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George J. Tiller is famous as the man who organized Harlan County, and he has been an outstanding citizen of West Virginia for more than 30 years. After he left the Harlan coal fields, he moved to Charleston where he became Secretary-Treasurer of UMWA District 17, which then covered the entire southern portion of the Mountain State. When District 29 was formed, with headquarters in Beckley, he became its president, a position he held until 1966. During the years since 1941, his colorful personality has become well known throughout the state. His love for a fight did not cease when he left Harlan County. He will take on anyone whom he believes is in opposition to West Virginia's coal miners. This includes politicians of all shades, coal operators and newspapers.
Mr. Titler may be said to have several "native" states. A Pennsylvanian by birth and ancestry, he worked in coal mines in Pennsylvania and Iowa, in both of which states he is still well known. He later adopted Kentucky and Tennessee as home and still visits both of these southern states often on business for the United Mine Workers because of past experience there.
In detail, Mr. Titler served in the United States Army during World War I for two years and was mustered out at Camp Dodge, Iowa, in. 1919, with the rank of sergeant. As the son of a miner and having had previous experience in the mines, he immediately went to work at the coal mine nearest his discharge in Polk County, Iowa, near Des Moines. He worked in that area as a coal miner for 13 years. His first official position with the UMWA was as Board member of Sub-District 3, District 13, a job he held for two years. He then became an International organizer and was assigned to District 19 where he first did field work in the Jellico, Tennessee area, and later around Chattanooga. He was in Chattanooga when his assignment to Harlan County began.
He is now 77 years old and serves his beloved Union with undiminished vigor. His friends do not believe him when he says he is ready for retirement.
By Roy Lee Harmon Poet Laureate of West Virginia
Here is a book by a man who put his life on the line in order to bring coal miners from abject poverty to a better way of living where today they enjoy some of the good things of life, things they richly deserve.
George J. Titler is, first of all, a fighter for justice for laboring men. I have known him for more than thirty years, known him as a two-fisted leader in the United Mine Workers of America. Almost a carbon copy of the late and great John L. Lewis.
He has never pretended to be an author. He is a truly great labor leader who has dedicated a long life to his work. His mighty footprints will linger in the coal dust and the muddy streets of coal camps long after he has passed to his reward. An able speaker and phrase-maker, it is good that in the sunset of his career he decided to set down on paper some of the almost unbelievable but nevertheless true happenings in "Bloody Harlan" county, Ky. This is first-hand stuff, told by a man who in his younger days, when he could have killed a man with his two powerful fists, had the raw courage to beard the Coal Barons in their den. It was no place for timid souls or less dedicated persons.
The Coal Barons in Kentucky as well as West Virginia, had long ruled with a high hand in the coal fields—and they didn't want their "slaves" to be set free. Yes, the miners were slaves before the coal fields were unionized, slaves who truly "owed their souls to the company store" and worked extremely long hours for a pittance while making the coal barons rich.
George J. Titler faced bullets from ambush, sudden death, eternal harassment and certain jail terms for trying to carry freedom — in the form of the United Mine Workers of America — into the coal fields.
This book is not fiction. It is factual all the way.
At 77, ready as he says "to hang up his cap", this great lion of a man, deserves high praise for setting down the facts in this book and preserving for posterity some outstanding facts which union haters would like us all to forget. If you love freedom and hate despotism this volume is your cup of tea.
“This book is the story of four of the most important years of my life, years when organized labor was tested on a blood battleground in the hills of Kentucky. Before 1937, Harlan County had been known locally as "Bloody Harlan", because of its long record of violence. During the years when I was in charge of organizing for the UMWA in Harlan County 1937 to 1941 Bloody Harlan became nationally known. The actions of the Harlan County coal operators became a shame to the entire United States, an object of scorn to all of our citizens, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Harlan County is a part of UMWA District 19 which also includes all coal miners in the state of Tennessee. Prior to being assigned to organizing in Harlan, I had worked under District President Wm. Turn-blazer in Jellico, Tennessee and also in the coal fields near Chattanooga. At my personal request, I was transferred into Harlan on New Year's Day of 1937. The main part of this book is about my experiences for the next four years.
Beginning January 1, 1937, when I left Chattanooga for Middlesboro and Harlan, Kentucky, I compiled a diary and scrap book of newspaper clippings and whatever authentic history I could salvage, and these records grew to be quite voluminous. This personal record ended in 1941 when I left Kentucky to reside in West Virginia. For more than 20 years these records have been gathering dust. My friends are insisting that before I turn in my lamp, I compile the record in the form of a brief history of the blood, sweat and sacrifice of human life expended in the coal miner's pursuit of freedom from tyranny in Kentucky.
This book is the result. Its content is based on personal recollection which I have checked wherever possible with others. Much of the material was recorded by the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee which thoroughly investigated the blood war in Harlan. For earlier history, I am indebted to an unpublished history of the County written by the staff of the LaFollette Committee. Some of the material herein will shock the reader. It should be remembered, however, that this is an unvarnished but somewhat understated version of four years of hell.
It is impossible to credit here all of the men who worked hard to bring American freedom into Southeastern Kentucky, I would like, however, to single out Senators Robert F. LaFollette, Jr., and Elbert D. Thomas, who exposed to the nation the atrocities committed by Harlan County coal operators. Outstanding, too, was the work of Brian McMahon and Welly K. Hopkins who were the Federal government's prosecutors during the conspiracy trial of the Harlan operators. Last but not least is John L. Lewis, the master craftsman who directed the union's successful organizing drive in Harlan County.
One of the major reasons I felt I had to write this book was the hope that it would be read by many younger workers who take the trade unions in our country for granted, those who pay their dues and think their duty of their union has ended there.
Organized labor's enemies are still active in this country. Union benefits now enjoyed were won by sacrifices such as these recorded here. Unless union members remain militant and united, battles such as the four year struggle in Harlan County may again take place in our country.
Therefore, I give you four years of the history of HELL IN HARLAN”.
—George J. Titler
Hell in Harlan
Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the major coal producing sections of the country, is located in a section of the Appalachian Mountain Range, in the extreme southeastern corner of the state. It is bounded on the east and south by Wise and Lee Counties, Virginia, and on the west and north by Bell, Leslie, Perry and Letcher Counties, Kentucky. Its shape is that of a narrow shovel about 50 miles in length and 20 miles at its widest point. Several streams traverse the County and flow into the Cumberland River. The general appearance of the valleys through which these rivers flow is one of narrow, steep defiles. The four roads that enter the County wind along the streambeds. None of the roads is a main highway and for this reason the County is relatively isolated from the rest of the country. The only railroads in the County are spur lines for the transportation of coal.
Harlan County's neighbor to the southeast, Bell County, is the site of the Cumberland Gap which was discovered by Daniel Boone in 1799 and which led to the settlement of Kentucky by a wave of pioneers that followed him west. It was through the Cumberland Gap that Abraham Lincoln's father walked on his way to settle in Kentucky where his famous son was born.
The people who settled in Bell and Harlan Counties were almost all of English origin. Because of isolation the population today is virtually all descended from those original Anglo-Saxon settlers. Much of their folklore is based on 17th and 18th Century English folklore. And their customs today are like those of a hundred years ago. When Kentucky was first settled, men carried firearms, both to protect themselves from savages and wild animals and to provide meat for the family table. A rifle, a shotgun or pistol today is as much a part of an eastern Kentuckian's customary dress as are his pants and shirt. The first possession a Harlan County boy yearns for and saves his money for is not a bike or a car but a pistol or a rifle. He is trained in their use the moment he is sensible enough to aim and pull a trigger.
It is my belief that eastern Kentuckians are no more violent than any other group of Americans except for this custom of bearing arms. In other sections of our country, a violent dispute might be settled by a fistfight or a lawsuit. In Harlan County, permanent settlement has usually been arranged only with the help of Doctor Colt.
There was bloodshed in Harlan before an ounce of coal was mined. There has been blood shed - much of it - in purely personal disputes having no connection with coal mining, unions or company thugs. The native of Harlan County is a frontiersman, proud and defensive of his freedom and his right, under Kentucky law, to bear arms if displayed openly. A man with a gun will not, when angered, bite, hit or kick another man. He will shoot. A little boy in Harlan today is still taught that he should not be carrying a gun unless he means to use it if necessity arises.
In 1910, Harlan County was sparsely inhabited by a farming population of 10,566 persons. Following the development of the coalfields, the population steadily increased until in 1930 the census recorded a total population of 64,557 persons. Nine percent of the population were Negroes and only one percent were foreign born. The larger part of the population depended for its livelihood on coal mining.
Five seams of workable coal lie on top of each other from below the riverbed to the top of the mountain, i.e., Mason, Harlan, Darby, Low Splint and High Splint. Coal from the High Splint, Low Splint and Darby seams had to be hauled down inclines off the mountain to the railroad.
Until recently there was no strip mining in Harlan County. In 1937, all of the mines were driven underground into the sides of mountains. Slopes, not elevator shafts, entered most of them. The seams varied in thickness but many of them were what we call thin, meaning that the men were not able to stand erect when they worked but crawled or stooped from one place to another.
The miners and their families for the most part lived in houses that were clustered around the entrances to the mines. In 1937, these shacks were built and owned by the coal operators and these clusters were always referred to as coal camps. Some of them had names, some of them did not. The picture of a typical coal town in Kentucky described by the United States Coal Commission in 1923 applied to the physical appearance of Harlan County in 1937.
"Each mine, or group of mines, became a social center with no privately owned property except the mine, and no public places or public highways except the bed of the creek which flowed between the mountain walls. These groups of villages dot the mountain sides down the river valleys and need only castles, draw-bridges, and donjon-keeps to reproduce to the physical eye a view of feudal days."
Housing in Harlan County still looks the same as it did in 1923. The only difference today is that most of the homes are privately owned and some of the owners have added electricity and indoor plumbing.
The bituminous coal fields in Harlan County are among the richest in the world. Howard N. Eavenson, of the firm of Eavenson, Alford & Hicks, consulting engineers of Pittsburgh, president of the Clover Splint Coal Co., operating in Harlan County, and formerly consulting engineer for the United States Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, described the rapid development of the Harlan County coal fields to the high quality of the coal produced there. In testimony during the 1920's before a sub-committee of the U. S. Senate Committee on Manufacturers, he said:
"Harlan County was the last of the large coal fields opened and on account of the excellence of its product, its growth has been unusually rapid. The coal is largely used for special purposes where a low-ash and low-sulphur coal is needed. Much of it is used in by-product coke ovens and the rapid growth of the field was helped by the great demand during the war for coal yielding large quantities of bensol and tuluol, as this does, needed for explosives. Even though coal production in Harlan County did not begin until 1911, it mounted steadily from 2.5 million tons in 1916 to 15 million tons in 1928, which the total bituminous coal production for the United States in 1916 and 1928 was about 500 million net tons."
Although Harlan County did not begin to produce on a commercial scale until 1911, the coalfields of adjacent counties in eastern Kentucky and those of northeastern Tennessee rose to a position of importance during the closing decade of the nineteenth century. Actually, first commercial production in eastern Kentucky started in Laurel County immediately after the Civil War. Although this County still contains large areas of unmined coal, there is little or no coal produced there now.
Union spirit in eastern Kentucky began almost simultaneously with the beginnings of coal mining. During the 1890's, Laurel County employed about 850 miners. The average production was about two tons per man per day, the day at that time being 12 hours long. Many of these men belonged to the Knights of Labor before 1890 and were UMWA members from it’s founding. UMWA District 19 held its 12th; annual convention in 1901, and according to James W. Ridings, now International Executive Board members from that District, the convention was attended by delegates from 53 local unions, two of which were located in Laurel County. The union spirit probably had its beginning among the miners descended from parents who had migrated from the British Isles who had been members of labor unions before coming to the United States.
During the great organizing campaign conducted by John Mitchell in 1898, just before he became president of the UMWA, union organizers entered the Southern Appalachian region in strength. By 1907 the union was strong enough to negotiate a general wage contract in the area. However, when the agreement expired in 1910, many of the operators refused to agree to a new general contract. The union, however, succeeded in negotiating and maintaining contracts with a small number of operators in the district until 1914.
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