Echoes of the Great Depression
by Nathaniel L. Self      


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 diamond."

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 movie theater.

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 discharged doughboy.

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 the 1920s.

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 kitchen.