'Amazon Army' raid on coal mines remembered at Chicopee lecture

March 26, 2001

By Olive L. Sullivan
Morning Sun Staff Writer

CHICOPEE -- According to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, "Well-behaved women rarely make history."

Linda Knoll opened her presentation, "Union Maids and Rebel Dames: The Women's March and the Mining Community in Southeast Kansas, 1921," with that quote, saying it was both a statement of theme and a warning for her talk.

The presentation was the ninth in the Chicopee Foundation's "The Roots of the Kansas Balkans Lecture Series."

Although Knoll talked about life in southeast Kansas in the boom days of mining, the center piece of her presentation was the Amazon Army of 1921.

"Upon opening their morning newspapers in Dec. 1921, Kansans were shocked to learn that an 'Army of Amazon,' 2,000 to 6,000 wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of radical striking miners had invaded the southeastern Kansas coal fields," she explained.

Knoll became a student of local history as she sat at the feet of her Slovenian and Italian grandmothers, listening to their personal histories. Reading a collection of poems by the late Gene DeGruson, she found "Alien Women," a poem about his grandmother who had been one of the marchers in the Amazon Army. Knoll then read the poem to her grandmother Maggie O'Nelio, who stunned her granddaughter by remarking, "Ah, I was in that march."

A decade later, Knoll shared that story with students at Pittsburg Middle School who were struggling to find a topic for a History Day project.

Ultimately that small beginning led to a play, "The Amazon Army," a mural created by Wayne Wildcat and an "army" of local school children and Sunday's Women's History Month presentation in Chicopee.

Knoll said there were not a lot of written resources on the women's march, so the students had to rely on local sources for details about "the rich and epic story" of the coal mines. In addition to Knoll, who is the granddaughter of one of the marchers, several other descendants of marchers peppered the audience Sunday.

Knoll told her audience at the Chicopee Community Center that coal mining began in the region in Cherokee County in 1866. By 1876, it was the major industry in the region.

But she pointed out, "To dig the coal, laborers were needed."

Franklin Playter had the idea of recruiting miners from abroad, and flyers were distributed throughout Europe describing a "paradise on earth" for those who would relocate here.

Between 1880 and 1916, huge waves of immigrants moved to southeast Kansas to work in the mines. Many brought their wives and families; other women arrived from the old country as indentured servants who worked as domestics in the region. By 1934, one scholar reported 34 languages spoken on the streets of Pittsburg on a Saturday night.

It wasn't a paradise, however. The miners worked a 10 to 12 hour day, crawling on their hands and knees into the deep shafts to place explosives, or hacking at the coal seam with picks, loading it into mule-drawn carts. The mules, Knoll said, were treated better than the men. "Well-trained mules were expensive and hard to come by," she explained. There were always more men.

"The risks were real," she added. "Countless mining families lost their (men) the first day they reported for work."

Records show hundreds of accidents. Forty-seven men were killed in the largest mining disaster in the state, but countless others were injured and disabled in the mines every day. The only thing to do, then, was to send the oldest son into the mines as the breadwinner. Boys as young as 12 years old worked alongside their elders.

By 1914, there were 63 mines employing more than 6,000 men. They produced a third of the nation's total coal.

The area became a hotbed of union activity to combat the conditions. There was no pension, no insurance, no workman's compensation.

"People's lives in these communities were defined by a uniform poverty," Knoll said.

It all came to a head in 1921, when District 14 Union President Alexander Howat was arrested, and he ordered a strike. He was ousted from the national union, but the local miners followed his call.

On Dec. 12, 500 women -- miners' wives, daughters, sweethearts and mothers -- met at the union hall in Franklin and issued a statement condemning the union and "industrial slavery" laws.

They planned to march on the mines to barricade the entrances from the strikebreakers, using red pepper as their only weapon.

The next morning, over 3,000 women assembled. Knoll quoted from the diary of Mary Skubitz. She said that when the men saw the women coming, they were afraid. "They recognized their wrong," Skubitz wrote.

The superintendent of the mine, however, had no such scruples. He ran down the American flag the women held as a barrier, and trampled it.

On Dec. 14, Skubitz wrote, "The crowd of women was miles long."

By Dec. 15, the marchers were 6,000 strong. But the state militia was on its way.

"There was absolutely no fear in these women's hearts," Skubitz wrote. But the organizers recognized the danger, and called an end to the marches.

The news was covered from Los Angeles to New York. Knoll said the establishment papers focused on the political side -- referring to the marchers as an "Amazon Army" of foreigners and Communists. The Appeal to Reason, on the other hand, stressed the peaceful, spontaneous nature of the marches, saying the women simply wanted to shame the men who had turned against their union brothers.

The aftermath was swift and harsh. Many women were arrested and served time in jail, including Mary Skubitz.

On Jan. 13, 1922, Howat called an end to the strike.

Knoll said the march reflected the strength and initiative of women in their homes and communities. They "meant business," in the words of one marcher. They simply felt the national union should have supported their actions, and they used the flag as a symbol to show they were entitled to their rights.

Now, Knoll said, all that remains of this period of vibrant history are the slag heaps. But history is very much alive, she said. "Like the coal seams, its stories lay just beneath the surface of things."

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