Director/playwright/producer Linda Knoll poses before the cast of the Army of Amazons.
The actors will be performing June 22 and 23 in the Franklin Community Center as part of the Franklin Centennial Celebration.
 AMBER BERNARD/ THE MORNING SUN

AMAZON ARMY

Franklin has seen a lot of history during its first century, and the community drew national attention in 1921 when a group of women defied authority and took to the roads in a march to demand fair pay and safe working conditions for area miners.

"Those women literally marched from Franklin into history," said Linda O'Nelio Knoll, author of the play "Army of Amazons," which details events of the march.

Two free performances of "Army of Amazons" will be presented at 7 p.m. June 22 and 23 in the Franklin Community Center.

This location is a vital part of the story, Knoll said.

"This is the actual site of the miners hall where the women met to organize the march, and this is where they marched from," she said.

In December 1921, miners of District 14, United Mine Workers of America, were on strike to demand fair wages and better working conditions. Mine owners brought in "scabs" to work the mines.

On Dec. 12, wives, sweethearts, sisters and other relatives of miners marched from the hall to the mines of Crawford County in an attempt to keep the scabs from reporting to work. There is no accurate record of how many women took part - some accounts put it at 3,000, others go as high as 6,000. One of the leaders was Mary Skubitz, whose son, Joe Skubitz, was a U.S. Congressman for many years.

The march drew national attention, and the New York Times was the first to call the women "An Army of Amazons."

Knoll said that she grew up hearing stories of the march.

"My grandmother, Maggie Bellezza O'Nelio, who was in the march, shared with me her vivid recollections of the event," she said.

Her other grandmother, Frances Femec Paulin, was not in the march, but told many stories of the hardships faced by the miners and their families.

"Her brother, who was only 19, died on his first day working in the mines," Knoll said. "She also lost her father in the mines."

She is a gifted education teacher at Pittsburg Community Middle School and Girard High School. In 1992 she presented her students with the idea of doing an Amazon Army project for History Day.

"They wanted to do a new play, and we did it in 1992 and 1993," Knoll said.

Other presentations included a performance in Girard in 2000, which coincided with the public premiere of the mural "Solidarity," created by artist Wayne Wildcat, based on a photo of the Amazon Army which ran in the New York Times.

"We've also had presentations for the U.S. Department of Education, the Kansas Regents Honors Academy and Pittsburg State University," Knoll said. "Now we're back in business. With all of the issues facing us today, I think the play is as relevant as ever."

Cast for the current production includes Bill Sollner as narrator; Hugh Campbell as a mine superintendent; Tony Sanchez, Michael Doue and Benny Penner as miners; Michael Doue as Alexander Howat, leader of the miners union; Tony Sanchez as Gene DeGruson; Jessena Schultze, Lacey Billey and Meredith Duling as marchers; Vonnie Corsini, Lisa Mahnken and Abby Newton as union maids; Linda Rohner as Mary Skubitz; and Faith Paoni as Mother Jones.

The production is dedicated to the memory of Gene DeGruson, local historian and poet whose mother, Clemence DeGruson, took part in the march as a child.

On Friday, a sign commemorating the march was dedicated at the Franklin Community Center. Phyllis Bitner, chairman of the Franklin Heritage Committee and Centennial Committee, compared the Amazon Army to the residents of Franklin who have worked to rebuild their community after it was devastated by a tornado in 2003.

"Just as these women marched for a better future for their families, the residents of today have silently marched in their own way to ensure a better future for their children and grandchildren," Bitner said. "This day of remembrance and reflection is a fitting tribute to the women who became known as the Amazon Army."

Knoll noted a tie between the tornado and the Amazon Army.

"When we presented this play in 2000, Mary Skubitz' house was still standing at Ringo," she said. "That house was also taken by the 2003 tornado."

She is delighted that area history is finally getting attention.

"As a school child in the 1960s, I was disappointed to find no references to our coal mining history in our Kansas history books," Knoll said. "It also wasn't in the books when I came back to Kansas to teach in the 1980s or in the 1990s. Finally, in 2005 I was contacted by the Kansas Historical Society and notified that the newest edition of Kansas history texts approved for Kansas schools would have a section not only on coal mining in southeast Kansas, but would also highlight the Amazon Army."


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