Monday, June 1, 2009

In The Land Of Good Earth

I was born and raised in St. Francois County, Missouri. I was born in the town of Bonne Terre, headquarters of the St. Joseph Lead Mining Company. The French called the area La Bonne Terre, "the good earth," in reference to its mineral wealth. The men of my family worked this land of good earth as lead miners.

The greatest single economic factor in our community was the St. Joseph Lead Company. It was incorporated in 1864 and began operations the following year on a 964 acre tract of land in Bonne Terre. Mining here was of the surface type until 1869 when the diamond drill was introduced. The diamond drill revolutionized the industry.

A Diamond Drill Crew
ca. 1900

A diamond drill is used to obtain solid cores of strata drilled through so that the character of the ground, the wealth of ore, or strength of material for foundations may be determined. The diamond driller set diamonds in the bit as they become worn or chipped, or are lost.

The St. Joseph Lead Company was the largest lead-ore producing company in the world. Eighty-one per cent of the lead-ore produced in the state came from southeastern Missouri and ninety per cent of that came from St. Francois County where I lived. In 1897, Engineering Magazine called the industry "crude and semi-degrading," but it was a living and a way of life for my family. Almost everyone I knew worked for the mines, save the preachers, teachers, and undertakers.

Diamond Drill Operators
Diamond Drill
R-L: Otey Reed Campbell, Earnest Rodger Campbell,
& Hugh Graham Campbell

Others unknown ca. 1900

My Grandfather, Otey Campbell, was a diamond drill foreman for the St. Joseph Lead Company in the early 1900s. He worked for St. Joe around the time it merged with the Doe Run Lead Company in 1900 to become the largest mining company operating in southeastern Missouri. Working with him were his brothers Earnest Rodger and Hugh Graham. Otey's sons would carry on the tradition by working for the Company in Flat River, sometimes called, the "lead capital of the world." The first mine shaft was sunk in the fall of 1870, but Flat River did not see its boom until 1890.

Diamond drillers were the "John Henry's" of the lead mining industry. I loved this poem that was written idealizing the diamond driller:

The Diamond Drill Man

He 's cut as clean as a new-made coin,
As he stands in the murk, half dressed;
He 's broad of shoulder and lean of loin —
That's him at the tunnel's breast.
He battles against the solid rock,
Down there where it's damp and chill;
He's born of the Ne'erquit fighting stock
Is Jim of the diamond drill.

If there's ever a vein that's gone and pinched,
Or dipped to an unknown plane,
Just send for Jim and the rest is cinched —
The lead shall be caught again;
For the rocks they whisper strange things to Jim
In the heart of the tunneled hill,
And there's never a secret withheld from him —
From Jim of the diamond drill.

The rest of the shift flit through the gloom
Like specters in vaulted grave;
The roar of the blast sweeps through the tomb
On a sulphur-perfumed wave;
Out where the West Begins
And the gold goes out unto mint and mart,
The treasure for which men kill,
Because in the mountain's granite heart
Toils Jim of the diamond drill.

Flat River's history is rough and tumble. Hard men, hard drinking; the activity outside the mines was centered around the Blue Goose, the Black Bear, the Klondike, and the Moonlight saloons. Places I am certain my Grandfather and his brothers frequented. When the St. Joseph Lead Company came to town it established order, industry, and my family history with the land.

Diamond Drill Operators
Diamond Drill
Second Row R-L: Otey Reed Campbell, Hugh Graham Campbell,
Earnest Rodger Campbell
Others unknown ca. 1900

It was my Grandfather who secured a job for his eldest son, Otis. My grandfather had done all his work for St. Joe above the ground and he saw to it that Otis would never go underground, having secured a job in one of the carpenter shops associated with the mill.

The Damp And The Dark
The Miners and the Interior of the
Flat River, Mo. Lead Mine

My Grandfather died before my father was old enough to work for the Company, so Otis took the responsibility of getting my father a job above ground. My father was a welder in the shop that kept the company equipment operational. Working for the mine ended for my family with my father. No grandson of Otey Campbell ever worked for the mines. Otey's sons all wanted better for their children. Low wages, difficult working conditions and strikes were a few of the reasons my father wanted a better life for his sons.

I remember the strike of 1962, where as a child I stood in line with my father for food. My sister and I still talk about how embarrassing this was for our father. Even then he shared the food he received with his mother. The fact he couldn't earn a living wage and yet worked himself to the bone, convinced him that his children would not work for the "Company."

The Striking Miners Food Line - 1962

Food Line in photo was not taken during the depression, but rather in July, 1962 at Flat River, Mo. Members of USWA Local 6242 who are on strike against St. Joseph Lead Co. who qualified for surplus government food after only a few days on strike are in the line. Wages paid by this giant of the industry are so low that employes were unable to accumulate reserves to provide food for themselves and their families. Officials of the USWA arranged for the food distribution.

The health effects of the mining industry on the inhabitants of St. Francois County have long been debated by medical authorities. It is often said there was a higher incidence of cancer here than anywhere else in the state. Many attribute it to the lead in the water systems or to breathing the blowing chat from the dumps. I am not certain, but we did lose children to cancer in fairly high numbers and the men of the mines had many severe illnesses. Whether attributable to the lead, chat dumps or the dark and the damp, we were not a healthy community. Nor are many who are living today.

Chat Dump

So, what's a chat dump? The chat dumps are hills of sand size particles of ground rock left from lead mining. They were piled up all over St. Francois County. As a teenager they were the perfect place for a kegger. We believed that the local law enforcement didn't want to have to climb the dump to arrest us, so we were safe to party. Today I imagine that it was because they knew where we were, felt it was punishment enough to drag the keg to the top of the dump, and knew if we fell it was a soft landing and a long roll. Not that I would know.

Life among the chat dumps was not all fun and games. One of my most vivid childhood memories involving the St. Joseph Lead Company spawned my father's version of "you'll shoot you're eye out."

My Grandmother's home was the third house from where an old private wagon road entered a chat field owned by the St. Joseph Lead Company. The Company maintained a powder magazine in that field. The locals had made paths across the field to walk to and from Flat River, Deslodge, and Cantwell. The Company had constructed stiles for the public to cross over the fences into the fields. The tract was not entirely fenced. Children were known to play in the field and about and on the powder magazine when it was in disuse. Men trained their dogs in the field and discharged firearms. My Grandmother's home was within two hundred yards of the powder magazine.

The story as I remember is that on the afternoon of January 3, 1953, Hubert Dale Prather, a seventeen year-old from the neighborhood put a 22 rifle to the keyhole of the lock on the powder house and fired. The powder house exploded with terrific force, killing Hubert and two friends. I witnessed the destruction at my grandmother's, broken glass everywhere and I overheard my Grandmother and Father talking about how the bodies were never found. "Blown to pieces most likely," they said. I never again walked the length of the three houses to the chat field. Never, ever.

As an adult looking into the case I found there was more to the story, as there always is. After years of disuse, the Company began placing large quantities of dynamite caps in boxes in the powder house. The boxes were piled on runners to a height of about five feet on the day of the explosion. The chat had blown up one side of the house allowing the neighborhood children to climb on the roof. The house was made of ten inch concrete reinforced walls. There was a steel reinforced door and the lock did not go completely through the door. The jury found Hubert did not shoot into the powder house. A cause for the explosion was never determined. The explosion occurred with such force that the powder magazine was demolished and left rubble. Three people were killed. The court case also did not discuss if the boys' bodies were ever recovered.

St. Joseph Lead Company was found guilty of maintaining an attractive nuisance in an area where children where known to play and townspeople had used the field as a thoroughfare.

When I was in high school my father became seriously ill with a rather mysterious auto-immune disease that resulted in him no longer working for the mines. The mines themselves did not last much longer. The last producing mine in the "lead-belt" ceasing operations on October 1, 1972.

I leave you with a wonderful slide show of the town of my birth and the St. Joseph Lead Company. And before my children email me, they are all before my time. Really!

Historic Bonne Terre, Missouri - Album #1


Bucksch, Herbert.
Dictionary Geotechnical Engineering. Berlin : Springer, 1998.

Chapman, Arthur.
Out Where the West Begins, and Other Western Verses. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917.

Christensen, Lawrence O.; Kremer, Gary R.
A History Of Missouri 1875 To 1919. Missouri : Univ of Missouri Press, 2004.

Gunton, George, Editor.
Gunton's Magazine of Social Economics and Political Science. New York : Gunton Co., 1897-1898.

Pulsifer, William Henry.
Notes For A History of Lead, and An Inquiry Into The Development of The Manufacture of White Lead and Lead Oxides. New York : D. Van Nostrand, 1888.

Williams, Walter.
The State of Missouri: An Autobiography. Columbia, Missouri : Press of E.W. Stephen, 1904.

Workers Of The Writer's Program Of The Works Project Administration Of The State Of Missouri.
Missouri: A Guide To The "Show Me" State. New York : Duel, Sloan & Pierce, 1941.


A Diamond Drill Crew ca. 1900. Digital Format. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.

Diamond Drill Operators & Diamond Drill ca. 1900. Digital Format. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.

Diamond Drill Operators & Diamond Drill II ca. 1900. Digital Format. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.

The Damp and The Dark. Digital Format. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.

Chat Dump. Digital Format. Privately held by B. Warner, Webshots.

Bonne Terre Slide Show. Digital Format. Privately held by B. Warner, Webshots.


Blogger Jasia said...

I loved the photos and the poem! Terrific! Another great story from fM :-) This COG edition sure hit home for you!

June 2, 2009 at 7:59 AM  
Blogger Leah Kleylein said...

Wow! That was a great story. I spent some years as a child in coal mining areas of Pennsylvania and there are a lot of similarities.
Love the slideshow and all the great pictures you have!

June 2, 2009 at 11:37 AM  

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