By Samantha Perry
September 2, 2023 - It was a simple bumper sticker. No more, no less. But on the day it came in the mail my grandfather — a humble man — was excited, and proud.
In no time flat, he peeled the backing off and attached the sticker to the bumper of his four-wheel-drive Eagle. It was the first time — and the last — I ever saw a bumper sticker on Grandpa’s vehicle, or any other in our family. But the message on this sign ran deep in his heart and soul.
“I am a UMWA pensioner. I still support my union.”
My grandfather, Elliott “E.P.” Garrett, died of lung and brain cancer in 1990. It was a horrific death, but I was fortunate to spend many quality years with him. And much of that time was filled with his stories and recollections of the past.
Grandpa was a career coal miner. He got a job in the mines at Bishop right after high school to support his new bride — my grandmother, Dorothy “Dot” Garrett. The two were married for 57 years. My grandmother passed away in 2004, and she mourned her husband each day of the 14 years she lived without him by her side.
It was in the early years of their marriage that my grandfather left Bishop to take a job at the Goodwill mines — his hometown, and my grandmother’s. During the years the couple lived there, the two became all-too-familiar with the hazards of coal mining.
Listening to their recollections of life in the coal camp as I was growing up, it was obvious injuries related to mining — whether minor, serious or fatal — were frequent.
My grandfather, a tall man who stood 6 foot, 2 inches tall, worked in “low coal” at the Goodwill mine. “He had to work on his knees, and he wore knee pads,” my grandmother related to me in the late 1990s, when I interviewed her and her sister, my aunt, Vilda Gundisch, about life in the coal camp.
“When he came home, he would have scrapes on his back and knees,” Grandma continued. “I made him some extra patches for his knees, but the first day he wore them he got as far as the company store with them and they fell off. I couldn’t sew.”
While that story always brought smiles and laughter at family get-togethers, other tales were much more somber.
My grandfather was involved in two serious accidents while working at the Goodwill mine. “A slate fall broke his pelvis in 1935 and, about 1952, his leg was broken in a haulage accident when a coal car jumped the track and struck his leg,” Grandma told me.
The haulage accident left Grandpa with a long scar on his leg for the remainder of his life. Yet after the injury healed, he went back in the mine.
Aunt Vilda is now deceased as well, but during the interview years ago she shared a story of her husband, Acie, who was also injured in a mining accident.
Acie worked at the tipple, where the accident occurred.
“He got caught between the brakes on two railroad cars at the tipple,” related Aunt Vilda. “It crushed his pelvis and broke his ribs.” But Uncle Acie, too, returned to work after he recovered.
“At least every month or two somebody would get hurt real bad, or killed,” Aunt Vilda said. “All the people would gather, then wait to see who had gotten injured.”
“Every time an ambulance would come in, everybody would run out ... you didn’t know who it was,” Grandma remembered.
Ironically my great-grandfather was possibly saved from a fatal accident due to a twist of fate. “There was one night, on a Friday the 13th, when Daddy got sick and didn’t work,” Vilda told me. “Both men who took his place got killed in a slate fall that night. After that, Daddy wouldn’t work on Friday the 13th. It was the only superstition he had.”
While working in the mines was hard and dangerous work, all my family members fondly remembered their days living in the coal camp due to the overwhelming community spirit and true affection shared among neighbors.
But times were still hard — especially before the mines were unionized. While my grandparents would talk about the working conditions before the United Mine Workers organized the local mines — long days, low pay, dangerous conditions — they were unusually quiet when asked about the specifics of the unionization of the mines.
My grandmother did tell me she remembered the days when marches were held in Goodwill and surrounding areas as labor supporters rallied the miners. She also recalled how organizers would march up the railroad tracks, and local men would join in as they went through the coal camps.
I know I had a great-uncle who was an early union supporter, but my grandparents wouldn’t discuss it.
“There was trouble,” was Grandma’s only cryptic remark when pressed about it.
We’ve come a long way since those early days, when men frequently worked in hazardous conditions — for a meager salary — to put food on the family dinner table. The union helped these men — including my grandfather — and he never forgot it.
To the day of his death, my Grandpa was a proud UMWA pensioner.
And he always supported his union.