Taylorville, in south-central Illinois, was in the news this past week after it got hit by a powerful tornado. And hearing about Taylorville on the news reminded me about the town’s old connection with Kendall County.
That relationship, memorable though brief, goes back to the 1930s, when there were problems—big problems—in the Illinois coalfields that surround Taylorville in Christian County.
The nation’s economic conditions, and it slipped into the Great Depression just kept getting worse. And then, in the midst of all the economic turmoil on July 9, 1932, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), under the leadership of the pugnacious John L. Lewis, made a deal with the owners of coal mines around Taylorville and other nearby towns. Negotiations on a new four-year contract championed by Lewis had been dragging on since the spring, and the miners were anxious to get back to work. But when the union and the companies finally settled and the miners found out the details of the agreement, they were outraged.
Lewis had agreed to a cut in the basic daily wage from $6.10 a day to just $5. Lewis insisted it was the best deal the miners could get considering the economic shape the country was in. His argument was that the companies were in danger of going broke altogether. Not surprisingly, however, the members’ vote on the new contract went down by more than 2-1.
But Lewis was determined to force the contract through, and he ordered UMWA District 12 President John H. Walker to sell the new contract to his angry members, while Lewis traveled through safer areas of the state to lobby for acceptance of the pact. When Walker spoke to miners at Gillespie, physical violence nearly broke out.
A second vote on the contract was held Aug. 6, and Lewis and his union officers announced it had passed. But before the vote could be certified, the tally sheets were said to have been stolen. A couple days later, Lewis ordered District 12 miners to accept the new contract. But rebellion was in the air.
On Aug. 14 in the Macoupin County mining community of Benld, miners met and voted to go to neighboring Taylorville and close down the Peabody Coal Company mine there—Taylorville’s miners had voted in favor of the contract and had gone back to work. By Aug. 19, a convoy of some 1,500 miners left for Taylorville where they successfully shut down the mine—the Christian County miners refused to cross their picket line.
Farther south in Illinois, the protests were not successful, resulting in the so-called “Battle of Mulkeytown,” in which five miners were injured by sheriff’s deputies.
In early September disaffected miners met at Gillespie and established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America, in direct opposition to Lewis’ UMWA. Christian County—and Taylorville—became the battlefield between the two sides. While the “Proggies” managed to negotiate a slightly better contract, Peabody officials refused to hire any PMA workers. In fact, PMA membership became a ticket to being fired in most mines.
With this as a backdrop, in 1933, open warfare finally broke out between the PMA on one side and the mine owners and the UMWA on the other. A headline in the Taylorville Breeze on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1933 reported: “4 Killed, 14 Shot in Mine Battle.” According to the news story, PMA opened fire on “scabs and special deputies” at Peabody’s Taylorville Mine No. 7. The report said the PMA miners opened up with rifles from “several homes,” and included machine gun fire from Freddie Bassana’s gas station (Bassana was subsequently charged with murder).
Clearly things were getting out of hand in Taylorville, so Gov. Henry Horner called out the Illinois National Guard. Initially, five infantry companies from Danville, Champagne, Springfield, and Salina were activated, along with a headquarters company from Sullivan to respond to Horner’s call.
And ominously, on Jan. 7, 17 cases of explosives were reported stolen from a nearby mine.
Tensions went up further in February when National Guard cavalry from Chicago was stationed in Taylorville. The cavalrymen were generally well-to-do, and didn’t get along at all with the miners. By March 28, 10 miners had been killed and 100 wounded in the mine war. On April 3, a Baptist church in Taylorville was bombed, and a gun battle in Duquoin on April 7, left two Progressives dead. On April 13, perhaps thinking to cash in on the situation, Montgomery-Ward advertised a “Special Sale” on .22 cal. Rifles—just $3.41.
Then on May 13, the Breeze reported that the National Guard company from Kankakee that had been on duty at Taylorville was being replaced by Company E of the 129th Infantry, based in tiny Plattville, right here in Kendall County.
The company had been established and accepted for service on July 16, 1923 with Capt. David Mewhirter, a World War I veteran, in command. In June 1928, Capt. Charles Howell succeeded Mewhirter. Howell was in command when the company was deployed to Taylorville.
On April 5, 1933, the Kendall County Record reported that “Capt. Charles Howell of Company E. Plattville, was in receipt Friday of orders for the men to be ready and fully equipped for service at Taylorville, the scene during many months of serious mine labor trouble and riots. When the orders for actual movement to the area will be received it cannot be foreseen, but farmers here are looking around for substitute hired men who can fill in during the Company’s absence Since the beginning of the disputes at Taylorville, national guard companies have been sent to the area in rotation for stated periods of time.”
The Daily Herald in nearby Morris reported on May 11 that: “A telephone message was received at midnight last night by Capt. Charles Howell in Plattville where the company quarters are located, to report for duty in Taylorville and the company of 60 men will leave for the trouble zone Saturday night by bus.”
According to the May 17, 1933 Kendall County Record, “Company E, 129th Infantry, left Yorkville Saturday night for Taylorville, where they will relieve the company from Kankakee and resume the guard of the mines. The company left in special buses. A truck carried the necessary equipment for the stay. The boys will return in two weeks. Their company is the last one in the district to be called. Capt. Charles F. Howell is in command. His lieutenants are Arthur Hubbard, first [lieutenant[; Irwin Knutson, second [lieutenant]; Rasmus Knutson, William Reed, Harvey Reed, Vernon Wright, Nels Nelson, Gordon Bertram, and Wilbert Henne, sergeants; and Harold Stein, mess sergeant.”
From both press reports and letters home, Company E did well. Years later, Clyde Howell, Capt. Howell’s son, recalled that “There were no problems when E Company was down there because they could read each other because everybody in E Company was a farmer. When you had somebody from Chicago, it wasn’t so good.”
On May 24, 1933, Capt. Howell wrote in a letter to the editor of the Record that “Taylorville is a very pretty town and the people treat us fine, but the small mining towns around are not so good. Fights are common afternoons and evenings.”
When Company E’s tour was up, the Guardsmen headed back to their homes, farms, and businesses in Kendall County. While it didn’t seem like much at the time, the experience they gained served several members of Company E in good stead some years later when World War II broke out. After it was nationalized, Company E and the rest of the 129th served in the Pacific Theatre throughout the war.
The boys from Kendall County made a good showing, both during their service during the mine war, and later on, during their actual combat against Japan. A pretty good showing for the farmers and small businessmen coming out of the nation’s smallest National Guard Armory. How tiny Plattville got a certified armory is a fascinating story in itself—but one for another time…