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SJR Column – In My View: An Ancestor's Diary Full of Life's Lessons

Chancellor Susan J. Koch
Saturday, September 24, 2011

As new residents of Illinois, my husband and I have found numerous reasons to appreciate our new surroundings. But this move, to assume the Chancellorship at the University of Illinois Springfield, is really a homecoming for me. My father grew up in Peru and my great-grandfather was a coal miner in Spring Valley.

With 5,000 acres in the heart of Illinois coal country, the Spring Valley Coal Company’s intent was to sink four shafts and build a “Magic City” that would employ up to 4,000 miners. An Irishman, my great-grandfather was one of them. His eldest, Mary, passed along to us her father’s diary, a narrative titled, “Solid Facts.” He made brief entries into this spiral-bound notebook from 1894 to 1902.

It is obvious from my grandfather’s accountings that promises of steady employment and good pay were promises not kept. September 1st, 1894: “Payday, I got 70 cents for a car that stood in the shaft since April … gave 35 cents of it to my butty, Jack Ayre.” On December 29, 1894 he writes: “In the year 1894, I made by work in the shaft $220.40, about 82 cents each work day; coal cost is $16.25.” July 4, 1895: “Ain’t got a cent.” May 23, 1901: “Worked half day … came home … went to confession … earned $36.65 in May.”

With subsistence difficult on such uncertain wages, “Solid Facts” provide glimpses of a precarious family existence. When work in the mines was slow, my great-grandfather “jobbed out”; digging ditches and doing anything else he could to provide for his family. But the children, were surely undernourished and susceptible to the many diseases for which immunizations were not yet available. August 29, 1894: “Madeline died last night at 12 o’clock midnight. April 9, 1895: “Went out to Guenther’s Wood and got some little cedar trees and planted them on the graves of Virgil and Madeline.” December 8, 1895: “Our children have the whooping cough.” December 20, 1898: “Our baby, Ursula, had a spasm at 8:30 pm. We thought she would die.”

As all mining families knew then (and still know now) mining was and is dangerous work. Miners in Spring Valley worked 300-450 feet below ground in utter darkness – except for light from lanterns on their helmets. They worked 10-hour days in spaces about 3 1/2 feet high – stooped low, on their knees or lying on their backs. In winter, if they were lucky enough to have work, they saw daylight only on Sundays. The likelihood of death or injury was ever-present and my great-grandfather chronicled those events faithfully. March 11, 1895; “Man killed in No. 4 by fall of coal.” May 30, 1895: “Fred Ackeyson killed by cars on I.V. & N.” December 5, 1895: “Joseph Guest killed this morning about 5:30 o’clock … fell down No. 2 shaft.” April 10, 1896: “Italian George Rorvoka killed in No. 2 … got his head smashed by pit cars at the bottom of the pit.”

In Fall, 1902, my great-grandfather got a speck of coal lodged in his eye. In pain for several days, he had surgery on October 11th a procedure that left him blind in that eye. He reports on December 5th, 1902: “Still laid up with bad eyes and it bothers me a great deal.” The final entry in the diary is an obituary: “James Craven died on Wednesday afternoon while being operated on for the purpose of having a diseased eye removed. Dr. Covney administered the chloroform; but before the operation was barely commenced the patient was dead. No blame whatever is attached to the doctor as it was a case where the patient was not a fit subject for an anesthetic. Deceased leaves a wife and several children.”

My great-grandfather was buried in the cemetery of the Immaculate Conception Church in Spring Valley, Illinois alongside three of his children; Virgil, Madeline and Ursula. He left a wife and five children and he left a diary full of lessons about the value of family, of community, of work, of faith. Those lessons live on in his descendants, now numbered in the hundreds and spread across Illinois and around the world. And as my husband and I sink our roots deep here in Illinois, we’ll honor and appreciate my great-grandfather’s story and the stories of our new neighbors here in Springfield, so much like his. It’s good to be home.