepared, I think, for the hard life. Aldo: What did you think when you first came to this country. Green as you were? Josephine: Flabbergasted. Ugly people I said, my goodness. They don't know how to talk, they don't even.... There was dancing every Saturday. There was just like tons of people in there. And I remember, there was a woman she took the tits out and she nursed the baby right there in that saloon.
The family laughed: "She was civilized. Highly civilized.".

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:

Grandpa was, oh, a good working man, but he want to be just so. He was raised in Germany, he was raised from the baby up and he was thinking about the kids. They got to jump every time father and mother says so. Now they're all different. Now the father and mother jump when the kids say so.... Out of the mine they want to be served and get his paper. My old man, he was very anxious to read all kinds of magazines, all kinds of books. He'd stay up in the night two, three o'clock. But he don't touch nothing in the house. He don't care about kids if they were sick. They better be quiet in the night because he got to have his sleep. Yes sir, when he came just have his supper ready, yes sir, pass the salt. If he want to go honkey tonkey someplace, just let him go.

After their marriage, the Bazanele’s lived for the next thirty three years at the Bear mine, an independent coal company up above Berwind. In 1922 company records show V.D. Bazanele living in house number 26. The rent was $5.00 a month an additional $1.50 was deducted for lights.[27] They got their water from a pump outside the house. Many miners kept chickens, goats and cows. Produce from vegetable gardens was stored in root cellars scratched into the stoney hillside. The four room houses built of hollow tile were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Storms whistling through Berwind canyon blew down the chimneys and filled the houses with coal smoke. At independent mines there was no Rockefeller Plan, no union contract. The old system prevailed. As Victor put it, Mr. Boss put his hat on the ground and all the miners would ante up scrip money to ensure a good place to dig coal. And if you said boo, down the canyon you go. In the thirties, one of Victor’s friends had his head cracked open with a revolver for talking union. The boss then sent a two wheeled cart to his house, loaded up the furniture and the stove, and sent the whole family down the canyon. Once, when Victor went for his check, instead of handing it to him like a man the super threw his pay on the ground:

Think of it. cried Victor, Think what happened to you and see if you don't murder the son of a bitch. But you couldn't do nothing. you had to love it. You had to take it. You couldn't fight no place else. No. You just had to shut up and keep on working, because like me with these three kids, how could I do it?

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:

Scrub by hand, go fetch the water a mile over, two three o'clock in the morning, didn't have enough to wash, bake bread, things like that. Tend to the garden for sure, yes sir. If there's anything to go and gather, we used to go. For those herbs you know, those different kinds and boil it and make spinach out of it. Oh yeah. Go for jackrabbit. Now you don't see jackrabbit. If you go all around this prairie you don't see one. Well we used to go for jackrabbit, oh squirrel, yes sir. We used to make salami out of jackrabbit meat, believe it or not....When we have a bird we have a feast. All kinds of it, turtledove, Those black birds. Those snow birds. All kind of birds. Oh yes. And we raised our 4 kids and pretty fat at that. Send the kids to school. Listen to my old man cussing all the time that I spend too much money.

Josephine had a fine hand at needlework. Fancy crochets, appliques, and embroidered floral designs enlivened the dresses she made for her children and grandchildren. She knit wool stockings for Victor to wear in the winter, but fancy cutwork table clothes were her special delight. This I was told by her daughter in law. In Josephine’s own account her artistry sounded matter of fact:

Now a days they don't know how to patch. When they are full of holes they just throw it and buy some more. But that time you got patch and some more patch. Even the stocking you mend it and mend and mend. The pants, one patch on top of the other. I used to make all the dresses for my two girls. The only bought dress they had it was graduation dress. He broke down, my old man, and bought them a nice dress for graduation.

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:

I scrape everything down; and I calcimine the room; and wash the curtain; and put everything away just like before; and wash everything nice and clean. Sometimes he noticed. Sometimes he doesn't. I didn't get no credit whatsoever, no matter what I did....And sometime if I was sick or something and I couldn't make bread, I'd probably buy a loaf and put it in his lunch bucket and he'd bring back the bread. He said, don't put any bought bread in my lunch anymore. So that's that, sick or no sick, you're going to make bread. That's right. There was the man now, see. I wear the pants, he always said. Aldo asked, "When dad used to come home, you used to have what on the stove?" Oh, I had the tub full of water, hot water. and he go down in the big tub and I had to scrub him down, front and back and dry him out and help him put his socks and his shoes on his feet, give him coffee. Sometimes with a little chicory in it. (She chuckled) Have his supper ready when he got through and eat. He go out in the front room that we have, sit down in the couch, he have his paper and his pipe and that's all.... He made a radio, he was always very ingenious, very very ingenious. You can hear, oh, I don't know. The ballroom dance a long time ago in Chicago. It was that pushety pully music a long time ago.

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:

It went through this shack and all those sticks and the plaster and it come on top of him on this little cradle. So I got scared for a while but then he don't say too much. He got scared, but that's all. No hurt. No nothing. There was a great big hole in the roof that the rock came down. So the men, the next day they come, four or five men, and they took the rock out and chop them up and fix the wall.


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:

Mother used to go down and she'd count everyone of them everyday. So I opened up a can, ate the sardines, put the lid back again, put it underneath the piles. She didn't know the difference. Crackers. We'd take the crackers. She used to mark the tin. So we used to get cardboard, and put them underneath so they would stay up to the line.

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.