“Then more settlers trickled West, they said in search of elbow room on the ground, room to farm the rich topsoil; but, hushed and quiet, they dug into the private heart of the earth to find the lead, the soft coal, the good zinc. While the town of people only seventeen miles east of us danced on their roped-off streets and held solid weeks of loud celebrating called the King Koal Karnival, only the early roadrunners, the smart oil men, knew that in a year or two King Koal would die and his body would be burned to ashes and his long twisting grave would be left dank and dark and empty under the ground – that a new King would be dancing into the sky, gushing and spraying the entire country around with the slick black blood of the industry’s veins, the oil – King Oil – a hundred times more powerful and wild and rich and fiery than King Timber, King Steel, King Cotton, or even King Koal. – “Empty Snuff Cans” from “Bound for Glory”
(Since this week marks the 100th anniversary of Mother Jones being hauled to jail at age 86 for protesting mining conditions in West Virginia, seems like a good time to finally write about visiting her grave in Mt. Olive, Illinois, last July.)
July 3, 2012 On the eve of our nation’s birthday, I did the most American thing I could find: I drove by myself through rural Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, in search of Woody Guthrie at a Wilco concert with my friends Sam, Brianne, and Paul. I’ve made lots of drives north on I-55 through the sprawl of crops and wind farms. It’s necessary to get to Chicago, and to my in-laws in Michigan, friends in Peoria. And this time, a town on the Illinois-Iowa border. In nearly 15 years of making these drives, I’ve never followed the signs near Mt. Olive, indicating the Mother Jones memorial. Mostly because I had no idea what it meant or who she was beyond the brief biographies in my feminism books – badass old lady who gave what-for to people who needed it. Which, really, should be enough for me. Hell, Congress called her “the grandmother of all agitators,” so I have no excuse for slacking on my Mother Jones learning.
By this point in the Guthrie project, I knew enough to realize that Mother Jones was the original union maid, fighting for the same workers rights years before Woody was even born. Without Mother Jones, there might not have been a Woody Guthrie. And there would have been fewer miners and workers; her fight for safer, humane working conditions saved more lives than we can begin to fathom. Continue reading