Prior to the Civil War
coal had already become an inexpensive fuel that caused substantial
changes in the marketplace and lifestyle of all industrial nations.
Coal generated the energy that moved powerful steamships, locomotives,
and industrial equipment, and it heated many homes and businesses.
Although the value of coal greatly increased during the Civil
War, no one in their wildest dreams visualized the contributions
it would make as a driving force of the industrial revolution
during the ensuing years.
Shortly after the Civil
War, many large and small coal prospectors, especially in Jefferson
and Walker Counties in Alabama, explored the nearby mountains
and hollows for accessible veins of coal. Several prospectors
discovered numerous seams in the Horse Creek area in eastern
Walker County, but there were no viable means to transport the
coal to market.
Shortly after the Kansas
City, Memphis, and Birmingham Railroad line was completed through
the Horse Creek settlement in 1886, railroad officials named
the newly built depot Sharon. When coal operators in Jefferson
County whiffed the fresh coal dust riding the western breeze,
they hurriedly formed mergers, pooled resources, and with high-pitched
excitement rushed to the coalfields of Horse Creek near Sharon
so they could become rich mining what was commonly known as "black
A flurry of coal-mining
activity ensued. Railroad tracks were extended around mountains
and up hollows where coal-processing tipples, washers, and loading
bins were rapidly constructed. One-horse-wagon mines, pick-and-shovel
push-mines, and modern-equipped mines financed by large coal
companies began extracting vast quantities of coal from the Horse
Creek region. Owners of a new mine assigned a number to them.
Usually the owners of a productive mine constructed rental houses
nearby for their workers and assigned the number of the mine
to the mining camp.
The business area of Sharon
developed on the southwest hillside parallel to the railroad
tracks. Stores were built on the side of Main Street facing the
concrete bulkhead, ranging in height up to twenty feet that supported
the railroad tracks and depot. Stubborn businessmen unhesitatingly
invested their resources in what-except for the magnetic fascination
of the railroad depot-was one of the most unlikely business locations.
Even so, the business section rapidly grew as a sidesaddle to
the depot and railroad tracks.
In 1897 Sharon was incorporated
as the town of Horse Creek. In 1906 the name of the town again
was changed, this time to Dora. Yet many of us who later grew
in and around Dora established sentimental roots nurtured and
strengthened by nostalgia of "Horse Creek."
By 1910 Dora had grown
to include over a dozen general merchandise stores, a soft-drink
bottling company, lumberyard, meat market, livery stable, and
furniture, contracting, and undertaking firms. The town also
included two hotels, a restaurant, and the Dora Banking and Trust
Company. Three physicians, a dentist, a lawyer, and two justices
of the peace served the population of about 800 people. Between
1920 and 1930 Dora grew to include an automobile agency and a
During the 1920s Kershaw,
which was named after two brothers who pioneered coal mining
in the area, became a thriving coal-mining camp. Located about
two and one-half miles northwest of Dora, Kershaw had easily
accessible veins of coal that attracted investors as well as
energetic farmers, including my father, Sebern Lee Self, a recently
World War I had drawn
many young men from farm families to serve their country, and
in early December 1917, and after helping his family gather the
crops, my father had volunteered for the U.S. Army. Twenty-one
months later he received an honorable discharge. With the glitter
of the bright lights of many cities in France and Germany as
well as New York City fresh on his mind, my father like many
other farm boys could not remain on the farm. The popular tune
of the times "How Do You Keep Them Down on the Farm?"
raised an appropriate question that was promptly answered by
most former doughboy farmers marching to work at industrial plants,
coal mines, construction, and other nonfarming endeavors.
Dad headed for the coal
mine of Mulga in Jefferson County for several months before going
to Kershaw in 1921. He boarded with the Carl Yarborough family
and met a younger sister of Mrs. Yarborough named Gladys Roberts.
On May 22, 1922, twenty-seven-year-old Sebern L. Self and eighteen-year-old
Gladys Roberts married and moved into a three-room shotgun house
in Kershaw Mining Camp.
Dad arranged to lease
a coal-cutting machine from the company to cut seams of coal
during the night. The electric coal-cutting machine resembled
a giant chain saw. It was equipped with a seven to eight-foot-long
steel bar with a revolving chain that was studded with bits.
The machine ripped a cut several feet deep at the bottom of the
coal seam, leaving a smooth flat floor after the coal was removed.
Coal drillers and shooters followed the cutting machine and drilled
holes four to five feet deep several inches apart in the face
of the coal seam. They poked sticks of dynamite attached to long
fuses into the holes and then tamped in coal fines. The length
of each fuse and the order in which they were lit determined
the timing of each dynamite blast.
By daybreak each workday
the blasting powder smoke and coal dust had settled sufficiently
in the poorly ventilated mines so that coal loaders armed with
hand shovels could load the coal into squatty, wide mining cars,
set roof support timbers, and extend the steel tracks. Each coal
loader hung a small metal disk with his identification number
onto the side of his loaded cars. An electric motor operator
pulled the loaded cars to the surface of the mine, where workers
at the tipple removed the metal identification disks from the
cars so the appropriate loaders could be credited.
The company paid Dad,
who operated the coal-cutting machine, as well as his helper
for all the tons of coal they mined. Dad worked long hours five
or six nights a week, and his earnings exceeded those of the
mining superintendent. Most coal miners spent their hard-earned
money freely. Dad bought a new automobile every odd year during
By the end of 1927 my
parents had four children: two girls followed by two boys born
fifteen to nineteen months apart. My parents moved from the three-room
shotgun house to a nearby four-room house and furnished it with
fine furniture, a hand-cranked phonograph, and an electric radio.
They bought expensive clothes and quality food. Dad bought an
English bulldog puppy, had his ears trimmed, his tail bobbed,
and named him Bulger. To round out the status symbol of owning
a thoroughbred bulldog, Dad dressed Bulger in a fancy black-leather
harness and a collar embedded with shiny brass ornaments.
Many coal miners who grew
up poor on the farm with little formal education were now making
more money than they had ever dreamed possible. For them these
were the days of sunshine, milk, and honey. On payday, usually
every other Saturday, most coal miners bought light bread, bologna,
ham, steak, bags of candy, and other special treats for the "ol'
lady" and kids. More than a few of the miners bought several
cigars and a bottle of bootleg whiskey. Many of them didn't drink
booze, fight cocks, or gamble, but all of them were rough, tough
as a seasoned hickory pick handle, hardworking, and willing to
labor in a hazardous environment. Few, if any, failed to award
themselves in some manner when they were paid for their labors.
Most owners of large coal
mines in Dora and the surrounding area issued temporary currency
called "scrip" or "clacker." This company-issued
currency could be used as legal tender at company-owned commissaries
and could be discounted at several privately owned stores. A
few opportunists bought clacker from miners by paying 80¢
in U.S. currency for $1 in clacker. The opportunists, usually
coal miners, spent the clacker at the company store buying only
limited goods that cost the same as sold by town merchants.
Large coal companies also
issued their own currency to their workers who needed to buy
goods between paydays. They issued scrip, temporary paper currency
(books of tearout coupons), or clacker, temporary metal currency,
to miners at their request and encumbered against their earnings.
Clacker became more popular in this area and remained in use
for many years.
By 1929 many coal mines
had flourished for several years in the Dora area with a large
number of them closed for various reasons, including long underground
expensive haulage, excessive slate, rock, methane gas, and groundwater.
It was not uncommon for a coal company to close one mine and
then open two new ones.
Kershaw became a coal-mining
hotbed during the 1920s. Several coal-mining companies, including
the Kershaw Mining Company and Pratt Fuel Company, developed
the Kershaw community from 1919 to the early 1930s. Practically
all the houses in this settlement, which were built and owned
by the coal-mining companies and rented to miners, were standard
three-room shotgun houses or four-room box houses. A typical
company-owned house was a wood-frame structure supported by wood
pillars resting on thick flat rocks with horizontal dark-brown
creosoted clapboards on the outside. A few larger company houses
built on No. 10 Hill and painted white were rented to company
officials. All of the company-owned houses included front porches
that served as gathering places for family and neighbors.
Since the coal-company
in Kershaw generated its own electricity, most of the houses
were wired with electrical lines. Each room had a single drop-cord
dangling from the center of the ceiling with a lightbulb socket
and switch attached to the end of the cord. Most company-owned
houses had two brick chimneys-one a flue to a brick hearth with
an iron grate and framed with a wooden mantelpiece in a front
room, the other was a flue for the cooking stove in a back-room