Jim Alderson and Nelson Grman spend hours at Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Ill., about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis, looking after the monument to Mother Jones, the fearless union organizer who crusaded for workers’ rights a century ago.
They hope that a new museum being developed in town will ensure that younger generations will know the story of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who was buried here in 1930 -- at her request -- next to three coal miners who died in a labor riot in 1898. Museum organizers are holding a May Day celebration on Saturday to honor her legacy.
The granite monument was erected in 1936, paid for by coal miners from across the country who chipped in to honor the woman who had marched with them to demand better wages and an eight-hour workday. It’s a National Historic Site, and there are highway markers on nearby Interstate 55 and also on a well-traveled stretch of old Route 66 that passes through town.
Grman, 77, says he’s met people from around the world while puttering at the cemetery. Some are members of labor unions traveling through the area. But many of the visitors have no idea who Mother Jones was.
“It’s a pleasure to talk to these people and tell them what the true story is. It’s hard to get anything done because about the time one group leaves another shows up. And I like to talk a little bit, too,’’ he says, as Alderson nods his head and laughs in agreement.
Grman also tells visitors how vehemently Mother Jones -- the “grandmother of all agitators” -- fought to end child labor.
“And if you look at any of the history books that tell the true story you’ll see where they had children 5 and 6 years old working in the textile mills; 10- and 11-year-olds working in the coal mines. It was a brutal part of our history that we cannot let be forgotten,’’ Grman says.
Sometimes, the men sit on the base of the 22-foot obelisk and ponder the history that surrounds them in this quiet little cemetery that was born of turbulent times.
Local members of the United Mine Workers established the cemetery in 1899 as the final resting place for three coal miners from Mount Olive who were among the victims of the violence at a coal mine in Virden, Ill., in October 1898. Other union organizers are buried at the site, including Alexander Bradley, who was known as the “general.”
The 80-year-old monument was rededicated in June 2015 after an extensive renovation paid for by private donations, many of them from labor unions, and a tourism grant from the state of Illinois.
Alderson, 79, a retired Teamster, says he learned about Mother Jones from his father and grandfather, who were coal miners.
“I generally come out here and spray for weeds and one thing or another -- there’s always something to do out here,’’ he says. “It’s hard to explain why we’re so committed. A lot of us feel like this is sacred ground here around this monument. I intend to be buried over here on the north side of the monument -- and be Nelson’s neighbor for eternity.”
Celebrating a forgotten legacy
The new museum has a location -- a room in the new City Hall on Main Street that was built after a tornado destroyed the old building in 2013.
Museum organizers are still raising funds for exhibits, though. At this point, the room is basically empty, except for photographs and several poster boards. There’s also a nearly life-size cutout photograph of Mother Jones, a diminutive figure who wore large hats when she took to the streets in protest.
Grman grew up in Mount Olive, which has a population of about 2,000. He says that some residents know little about the self-proclaimed hell-raiser who’s buried in the cemetery at the edge of town. He’s president of the museum board.
“It troubles me,’’ Grman says. “I grew up when members of the coal mine industry were still alive who worked in the mines in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I learned from them firsthand about the struggles and dangerous work. We need to remember. We need to let people know who their grandfathers were -- the courageous people who worked in the mines and factories.’’
Rosemary Feurer, a history professor from Northern Illinois University, is on the museum board. She says that Mother Jones spent a lot of time in St. Louis, and was familiar with Mount Olive because the coal mines that dotted the countryside were a hotbed for labor activism. In 1897, coal miners from Mount Olive launched a "marching strike" for a living wage that had national impact.
“We really have to think of miners in this small town taking history into their own hands,'' Feurer says. "Marching from Mount Olive to Belleville, Illinois -- 50 miles -- and saying to their fellow miners, ‘Come out with us. We’re fighting for an eight-hour day. We’re fighting for a living wage. And we have to be in this together.’ ”
Feurer says it was that show of solidarity that convinced Mother Jones to choose Mount Olive as her final resting place.
In the early years of the 20th century, Mother Jones was a "rock star" union organizer who made headlines protesting for labor reform across the United States. But she’s been largely forgotten, Feurer says, because she clashed with John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers.
Her activism was born of personal tragedy: Mother Jones claimed to be born in 1830, though historians believe she was actually born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland, where they hold an annual festival in her name. Her family emigrated to Canada after the Great Famine. She later lived in Memphis, Tenn., where she was a teacher. After her husband and four children died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, she moved to Chicago. There, she opened a dress shop that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871. She ended up homeless, living in a church.
Jones turned to socialism and the labor movement to fight class injustice, Feurer says.
“What she remembered most was that the rich and well-to-do left Memphis. They left the disease with the poor,’’ she says. “Then, in 1871 she lost her dress shop in the Great Fire. We remember that as a terrible tragedy, a natural disaster. But for her, it was also class injustice because, in the aftermath, they tried to rebuild in a way that got rid of the Irish and other immigrants.’’
“There is no angel on earth.”
Mother Jones spoke in Mount Olive on several occasions, Feurer says. Her funeral in 1930 drew thousands of mourners.
Feurer is hoping that people from across the region will come to the event on Saturday to share stories of Mother Jones that have been passed down in their families. The museum is working with a filmmaker to record memories and perspectives.
The goal is to connect memory and tourism with real meaning, says Feurer, who has dubbed Route 66 the “Mother Jones Road” in Mount Olive.
“Not only are we telling story of the region, but there is a big national story that can be told from this place, ‘’ she says. “It is a complex story. It isn’t always a pretty story. There are heroes and villains and people who have mixed records. Mother Jones wasn’t perfect, and she would never have claimed to be. She said, ‘People call me the miner’s angel, but I reject that term. There is no angel on earth.’ ''