They were foremen, electricians, explosive experts, tractor drivers, and above all, they were breadwinners.

Three old men sit around a propane heater. They are chewing the fat, laughing about the old days.

I walk through their front door. A bell dings.

“Welcome to the coal-mining museum!” hollers one man. He stands, then leans onto a walking stick and adjusts his hearing aid.

The miner’s museum is a tiny building in the sleepy hamlet of Whitwell, Tennessee. Inside are relics dating back to the early days of coal-mining in Marion County.

There are old helmets, blade shovels, iron wagons, carbide head-lanterns, and large stumps of black coal.

“Mining goes way back in my family,” says J.T. “My great-grandfathers come from England to mine coal for the Queen.”

The other two men near the heater are also retired coal miners. Albert and Jimmy.

I get the dime tour from all three men at once.

There is too much to take in. On the walls are a million items J.T. has gathered over the years. I ask why he’s collected so many artifacts.

“‘Cause,” he says. “I don’t want the world to forget about us miners.”

In the center of the room is a large display of photographs. In the pictures are his friends. Most of them deceased.

J.T. can point to any picture of any miner and tell you a story.

“This here was my buddy,” he says, tapping one photo. “Called him ‘Bugus,’ we all had nicknames.”

He taps another photograph. In the frame are two blonde women with blackened faces.

“These two ladies were coal miners. Bet you ain’t never seen women miners. Hardest dadgum workers you ever saw.”

These Appalachian men have enough tales to fill a box car. Sadly, they don’t have many around to listen. J.T.’s little museum doesn’t get many visitors.

Most days, he sits in this room, piecing jigsaw puzzles together on a card table, prepared for any who might stop in.

The museum’s biggest story, perhaps, is of the 1981 explosion in Mine 21, which killed thirteen men. And this is not just a story, it is a saga.

The underground disaster made national headlines. Marion County was flooded with camera crews and journalists from all over.

“Oh, buddy,” says Jimmy. “That was a terrible day, worst day of my life.”

All three men get teary-eyed.

“Yessir,” adds Albert. “Was the worst day the world ever knowed. Messed us up, you don’t never get over losing your friends.”

“No sir, you don’t.”

Albert, Jimmy, and J.T. were part of the rescue team. They entered Mine 21 after the accident, crawled on their hands and knees, toting oxygen tanks, and recovered the bodies of their brothers.

“We didn’t HAVE to go in,” said Jimmy. “Company woulda sent another rescue team to do the dirty work for us, if we had been too emotional to do it.”

“Hell no,” Albert interjects, “We told’em ‘Hell no, sir,’ we wasn’t letting our brothers get carried out by no strangers. We was gonna carry’em out like the men they was.”

The funeral services were so big, they tell me, the town was swallowed by vehicles. People came by the thousands to pay their respects.

“Came from all over the nation,” adds one man. “Far away as West Virginia, and Kentucky.”

It was a ceremony like nobody had ever seen. But sadly, these men had to hear about it secondhand.

“We couldn’t go to the funerals,” says J.T. “Our rescue team was busy working to get the mines back open so that our boys could go back to work and feed their families.”

The men are red-eyed and shaky-voiced. Albert buries his head into his sleeve. J.T.’s lip is quivering. There is a long silence that passes between us.

There are some things time doesn’t heal.

We walk the aisles of mining memorabilia. In the glass cases are remnants of a culture that is a bygone era. These were a breed of men who lived and died together. They were rough, and blackened. Their generation did not use computerized machines, but muscle, and heart.

They were foremen, electricians, explosive experts, tractor drivers, and above all, they were breadwinners.

If you were to visit this museum, you might think these men were ordinary old men, but they are not.

They are brothers. They are loyal. They are white-haired, red-blooded, and blue in the collar. They are much like the kind of men I come from, and they make me so proud it hurts.

At the end of my tour, Albert walks me to the door. He taps a picture on the wall. It’s a black-and-white photo of a man standing outside a church.

Albert begins to cry. He apologizes, then wipes his face with his forearm.

“Daddy didn’t want me to mine coal, since that’s what he done all his life, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be just like him, he was my hero. Don’t let the world forget about us, son.”

No sir.

I will not.

26 comments

  1. Karen - March 6, 2019 7:29 am

    Thank you, Sean, for bringing these personal stories to us. You keep our American history alive.

    Reply
  2. Sandi in FL. - March 6, 2019 7:58 am

    This is an important story and so well-written, Sean. While reading, I felt like I was touring the coal- mining museum and listening to J.T., Albert and Jimmy reminisce. You accompanying sketches definitely garner my interest, too. I ALWAYS look to see what goes along with every post. In the talent department, you pparently stood in line twice to get a double dose!

    Reply
    • Emjay - March 6, 2019 3:04 pm

      Exactly, Sandi. Sean makes us feel like we’re right there with him. I didn’t realize he does his own sketches? I only see them when I move to the online page instead of reading from the email. You are gifted, Sean, and so are we with your stories.

      Reply
      • Sandi in FL. - March 7, 2019 3:59 am

        Hi Emjay. Sometimes Sean signs his sketches “Sean D.” in small lettering, but not every time. The drawings always tie-in with the story he shares that day and can only be seen from the online page. As you aptly stated, he is very gifted and so are we readers, with his stories.

        Reply
  3. MaryJane Breaux - March 6, 2019 10:50 am

    Oh the places you go, the stories you share and the wonderful blessings I feel. You introduce us to everyday angels and open our eyes to new worlds. Thank you for sharing these amazing gentlemen, they are truly the finest in this country. ❤️

    Reply
  4. Dale - March 6, 2019 11:04 am

    I enjoyed reading about Whitwell, TN mining museum and put it on my list of things to see. I was very disappointed that the accident was noted on google look up but not the museum. I hope it’s still open.
    I read your blog everyday and I love it, so refreshing and wonderful, keep it up!

    Reply
  5. Cathi - March 6, 2019 12:36 pm

    To me, these are the guys who built our country and I’m not sure they get enough credit for that. Thank you for reminding us about these unsung heroes. They didn’t wear capes, they swung pickaxes and risked their lives to make life more comfortable for the rest of us.

    Reply
  6. Debbie Britt - March 6, 2019 1:38 pm

    Makes me want to make a little trip!❤️

    Reply
  7. Jo Ann - March 6, 2019 1:52 pm

    We won’t forget. Thank you, Sean.

    Reply
  8. Connie Rau Larkin - March 6, 2019 2:08 pm

    What a surprise to see this! I haven’t posted for a long time…I went to this area about 10 years ago looking for some ancestry clues. Had a wonderful visit at this museum and spent quite awhile in the library. I was looking for clues of the Holloway and Hundley families. My great grandmother Mary Ann Holloway (Polly Ann) married John Hundley. Polly’s parents were Jeremiah and Nancy Holloway. My maternal grandmother was Nancy Jane Hundley, born 1879 at Oates Landing TN. Can’t find anything on John Hundley…anybody?

    Reply
  9. Jack Darnell - March 6, 2019 2:42 pm

    There are things that go on in this world that should not be forgotten. BUT, but time eats up a lot of that. We love the side roads and small museums. The heart of someone who KNOWS toil and trouble and HAPPY times. We try not to forget, but time eats us too. I love old men like you wrote about, may their labor go rewarded even after their time on this earth. A very good read my friend.

    Reply
  10. Jeanne butler - March 6, 2019 2:58 pm

    God bless and thank them. An awful life.

    Reply
  11. kathleenivy - March 6, 2019 4:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
  12. Susan Sharit Jacobs - March 6, 2019 4:55 pm

    This touched me because my daddy was a coal miner. He left the mines after his father died from smoke inhalation from a mine fire. But he went back to the mines because he said his family was starving. My daddy was my hero because he went back under ground for his family. That’s love. That’s a coal miner. Strong men.

    Reply
  13. Betty F. - March 6, 2019 5:14 pm

    This needs to be sent to every member of Congress. Tells the story better than anything.

    Reply
  14. Tammy Moody - March 6, 2019 5:27 pm

    This article makes me so want to visit there in person, now that I have visited in my mind! Not really to see the artifacts, although they would be interesting, but to be in the room with these men, and hopefully get a hug when I leave. That, sir, would be an honor. Keep it up Sean!

    Reply
  15. Colleen Snow - March 6, 2019 6:29 pm

    When I saw the name Whitwell I wondered if it was the same town in Tennessee that I’ve been to. I was there specifically to visit the Holocaust Memorial that grew out of an 8th grade project to study the Holocaust. You may have heard of the Paper Clips project. When the 8th grade students in 1998 chose to count individual paper clips as a way of being able to comprehend what 6 million lives lost would look like, they had no idea how their project would end up reaching across the globe and culminate in the construction of a Holocaust Memorial in Whitwell, TN. The memorial has continued to evolve and now includes a Children’s Holocaust Memorial as well.

    The next time I get to Whitwell, I will be sure to look up J.T.’s coal mining museum. These men and women built the backbone of our country and deserve to be remembered!

    Reply
  16. Budd Dunson - March 6, 2019 6:36 pm

    Wonderful tribute to these men.

    Reply
  17. Donna Gulliver - March 6, 2019 7:06 pm

    Hello Sean,

    Your column is the highlight of my morning—the way I start my day! I have saved all your columns.

    I just saw that you are going to be in Franklin, TN this weekend–my husband and I live about 25 min away in Spring Hill, TN. We are in our late 70’s and don’t get out a lot but love company (actually got the first B & B license in Tuscaloosa years ago). We also love traveling and have been to 49 of the 50 states together in our almost 59 years of marriage.

    If you and your wife would like to spend the night (Friday or Saturday or both) with us you are entirely welcome. It would be an honor to visit with you and we have great accommodations, queen bed and private bath. Email me back if interested and will give you direction, phone number, etc.

    Blessings,
    Donna Gulliver

    Reply
  18. Shelton A. - March 6, 2019 7:44 pm

    I don’t think I’ll ever forget reading that…it’s not the safest job today and I know that working the tech backwards, those men and women who did that job to feed their families were indeed mining coal in much more primitive conditions. It’s a shame that museum couldn’t be moved to where more people could see it. We do need to remember.

    Reply
  19. Estelle Sexton Davis - March 7, 2019 8:43 am

    Thanks for telling this story. These men and women went down into the mines to feed their families. It was a dirty dangerous job underground. And many men died of black lung. There lungs full of coal dust. They couldn’t breathe at the end. But the owners denied tha mining coal was the cause. John L Lewis was a hero to miners. He worked to get the government to put in laws to make mining safer. The mining of coal is almost non-existent in the US. There are many people in West Virginia that are living on a thread as there is not as much use for coal anymore and jobs are scarce.

    Reply
  20. Chris Dendy - March 7, 2019 1:14 pm

    Enjoyed another of your articles. It seems you’re traveling through the memories of my life. First the restaurants on Lake Martin where I’ve eaten. and now Whitwell, TN, where my Mother told us some of our relatives lived. She visited the town with her sisters to do some genealogy searches.
    I have two photographs that my grandfather took in the late 1800’s of men living in what appeared to be a boarding house …and as I recall they were miners living in Whitwell. I looked at them again yesterday….men are on horses in one picture and and a couple were wearing what looked like miner’s hats. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  21. Clark hining - March 8, 2019 2:53 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  22. Anne Trawick - March 8, 2019 5:22 pm

    You, my dear, are the best kind of man, the kind who appreciates the men who put us here.

    Reply
  23. Lana Jones Barbaree - March 9, 2019 8:10 pm

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS.

    Reply
  24. Becca - March 10, 2019 6:43 am

    Thank you for the glimpses of Heroes all around us.

    Reply

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