“You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.”
– Recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1955
Coal companies built “coal camps” to house miners and their families. In these isolated areas, company-owned houses were the only place to live and the company store was the only place to shop. Workers were paid in store currency called scrip (see image above); high prices kept many miners in debt.
Amidst the noise, smoke and dust, women grew vegetables or took in laundry for extra income. Black and white children had separate schools; their fathers worked together in the mines. Along with immigrant and Native American miners, they fought for better wages and safety, in labor struggles that sometimes turned violent.
Image credits: top, miningusa.com; center & bottom, Library of Congress