Friends of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums Board Member David Ralph recently attended the Miners' Reunion in Galena, Illinois to listen and collect their stories.
"I haven't got much to say, but . . ." - and then one-by-one former miners shared stories about experiences in the mines of the Driftless Region at a reunion picnic held August 12 at Galena.
About 40 retired miners, plus some of their spouses and relatives, attended the event. The stories spanned generations from the early days of prospectors ranging to the closure of the last active mines in the 1970s. Some tales dealt with funny antics; some tales described risks and hazards, and some tales recalled spectacular scenes encountered in the underground work environment.
"There is a brotherhood with the men and women involved with the mines and it shows here today," said Bob Buman of Galena, one of the reunion organizers, who compared the bonds between miners to the camaraderie of military personnel, police and firefighters. He added, "Everybody kept an eye on each other in the mines. We all had each other's back."
Robert Bennett of Platteville, born in Buncombe and raised in Leadmine, went on to become an educator. He worked the night shift at the Champion Mine near New Diggings operating the drag line that pulled tailings into the mill while he attended classes at Platteville Teachers College. Later, he served as principal of Hanmer Robbins Elementary School at one point before it became part of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums.
"Our heritage in this area has to be guarded," he said about the Museums. "We have to make people excited about our heritage because the mining industry and other industries built around it made this region."
Bennett urged educators and adults to relay the heritage to the younger generations. He said students should understand the hard work, pride and stubbornness miners and settlers displayed in overcoming challenges.
"If you live in this area and you teach in this area, you need to know about mining and the people who were part of it," he said.
Mining historian Mark Langenfeld, of Monticello, said that after mining activities cease in any area that the collective memories of the industry often quickly fade within a few generations.
"Mining museums play an important role in preserving and promoting an awareness of the institution that often put the region on the map in the first place," he explained, "and which so strongly shaped the lives of its citizens."
Larry Hofer of Cuba City mined all his life and he remembers many events as if they occurred yesterday.
"Mining was exciting; I loved mining," he said as he chatted with friend and colleague Whitey Teasdale of Galena during a recent reunion picnic attended by former miners. "I would do it right now if I could."
The careers of Teasdale, formerly of New Diggings, and Hoffer, formerly of Shullsburg, crossed at a couple of mines. Hoffer added that his father and his brothers also worked in the mines. They said miners often did not specialize in one or two skills. "We all did a little bit of everything at one time or another," Hoffer explained.
Teasdale said his colleagues were great people to work with because of their experiences with coolly and quickly adjusting to unexpected situations using practical approaches. Every day in the mining industry brought continual challenges - low overhead tunnels in cramped working areas, narrow crawl spaces to follow ore deposits, underground water, large caverns, equipment repairs, and various degrees of cave-ins.
"Mining was a good time in my life," Dick Redfearn said, as he stood waiting for the picnic group photo. "It was interesting. I got hurt a few times, but that happened mostly out of my own stupidity."
Redfearn agreed that most miners learned and participated in numerous industry functions to fill workforce demands. "I did everything from drilling holes to loading buckets and driving trucks," he recalled of his time at the Champion Mine south of Leadmine.
There could be unusual occurrences, Redfearn said. He described a curious incident when he and his father prepared to ride up the shaft at the end of a work shift, but the elevator was unpredictably jerking, bucking and bouncing between levels - almost as if the elevator operator was playing some sort of prank.
It became a dangerous task for Redfearn and his father to hop onto the moving elevator as it swung through the shaft as they attempted to ascend to ground level. His father immediately sought the elevator operator to express his complaint about the risky incident. However, his father learned that the elevator operator was struggling to control the machinery due to failure of the hoist brake pedal.
Some mines covered vast expanses underground, Redfearn said, such as one site spread across six square miles below 17 farms.
The storytellers paused from their private conversations to take turns addressing the group. There were interruptions with additional embellishments, rounds of laughter, and some moments of silence after descriptions of injuries and fatalities.
Reunion organizer Bob Buman of Galena called the senior miners heroes. "This mining region is where these states got their roots. We were here long before the politicians and the others," he said.
And the band of miners nodded their agreement.
Photo: Miners from left to right
Back row: Jude Ubersox, Rod Zuehlke, Don Mcnaughton, Tom Golden, Stephen Copland, Tom Simmons, Denis Gensler, Bob Buman
Front row: Larry Hofer, Jim Bennett, Clinton White, Jerry Allendorf, Kieth Teasdale, Dave Harwick, Dick Redfearn, Loren Farrey
Not pictured: Terry Renner, John Bent, Jerry Houy, John Aurit
Posted on Wed, August 30, 2017
by Diana Bolander