Transcript Index
Search This Transcript
Go X

William H. Berge Oral History Center

Coal Company Town Project

Interview with William Hart

November 21, 1982 (1983 oh 012)

Conducted by Paula Hart

Transcribed by Ed Wilcox

PAULA HART: This is my first conversation with William Hart. Mr. Hart spent his early years in Seco, Kentucky, a mining town run by the Southeastern Coal Company. The interview took place on November 21st, 1982 at Mr. Hart's home.


PAULA HART: State your full name please.

WILLIAM HART: William H. Hart.

PAULA: Mr. Hart, when were you born?

WILLIAM: January the 28th 1922.

PAULA: And who were your parents?

WILLIAM: Robert and Flossie Hart.

PAULA: Ok. Who were your, do you remember who your mother's parents were; what their names were?

WILLIAM: Uh, Carters.

PAULA: Carters. Ok. Um. And your father's parents, do you . . .


PAULA: Harts. Do you know their first names?

WILLIAM: L.Z. and Alice Hart.

PAULA: L.Z. and Alice Hart. Ok, where were you born? What town?

WILLIAM: Seco, Kentucky.

PAULA: Seco, Kentucky. Was Seco a coal town?


PAULA: Ok. What coal company?

WILLIAM: Southeastern Coal Company.


WILLIAM: That's what the S-E-C-O.

PAULA: That's . . .

WILLIAM: Seco, Kentucky.

PAULA: Ok. Were they responsible for the whole town?

WILLIAM: They were responsible for everything.

PAULA: Ok. Um, what are some of your earliest memories concerning this area?

WILLIAM: Uh. Some of my earliest memories were how we would gather because the L&N railroad line ran right down through the middle of town.

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: Our houses. And the thing I remember the most is how we would go out to meet, not to meet but to observe or watch the passenger train as it comes and goes.

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: The stops, who gets on, who gets off.

PAULA: Ok. You were young during the Depression?


PAULA: Depression times. Ok, were you poor? Were you considered to be poor?

WILLIAM: Well, we, we would probably be considered poor but uh Dad was very lucky that he had a job all through the time and we was well provided for as far as food we didn't have some of the, nothing more than food and clothing on our backs.

PAULA: Mm hmm. Well, for, who did your father work for?

WILLIAM: Southeastern Coal Company.

PAULA: The coal company. What was his job?

WILLIAM: Uh, his main job, he started out when he was thirteen year old, driving a team of mules.

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: Mules, hauling coal.

PAULA: Into the mine or from the mine?

WILLIAM: No, to different houses.

PAULA: Different houses.

WILLIAM: And then he went into another job, actually got up to an age after he was married and had kids, he was a, a weigher, a coal weigher. As they bring the coal out of the mines, he would weigh the car before they'd dump them to go down to the chute into the tipple and there into railroad cars.

PAULA: Ok. Um, did you have a company store?

WILLIAM: Yes ma'am.

PAULA: Ok. Um, how did you deal with that store or how did you, did you interact . . .

WILLIAM: Well, you could buy by cash but most of it was by scrip.

PAULA: Ok. Could you explain that?

WILLIAM: Issued by the company.

PAULA: Issued by the company.

WILLIAM: And you could get this scrip just like I'd say, it wouldn't be equal coupons today you'd have your pennies scrip, you have your nickel scrip, you have your dime scrip, your quarter, your fifty cents on up to it was maybe a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars.

PAULA: Mm hmm. Ok. Um you talked about the L&N railroad. Ok. The L&N railroad, they used that railroad to haul the coal.


PAULA: Ok. How did they load the coal on the railroad?

WILLIAM: Well, the railroad companies ran a line up the hollows. They was particularly Seco, Kentucky, there was two different hollows.


WILLIAM: And both of these hollows had a tipple and that they would bring the coal out, from out of the mines up to what they call a head house. That's where they dumped the coal. They dumped the coal, it was in these little miner cars and it went down into the, a chute like a conveyor deal

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: Into a tipple, it was in, I mean into a hopper unit which they call tipple, it was, they may have been three or four different hoppers down there for different classes of coal and then they would run, when they'd get full, they would either have the cars already there, the railroad cars, under these chutes which run right up under the tipple and they'd run the railroad cars and as these, as the coal was dumped, the, the train would move these cars and they would slowly fill up. It from, it was, they was dumped from a head house into a hopper down at the tipple, they called them, and then that was in turn dumped into the railroad cars.

PAULA: Ok. Um, you said, you mentioned, that there were three different types of coal, do you remember what, even what they look like or what they called them.

WILLIAM: Well now you'd have one coal that was a, I say it was a black coal, completely black.

PAULA: Uh huh, Ok.

WILLIAM: That would maybe be classified as Grade A Coal.


WILLIAM: Then you'd have the other coal that may have some kind of a bronze looking stripes to it.


WILLIAM: That was, that wouldn't be an unclean coal but they wouldn't put it in the class of the Grade 1.


WILLIAM: And then you'd have the other coal that they might not have gotten all of the slate out of but they still took it.


WILLIAM: And that was, that would be classified as your lowest grade of coal.

PAULA: Alright. Mr. Hart, how long did you live in Seco?

WILLIAM: Uh, until I was thirteen year old.

PAULA: Ok. Um, as a boy, do, what did you do? What was your pastime consist of?

WILLIAM: Well the thing that we, we was very much into the, to the Boy Scout Program up there. And I particularly remembered about how we used to go through the hills. Climb through the hills. And how we had most all, every summer, we'd have us some sort of a tree house. And we, we camped out a lot. And I particularly remember as a boy that, that we were running around over the hills but we had to be particularly careful about the pass on these hills because they was an awful lot of down drifts in those mountains.

PAULA: What is a down drift?

WILLIAM: A down drift is just where there's a big crack in the earth, the mountain. And they, they say that this is caused, caused by the coal being dug out an everything and you could drop a rock down in these crevices and you could hear it just forever and ever and ever falling before it'd hit bottom. Course, sometimes you may not hear it hit bottom. I particularly noticed one day when we were walking out through the hills as I was mighty proud of myself and everybody else was, I was always big for my size, age. And I always took up the rear end. And the scout master usually went behind me. And they was a little boy that fell in one of these mine drafts, drifts, and I caught his hand just before he disappeared. And I pulled him out. I got some help after I got a hold of him and particularly a little incident that happens that we were walking on a path down below the rock and there was some guys that was up on top of the rock and this one guy which was a bully of the outfit but happened to be a scout in our group. He peed on me, and my scout master told me after I, I just more or less had been taught by my father to more or less not to take care of myself, to take up for myself and the scout master, he said, Bill, if you don't whip him, I'm gonna whip you for doing that. So, I don't know if that gave me strength or what but I just whipped that little rat all over that hillside. And then, I don't know, it done something to me, I went around the town and whipped all the bullies that had whipped me. So I remember things that, like that as a kid.


WILLIAM: I remember how we used to go to the movies up there furnished by the company for a dime, ten cents. And you could go in there and sit just as long as you want to.

PAULA: What kind of movies were they?

WILLIAM: They was mostly westerns.

PAULA: Westerns.

WILLIAM: Old westerns like Tom Mix and Hop Along Cassidy and Gene Autry. Well, mostly westerns.

PAULA: Mostly westerns. Did, Mr. Hart did they, did they have, the company support a school. Did they have a school there?

WILLIAM: Oh yeah, we had an elementary school there that the company built a school house. The company provided all the, well, as far as the seats you used, the old big warm morning stove the heat . . .

PAULA: Was it, was . . .

WILLIAM: Your outhouses [laughing-Paula] and it was on company property, there was plenty of playground area. The school was right at the end, right beside of a baseball field and we had all kinds of play area room, I mean area to play in. And it was within walking distance of everybody in that community because I'd say the furthest house away was no more than a mile to a mile and a half. And this, the outline of Seco was that they, it ran up, it actually, you could call it three hollers. The railroad track, it came through the town, a main line went on up to Neon a mile and a half above Seco up in that area and then there was two other mine, mining valleys where that they had, they were called Number One and Number Two holler and these were the two different locations of mines. And at the point where these mines came out, I mean they met and came out, for each one of these branch roads, down on, it came out to a point, at the little railroad tracks did coming from the mine in Number One holler and the mine in Number Two holler. The mine in Number One holler you could go all the way through the mountain and come out to another area, a little mining community that Seco, Kentucky Southeastern Coal Company owned called Millstone, Kentucky. That was also owned by Southeastern Coal Company. That was about three and a half miles below Seco and we, we lived there for a while cause Dad when he went into the ministry, he had a church there at Millstone, Kentucky.


WILLIAM: And then he also got the church in Seco, Kentucky and that's where we, that's, that's the area at the church [unclear] furnished by the company. You paid no rent, at, that, that's the minister didn't pay no rent and that's where we were living when we moved out of there.

PAULA: Ok. So in other words there was a railroad track going back both hollers?

WILLIAM: Yeah, up to the coal.

PAULA: Up to the coal. Okay. How did the miners when they left their homes in the morning, how did they get to the coal? Did they ride trains up there?

WILLIAM: Well, uh, they, they went from home carrying their little lunch boxes, they went to an area where they called the uh, a bathhouse


WILLIAM: Uh, that's where they kept their work clothes. That's where they, they also, they didn't have lockers, they had little baskets that was, that swung down from the ceiling on pulleys and it was just like raising and lowering a flag. They'd lower that basket, they'd go in and they'd unlock their chain. They'd, they, the chains, the pulley chain would be locked. He'd unlock his chain and he would lower his basket. He would take his work clothes out or if he had some clean clothes that came from home with him, he'd put them on and he'd take his clothes he had on, everyday clothes that they wasn't going to work in, and he'd fold them up and put them in the basket. And when he got his work clothes on, he had his little mining cap, miner's cap . . .

PAULA: Was that electric or kerosene?

WILLIAM: Kerosene. It was, not kerosene it was carbide.

PAULA: Carbide.

WILLIAM: And carbide reacts on water which creates a gas and it's a, ignite, it burns.


WILLIAM: And this water unit and this little carbide unit is in the top of this lantern he puts on his head, forehead, on his hat, and you could just work a little wick up there off this little lever up there a little bit that lets drops of water fall down into this carbide. Carbide screws on to the bottom of your light and as, each time the water hits that, it causes a uh chemical reaction which creates a lot of gas and it causes light to shine brighter. And he could turn his light up lick a wick in a lamp. You can turn it up as bright as you want to, it gets longer and bigger and bigger. I mean the flame's up. Then he, uh most of them, walked from the bathhouse up the hill to where the tipple, not the tipple but where the area of where they dumped the coal into this tipple and they had their mine, they had their, the guys that were motormen that pulled the coal, they'd have their cars and they'd go up, these cars would have their tools in them, their, their shovels, their picks, their necessary equipment, augers, hand augers manually operated that they cut this coal or broke the coal down with. And they were loaded, they were loaded in these cars and they, these motor, mine motor I mean coal, motor units would, the same ones that they used to pull the coal from the mines would take the men back into the mines. And as you go into a different mine you would have your different channels off into the mines, into the mountains. And they'd, they would have little tracks running up to these different channels and that's where the guys work and most of the miners and that part particularly worked and loaded their coal a laying. They just have much space that they had between the top of that coal vein to where they'd dump it. And they just laid there.

PAULA: They ever have any cave-ins that you can remember?

WILLIAM: Oh yeah. There was, there wasn't very many but they had quite a few. Nothing like [unclear] they, they've had in West Virginia and places of that nature . . .

PAULA: Oh, Ok.

WILLIAM: You've heard here lately.

PAULA: Ok. Were uh the miners in your area unionized?


PAULA: There was no union there?

WILLIAM: They, they, they eventually . . .

PAULA: Uh huh.

WILLIAM: Voted for a union which actually I'm all for the union now I'm not against it. But I've heard my father say time and time again that John L. Lewis who was the head of the United Mine Workers put, put the miners out of work especially at Southeastern Coal Company because it wasn't long thereafter that they boarded the mines up and the town, the community slowly but surely just dried up and rotted.

PAULA: Um, when the mines were in operation, did the coal companies take care of the houses? Were they . . .

WILLIAM: The coal companies took care of the houses, they took care of the sidewalks. Each house had a sidewalk in front of it. They, they took care of your personal waste because they had little outhouses like the houses were laid out in streets actually. There would be a, one row of houses and then another row of houses that, the rear of the houses, the back of the houses would be facing this alley . . .

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: But the fronts would be on opposite. In other words they would be facing each other, the houses would be. As far as the front of the house, and the companies took care of all the waste they had what we call and you can hear at night it would come around we'd call them honey wagons. They'd come around and, and these outhouses they had individual boxes. An average was a two-seater and they would, they would take the boxes out and put them on a wagon and they'd put cleaned out boxes to replace them and then they would go and they would go dump these somewhere and they, they done this once a week.

PAULA: Mm hmm. Uh, did the company maintain a hospital in Seco?

WILLIAM: The company had a hospital. As a matter of fact that was where I was born.

PAULA: In the hospital. Ok. Is there . . .

WILLIAM: I was, I wasn't born in a hospital but I was born with a doctors, with a doctor that was furnished and financed back by the coal company.

PAULA: Ok. Uh, were you born at home then?

WILLIAM: I was born at home.

PAULA: Ok. Is that house still standing?

WILLIAM: That house is still standing.

PAULA: How about the hospital?

WILLIAM: Uh, no.

PAULA: Ok. Uh, we talked a little bit about the, the school that you went to Mr. Hart. Was it a one-room school?

WILLIAM: It was, we had six rooms.

PAULA: Uh huh.

WILLIAM: It had, no let me backtrack. We had all eight grades there.


WILLIAM: And there was, the only grades that I remember that were together was the seventh and eighth grade.

PAULA: Mm hmm.

WILLIAM: They had rooms together.


WILLIAM: But the other individuals, like your first, second, and third on grades of that nature, they were, they had, had separate rooms. Each one of these school rooms had what we used to call the old, well it was a coal burner. We'd, we'd call them potbellied stoves and that was one of the, most of us big guy's responsibility to see that the coal was a kindling and everything was well in hand.

PAULA: Ok. Were the teachers financed by the uh coal company?

WILLIAM: No. They had, the coal company assisted but they had a educational system up in, at special Letcher, Letcher County School, its not as broad, as big as it was now, it is now but they had a educational set up of that nature.

PAULA: Ok. Um, I want to thank you Mr. Hart for talking to me and I look forward to talking to you again.

[Recording ends]