Coal Fueled Carlinville’s Boom
More Than Meets the Eye is a fictional account of the construction of the 156 Sears catalog houses in Carlinville’s Standard Addition in 1918. But some of the most important characters driving the plot are only glimpsed twice in the whole novel. By that, I mean the Carlinville coal miners for whom the homes were built. Our first glimpse is of a group of tired off-duty miners watching with interest as the boxcars containing their houses are unloaded. And then near the end of the novel we see Mr. Gorzynski and his sons as they’re moving into their brand new Sears home. But they speak only Polish, so Elizabeth Spaulding, the woman who had supervised the the construction of the houses, only smiles and waves at them across the street.
A County Rich in Resources
Standard Oil operated two mines at Carlinville. They weren’t the only ones in Macoupin County. Dennis McMurray, in his September, 1995 article in Illinois Issues, says that
In 1920, Macoupin County in central Illinois had 19 operating coal mines employing 6,500 workers and producing more than 6.3 million tons, about 10 percent of the state’s total.… The mines were largely responsible for drawing a diverse ethnic mix to that downstate rural county. Italians, Scots, Welsh, English and Croatian immigrants were among those who came to work underground and settle towns like Gillespie, Benld and Mount Olive, south of Springfield.
Charles Walker’s 1911 History of Macoupin County, has this to say about Macoupin County’s mineral wealth:
Coal is by far the most valuable mineral product of this county. Its entire area is under laid by coal, and the supply from coal seam No. 5 alone is practically inexhaustible; and its resources from this seam, reckoning its average thickness at six feet, which is believed to be a fair estimate, is not less than 5,184,000,000 tons, and will admit of an annual consumption of one million tons per annum for 5,184 years, before the coal from this seam alone would be exhausted.
When Standard Oil Company decided to acquire its own coalmine in 1917, they found just the spot a few miles outside of Carlinville on Mr. Thomas Schoper’s farm. The geological surveys showed that there was a seven-foot tall seam of coal there. And the property was conveniently situated
near the Chicago and Alton rail line, which was centrally located between the refineries in Wood River (near St. Louis) and Whiting, Indiana (near Chicago). Twelve Sears houses were built at Schoper for mine supervisors. There were also boarding houses and dorms built at Schoper, for the miners.… (Rosemary Thornton)
Standard Oil purchased the farm from Mr. Schoper and sank two mines there, Berry and Schoper. The town of Schoper, also known as Standard City, sprang up around the mines.
The Standard Oil Company
The Standard Oil Company, established in 1870 by John D. Rockefeller, was the largest oil refiner in the world of its time. It had figured out how to streamline its production and logistics, lower costs, and undercut competitors. But Standard Oil lost its status as the largest multinational corporations only a few years before my story when in 1911 the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was an illegal monopoly. (Wikipedia)
You don’t hear anyone in Carlinville complaining about unfair business tactics. Laurie A Flori’s book Additionally Speaking, contains numerous quotes from newspaper accounts of Standard Oil’s presence in Carlinville. The town seemed to be quite happy with their relationship with the mega corporation.
The miners loved their new houses and were quite happy with their wages. “In 1919, the Macoupin County Enquirer stated that miners in Macoupin County earned, on average, about $6.00 per 10-hour day.” (Rosemary Thornton)
And Standard Oil provided plenty of perks to insure employee loyalty: a company newsletter, baseball and soccer teams, and a park. All carried the name “Stanolind” for the company’s new lower prices gasoline so popular at the time.
And the company apparently took mining safety seriously, too. Lauri Flori quotes a newspaper snippet from Dec. 29, 1920 that informed Carlinville citizens that Standard Oil had called a meeting of its officials to discuss mine safety and create a safety organization. Ralph Brown was appointed Safety Manager.
Bear in mind that it had only been four years previously that the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association had been founded nationally to promote health and safety in the mining industry.
The Miners Who Made a Boom
While the citizens of Carlinville were enjoying the benefits of the ecomic boom, 400 feet below street level the miners carried on the risky business that fueled it.
In nearly every edition, the local newspaper reports the injuries miners suffered—a crushed hand that had to be amputated, a leg broken in a slate fall, a man overcome by gases. And there are deaths, too. Among them, Battista Marchiando, Roland Gamber, and Charles Twitty were killed in separate rock falls. Freno Senchetti died at the Springfield hospital from a broken neck.
An article in the Macoupin County Enquirer reported that countywide 18 miners died 1923. But this didn’t cause too much of a stir, because it was in line with the national average of “one [miner] fatality per 279,354 tons of coal produced.” (Rosemary Thornton)
Mother Jones Comes to Visit
I decided it would be interesting to let Mary Harris Jones, A.K.A. Mother Jones, visit Carlinville. In 1902 she was described as “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners.” Her visit in More Than Meets the Eye is fictional, but it could have happened. After all, Mother Jones is connected to Virden and Mount Olive, other nearby mining town in Macoupin County. Virden is infamous for the 1898 “Virden Massacre,” a fight between miners and strikebreakers. And Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, because she wanted to lie beneath the same soil as her “boys.” In appreciation of her work on their behalf, miners erected an impressive monument for her there. (Wikipedia)
Since the Schoper and Berry Mines employed union miners, Mother Jones would not have come looking for a fight about wages and conditions with Standard Oil. But she might have decided to check out those Sears houses the miners lived in, because word of their wonderfulness had spread.
“Chicago Tribune reporter Oscar Hewitt took a ten-day tour of mining homes in Illinois and liked Carlinville’s homes the best. John Black, a union official for the coal miners, went so far as to describe the 1000-1200 square foot houses as “mansions.” (Rosemary Thornton)
A No Win Situation for Miners
According to Rosemary Thornton, at its peak, Schoper was the largest coal mine in Illinois,
employing 650 men and hoisting up to 4,000 tons of coal each day. About 450 men [also] worked at the Berry Mine, producing about 2,000 tons of coal per day. Times were good. In the early 1920s, Schoper miners worked about 298 days per year, while nationwide, most coal miners were working about 200 days per year.
More Than Meets the Eye takes place in 1918-19, while the times were good, but I thought you ought to know the rest of the story. Less than ten years after Standard Oil came to town, the good times for Carlinville and the miners came to an end.
By the mid-1920s, the boom had gone bust. The price of coal dropped precipitously after The Great War (1918), and Standard Oil could now buy their coal from non-union Kentucky mines far cheaper than they could mine it in Macoupin County. (Rosemary Thornton)
The Carlinville newspaper began to announce mine closures. First, it was only for a day here and there. And then the closures became longer, and the newspaper accounts turned plaintive as people wondered what was going on with Standard Oil. City officials consulted with company men and came away with ambiguous information. And then, finally, it became clear to all that Standard Oil was permanently shutting down the mine. People pleaded with them to no avail. Carlinville’s love affair with Standard Oil came to an end.
None of the Carlinville miners had the chance to pay off their Sears homes. Every last one was foreclosed on, and the miners moved away to look for work elsewhere.
Today Schoper / Standard City is a ghost town. Rosemary Thornton describes what it’s like to visit there.
There’s something about this former boom town that is compelling and even haunting. Driving into Standard City, you turn onto Mine Road to reach the site of the old mine, or hang a left for Cinder Road (made from old cinders). And then there’s Pershing Street, undoubtedly named for General John “Black Jack” Pershing, WW1 hero and commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Another street is Rice Street, probably named for Charles Rice, who handled real estate acquisitions for Standard Oil.
Standing on the plat land beside the abandoned, vandalized powerhouse, gazing out at Schoper Lake, you can close your eyes and almost hear the steam whistle signaling the end of a shift. Listen, really listen, and maybe you’ll hear the metal cables of the hoist groan and creak as a steel cage raises three dozen coal-blackened minders from 440 feet below grade.
It would be so nice of you to share!