Life in a Company Town
By Eugene H. Halverson
“Now I am going to America”, (“No fa ja te America”) exclaimed this impulsive female farm hand! Her name was Edla Antbrams. (My grandmother was an Antbrams from the same farm in Vora). Edla tells of her memories of dancing for joy and the tears of sorrow as she left home and loved ones. This Osterbotton emigrant said Bingham was the most unusual place the Lord and people had ever put together. 20,000 people lived in a 10 Kilometer long community the width of a street. A 10 kilometer draining ditch (the ditch was also the sewer). Her story tells of her life in Bingham Canyon, Utah about her marriage and the return to Vora with her children and a husband suffering from “mine-disease”. (page 149 in the book “Klippiga Bergen” (Rocky Mountain) by K-G Olin from Finland written in Swedish.)
“Now I am going to America”, was the tearful words of so many of my mother’s family said as they left the Holms farm in Vora. These were my grandparents with their many cousins, uncles and aunts. My Great Grandpa Erik Holms and his brother left in 1881. Erik returned to Finland a few years later to die of mine disease. Mickel was killed in a Park City mine. Klippiga Bergen tells the stories of these returning Finns. This is the history of my family sent to us from Finland, pictures and stories that were never told by our historians here.
Sweden had abandoned Finland many years before in a trade for Norway leaving Russia free to occupy Finland. Grandpa was a “subject of the Czar of Russia and was being forced to be a Russian citizen and speak their language. He was also of age to be drafted into the Russian Imperial Army. Even though he was the oldest living son and “Heir” to the great Holms Farm in Vora but he left and never looked back.
Life was hard and great numbers of Finns were leaving their homeland. Some went to Alaska and Canada while others came to America. The book starts out with a story about a wagon train of 300 immigrants many of them Finns on the way to California looking for gold but they were all killed by the Indians.
The following tells about company towns when the companies owned and operated the mine and the city when they owned and run the town. There was no law except their law. It took a long time before the townspeople took the control of the town and the law.
My family came here during the 1880’s/90’s looking for jobs and a new life. America needed labor develop their mills, factories, railroads, oil, coal and metal mines. New inventions were changing people’s lives. The wealthy were investing every dime they could beg, borrow or steal to be a part of it. Money and power was everything to them. They cared little for wants and needs of their workers. As these capitalists were investing money in all these new machines and new ways they acquired a reputation for unexampled greed with a great indifference to the workers. There were no laws then to control these “Ugly Americans”. They had a private army of company gunmen to protect their property and to terrorize the city. Bingham Canyon, Utah put up with 400 of these ruffians during one strike not counting the trigger-happy State Militia. The Militia who was still killing Indians had a new job of killing immigrant strikers. What a shameful legacy they left. It wasn’t hard for me to find families who had dads, brothers, sisters and uncles who were shot during these strikes and evictions.
The mechanical age was more of a curse than a blessing to my mother’s family (Finns), all the men died while they were still young and my aunts buried two or three husbands. This caused the family name of Holms/Holmes to die in America. Historians say that the “Industrial Revolution” wasn’t really a real revolution just a change but to me it was a war and my family lost. Workers were fired, cheated, blackballed, beat-up and jailed for little reason. Workers in desperation tried to form unions for protection but strikes and lockouts were common. Finns and Italians were the leaders of this new labor movement. Politicians called us socialists, communists and anarchists. The Democrats wouldn’t help us and the Republicans were the problem. At the first sign of labor trouble the companies began firing, evicting, jailing and even deporting their workers.
Remember when the so-called philanthropist John D. Rockefeller had the people of Ludlow evicted from their homes. Then as they moved across the tracks into tents he sent men on horses through the camp setting the camp on fire and as they fled the flames the company gunmen and State Militia armed with rifles and machine-guns shot them. Dozens of children as well as 56 men and women were murdered and many more wounded. Later he is seen tossing coins to the children wherever he went but it never made up for what he had done. His life was a story of rags to riches from a poor beginning to the richest man in America. But he is best remembered for paying such a meager wage to the workers that made him rich. There were many like him in America. My book from Finland has a picture of some machine guns and soldiers on horseback posted at an intersection in Colorado. It also has pictures of military camps throughout the Rocky Mountain States and the massacres they were responsible for. When workers began getting evicted and killed they armed themselves fought back. It got so bad that they began blowing up factories and mines where they worked. Union halls and homes were also blown up and burned by the company. Hundreds were killed and thousands were wounded. Thousands of strikers found themselves locked in cattle cars and shipped off to another state. Sometimes if they couldn’t escape they died of starvation and exposure.
Mining primitive and dangerous; At first holes for blasting were drilled by hand using either four or eight pound hammers to a depth of three feet. About two or three pounds of black powder was pored from a keg of powder into a newspaper and pushed into several holes and detonated by a fuse. The keg was left just out of the way in the mine. Light was usually a candle and the miner usually smoked. In time along came carbide lamps which were just as dangerous.
Later dynamite became the explosive because it was four times more powerful but at first the nitroglycerin in it was so unstable that even a noise would cause it to explode. In time Alfred Noble made it hard to explode but now it required a cap and a fuse that caused some of my friends to be blinded or lose fingers. But dynamite released deadly fumes and there was little or no ventilation in the mine and this harder to explode dynamite at times left unexploded charges or “hot holes” that killed the unsuspecting miner as he began drilling new holes.
Compressed air drills that drilled holes quite efficiently eventually replaced the hand held drills but they were the real widow-makers in my family. Tens of thousands miners died as clouds of sharp silica dusts were breathed into their lungs. In the coal mines it was coal dust. But it was easier the hire a new miner than to put water in the drill or ventilate the mine. I was amazed as I looked through the old Lutheran Church records to find the hundreds of miners who died in Utah each year. The mining companies kept no records of these deaths even though this caused most of the strikes and lost time. I remember how quick my father was fired and how fast we were evicted from our house to make way for a new replacement. It was very hard for the company to replace the mules that were used to pull the cars so, anyone who mistreated or put a mule in a badly ventilated area of the mine was fired. A mule it seems was more valuable than a man was. The company always used what they called replacement miners. Well, we had another name for them we called them “scabs” and I rated them about as bad a human being as the gunmen. Both made a living from the hardships of others.
The company always had more workers than they needed. If you wanted to work you had to report for work and hope that you would be chosen that day. Many workers had to pay the foreman for the privilege to work.
The miners were paid by the carload of coal shipped out of the mine. Somehow or other a ton loaded by a Mormon always weighed 2000 pounds but for others it was hundreds of pounds more, sometimes as high as 3000 pounds. Company men at the weigh station claimed they had to account for the rock in it and sometimes they would steal the whole car. Many a strike and shutdown was caused by this theft yet the company would not allow a union representative to be there even if the workers paid his wages. It took many years before miners got paid for the timbering, the cleaning up of coal dust or any other maintenance to make the mine safe. They even had to pay for their tools and blasting powder. No wonder we had so many cave ins and explosions.
Life in a Company Town; I have often wondered why so many of us came to the mining camps where we were treated so poorly. We were not miners! Finns were farmers, loggers, woodworkers, craftsmen etc. My relatives did try to leave the mines by buying large farms in a place called Mosida located just south of Utah Lake but they lost their farms when the pumps went dry during a long drought. This loss caused them to come back to the mines. We were not the preferred workers because we didn’t speak the language and knew nothing about mining. Grandpa knew that in order to survive he must learn to read and write. My mother told me, “In school it was hard to say something in English when I had better words to say it in Swedish.” Finns accepted many hardships but they expected to be treated with respect and dignity. Being educated in their country they knew when they were being cheated at work and wouldn’t allow themselves to be abused without a fight.
Many Finns were skilled carpenters and wood workers and they soon were building homes, Saunas and a Finn Hall. We are a proud people who kept up our customs and language. I have pictures of the beautiful painted and carved carding combs my family had in Vora. There is also a very beautiful ironing board here in Roy. Unfortunately I didn’t inherit anything like that from my grandparents my cousins got them. The men were proud of their strength and worked hard. They willingly entered any contest whether it be lifting, drilling, dancing or fighting. Oh, how I loved their Swedish accents. They danced the polkas and the schottisches then not the junk they have now. I like to look in my grandmother’s book the “Svensk-Finska Nykterhets-Forbundet of Amerika Ord och Bild” (Teetotalers Book) to see all the ladies and gentleman their all children dressed up in their finest clothes and wearing their Delegate ribbons. Women in white dresses, high button shoes and bouffant hats and little girls dressed like their mothers. Men in suits and hats with a gold watch and chain. I have pictures of these large gatherings of Finns at Saratoga and the Provo River. They had some “grand old parties” in those days. The first order of business was to build a fire and make coffee. The coffeepot was a big number #3 washtub (the kind we bathed in). The coffee grounds tied in a bag. The ladies were wonderful cooks and prepared lots of food all with a fine Swedish flair. There was music and games and everyone had fun even the kids.
Finns built houses and gave aid to the widows and there were many of them. Grandpa didn’t trust the banks or buy the stock. He lost money in both of them. Bishop Walt Donaldson said he had a great respect for the Finns, “No matter how much they suffered, No matter how much they hurt, they took care of themselves and never asked for help”.
The days of company towns in America was even worse than living under the domination of the Czar of Russia. The Company made their own rules and laws and enforced them with their own gunmen. The Salt Lake Harold in their newspaper complained, “Trials were held by judges and prosecuted by attorneys employed by the company. The attorney hired by the defendant couldn’t defend his client because he was too was arrested and jailed when he entered town. If a worker was caught talking to a reporter he was also fired and jailed.”
At the end of the month you got paid but they didn’t pay you with money. They paid in coupons or script that was only good at the company store and their prices were high. When State laws forbid this practice and money was paid they just took the item you bought away as you entered town or fired you. There is a picture of company guards that confiscated a carload of turkeys at Thanksgiving time that the miners bought and shipped to town by rail. The State also had laws against these evictions but the State Militia and the Carbon County sheriff would help them evict. Governor Wells was criticized by many for the huge debt to maintain hundreds of soldiers and taking the company’s side in every strike. The people also complained about the cost of supporting the Carbon County Sheriff in his hatred of strikers. He said in these exact words, “Fins and Dagos” gave me the most trouble. His favorite trick was to put them in the Pest House for 40 days without charges or trial. He wanted to lock them in boxcars and ship them somewhere like other sheriffs were doing. The Tribune complained about all the armed guards running around with new Winchester rifles. The companies would spend twice as much for a gunman than they would pay for a miner.
The mining companies always found a safe secure part of town to build fancy modern homes for their superintendents and supervisors. In Bingham it was set high on a hill and later they built a town for them. The company had a policy that didn’t allow any friendly contact between a supervisors and day pay employees either on the job or off. It made it a complete separation of the rich and the poor only then I didn’t know we were so poor. My friends were mostly Swedish-Finns, Mexicans, Basques, Japanese, Yugoslavs and Italians. I found them to be wonderful people and I made many lifetime friends. Our homes and even our town has vanished but we meet and celebrate our past twice each year at the Copperfield and the Bingham reunions. I feel fortunate that I did not live on the rich side of town like my cousin. She had this “la de da” attitude that separated her from the rest of us. It was the wish of the company as well as the immigrants to separate themselves. Each nationality would settle in their own part of town because of discrimination and the language barrier.
Each time I would ask an old Italian or Finn what their parents hated most about living in the camps they just said one word, “English”(before the 1920s). The companies loved the English they came as skilled miners and they did whatever was asked of them. They had always lived under a class system and accepted being treated less than equal. Right or wrong they did what the master asked. Child labor was no problem because little children had always worked in English mines. The superintendent was usually a Mormon and the Bishop of his church. He was quite well respected in his part of the community but hated by the immigrants. He was the man who fired, evicted and allowed the minorities to be cheated and brutalized. I know he didn’t enjoy this power but he was still a part of the “do as I say system”. Many miners fought and died for the opportunity to have someone to represent them. But the companies were afraid of unions and it took many years of suffering, deaths and hardships before federal law finally mandated this wish. Union organizers were arrested for trespassing and jailed. I smiled when I read how the Italians burnt the Pest House in Price to save Mother Jones from being jailed in it. My mother told me many times how she and her waitress friends would hide the Wobblies (IWW) as they held their meeting right under the guards nose in the US Hotel. In order to work a man had to sign what they called an “iron-clad”. This meant he couldn’t talk to anyone about any problem he had except the company who seldom listened and he had to accept the company’s decision on all matters. Mormons on the other hand had the Bishop to settle their disputes with the company so they were treated quite well.
Knightsville; I was just a child when Grandpa Holmes pointed across the valley to where Knightsville used to be. He told us about the most wonderful man he ever knew, Jessie Knight. Everyone called him “Uncle Jessie” even Grandpa. Jessie found his gold when a voice from Heaven told him to “dig here”. His mines were made the safest mines in the West. There was no drilling without water and the mines were ventilated and timbered. The men made more money working six days than other miners did working seven days but the men were required to go to church on Sunday and had to take care of his family. Knightsville was the only mining town in America that didn’t have a saloon. He never had any need for gunmen or militias to protect his town. He loved and was loved everyone. The money and the benefits were so good the other mine owners; the smelter, the power company and the railroad refused to serve him and tried in many ways to shut him down. So he built his own mills, power and railroad and still he had enough money to create hundreds of jobs for the poor and save the Church from going bankrupt and still made his millions.
There was a town called Galena above my house where 200 strikers and their families were forcibly evicted from their homes and blackballed. This prevented them from gaining employment they had to change their names as they moved from camp to camp. One day as the striker-breakers came to work the strikers shot five of the scabs. They thought they were safe while they guarded by company guards and the State Militia. As a child I played in the “Galena Tank” it was a bulletproof fortress that the company built to guard their mine. Six or eight men could safely shoot any one approaching the mine from any direction. To us it was a plaything to pump around on its circular railroad as others threw rocks at it.
My wife was born in Castle Gate and her mother was born in Winter Quarters both are ghost towns now. She has two brothers still working in the mines in Carbon County. I was born in small house without any modern conveniences in Telegraph, Utah. It has been a ghost town for over 50 years. I worked over 42 for the same mining company. On the day I retired they made sure that every day of strike time was subtracted from my meager pension (two years). We didn’t have the killings and the explosions that Grandpa had but we held firm. I remember how they tried to break through our picket lines with busses of scabs escorted by 30 or 40 county deputies. We found many ways to close the road and disable the busses. The deputies and the court system didn’t take to kindly to this but we did what we had to do.
The Salt Lake and Carbon County historians paint a rather rosy picture of mining in Utah but they only look at the companies side. Almost every book writes about the founding fathers of these mining companies and how they risked their money building these towns. But they cared only for money and little for the people who made them rich. Most books use the propaganda passed out by the mining companies. Histories should tell more about people, of living, of joys and even sorrows. I like to find the journals and histories the miners families wrote. I would be grateful for a copy of your family’s history. Please call or write.
We are related to both management and labor in this story so the sword cuts my heart in two directions.