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Using oral histories, company records, and census data, Crandall A. Shifflett paints a vivid portrait of miners and their families in southern Appalachian coal towns from the late nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century. He finds that, compared to their earlier lives on subsistence farms, coal-town life was not all bad. Shifflett examines how this view, quite common among the oral histories of these working families, has been obscured by the middle-class biases of government studies and the Edenic myth of preindustrial Appalachia propagated by some historians.
From their own point of view, mining families left behind a life of hard labor and drafty weatherboard homes. With little time for such celebrated arts as tale-telling and quilting, preindustrial mountain people strung more beans than dulcimers. In addition, the rural population was growing, and farmland was becoming scarce. What the families recall about the coal towns contradicts the popular image of mining life. Most miners did not owe their souls to the company store, and most mining companies were not unusually harsh taskmasters. Former miners and their families remember such company benefits as indoor plumbing, regular income, and leisure activities. They also recall the United Mine Workers of America as bringing not only pay raises and health benefits but work stoppages and violent confrontations.
Far from being mere victims of historical forces, miners and their families shaped their own destiny by forging a new working-class culture out of the adaptation of their rural values to the demands of industrial life. This new culture had many continuities with the older one. Out of the closely knit social ties they brought from farming communities, mining families created their own safety net for times of economic downturn. Shifflett recognizes the dangers and hardships of coal-town life but also shows the resilience of Appalachian people in adapting their culture to a new environment.
Crandall A. Shifflett is an associate professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.