European grandparents came to U.S. to mine coal
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Debbie Carnevale Wilde has been the executive director of YouthZone for 25 years. She is a leader in the field of youth advocacy, recognized both state- and nationwide.
Wilde: My grandparents came here from Italy and Slovenia. They came to the coalfields of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico to find a better life for themselves and their families. The fact that they saw work in the coalfields as a better life gives you an idea of how desperate things were in Europe at that time.
The Carnevales, my grandparents on my dad’s side, were peasant farmers in a little village called Pico, just south of Rome. There were nine brothers in the family, and two had already left to work in the marble quarry in Marble, Colorado.
My grandfather, at age 71, followed his brothers to Marble. He never went back and never really thought about returning. He had decided that this was his home. He was only in Marble for a short time when work slowed down at the quarry. So he and his brothers moved on to Utah to work in the coalmines. From there, they went to California.
In the winter of 1914, my grandfather decided there were too many people in California. He left his brothers and came back to work in the coalfields of southern Colorado. That’s where he met my grandmother. They were both involved in the Ludlow Massacre *. Our family still has the gun that my grandfather carried to defend himself. My grandmother remembered following the funeral procession with the coffins of the women and children who were killed that day.
Gallacher: Describe the circumstances that led up to the massacre.
Wilde: During that time, coal mining was basically pick and shovel, and each miner was paid for the coal he personally mined that day. Working conditions were terrible. Miners rented houses owned by the mining company. Instead of money, miners were paid in scrip, a paper certificate that was only good at the coal company’s store. There were no benefits and the pay was very, very low. Colorado Fuel and Iron was the company that controlled things in southern Colorado. It was owned by the Rockefellers.
The United Mine Workers Union came into the coalfields and began encouraging the miners, who were mostly immigrants, to demand higher wages and better living conditions. These immigrant miners were from lots of different countries, and most of them had come to America to escape oppression. They were all tired of being exploited and they decided they weren’t going to take that kind of treatment here.
When the miners struck the coal company evicted them from their homes. The United Mine Workers brought in tents to provide shelter for the miners and their families. On the morning of April 20, 1914, two companies of Colorado Militia moved in and set up a machine gun on a nearby hill. A firefight eventually erupted and someone set fire to the tents. When the fighting started the women and children retreated to the underground cellars.
The fire swept through the tent colony and sucked the air from the cellars where the women and children were hiding. Twenty people died that day, among them were the two women and 11 children who had suffocated in the cellars.
Gallacher: The Ludlow Massacre was fueled, in part, by the anti-immigrant sentiment in the state and the country at the time. Did your family have stories about that?
Wilde: I have read about that, but those were not the stories handed down by my family. My family never saw themselves as poor even though we really were. They never saw themselves as discriminated against. In those days the coal camps were filled with immigrants from all over the world living in very harsh conditions. Everyone pulled together, and if there was an enemy it was the coal company. The stories or grumblings were about the company not the United States.
There wasn’t a lot of complaining in my family. We were always reminded that we had enough to eat. We had a good family and a good family name. That was the most important thing, and everything centered around that. We were encouraged to be happy and help others. I think some of my work helping kids and families stems from what I learned from both sides of my family.
Back then everybody needed to help everybody else out. You really saw your neighbor as your neighbor. You pulled together to help one another. It was about families. My mom used to say, “We’re not money people.” What she meant was that we didn’t have money to give but we could help by volunteering. We kids were constantly reminded that there is always somebody who can use our help.
Gallacher: Where were your mom’s parents from?
Wilde: They came from Slovenia in 1920, Anton and Antonia Cunja. My grandfather had been in World War I. He fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was captured during the war and held in Siberia for several years. My grandfather said that the Russians were good to him but the cold of Siberia wasn’t. Siberian houses had three layers of windows. If the first or second layers froze they still went out to work. If the third layer froze no one dared go outside. He said he watched many people die from the cold.
My grandparents were the only two from either side of their family to ever leave home. My grandfather was the youngest in a poor family so there was nothing to pass down to him. So they decided to come to the coalfields of northern New Mexico to the towns of Yankee and Sugarite.
Gallacher: So mining plays an important part in your family’s history?
Wilde: Yes, most of my relatives either worked in the mine, the steel mill or on the railroad. My dad quit school when he was 15 and went to work in the mines. He started by taking care of the mules and eventually became a blacksmith and mechanic in the mines. He ended up being the president of his local mine workers union during the time when miners were trying to get compensated for the black lung disease that was ravaging so many of them.
My dad was involved in all kinds of congressional hearings and arbitrations fighting for miners’ rights. He got many widows of miners the compensation they deserved. Unfortunately, my dad died of lung cancer 12 years ago, but by then the black lung benefits had nearly dried up. It was harder to make the case that my dad had died from the conditions in the mine, but I worked with a union lawyer and was able to get a small benefit for my mom.
Gallacher: It sounds like a lot of your advocate spirit comes from your dad.
Wilde: A lot of it does. Throughout his life he was always standing up for the “little guy.”
*Ludlow Massacre: At least 50 people, including those at Ludlow, were killed in 10 days of fighting against mine guards and hundreds of militia reinforcements rushed back into the strike zone. The fighting ended only when President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops. The troops, who reported directly to Washington, D.C., disarmed both sides, displacing and often arresting the militia in the process.
This conflict, called the Colorado Coalfield War, was the most violent labor conflict in U.S. history; the reported death toll ranged from 69 in the Colorado government report to 199 in an investigation ordered by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Note: Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read past Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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