Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
From the 1880s to the Great Depression Hackett was a booming town. Coal drove the economy, but there was significant agriculture as well. Coal was king, though. Hackett coal is ideal for making coke, basically the coal counterpart of charcoal. Coke was and still is used in enormous quantities to produce steel, and during The Gilded Age the steel mills were running at capacity.
Not just any coal will make suitable coke. The particular kind of bituminous coal found at Hackett is ideal for coking and hundreds of men mined it there. There were rail lines to carry it away and it found its way up north to the steel mills.
The Forbes family owned most of the mines there, and they also owned the company store. Basically the company store was the source of everything for the miners and their families. Other than food that they grew themselves, food, salt, coffee, clothing, furniture and just about everything else that the miners had to have to live came from the company store. In addition, the company store was the bank for the miners as well. Remember, this was in the day when there were no income taxes, no Social Security, and few checks. The miners were paid in scrip, and this scrip could be redeemed only at the company store.
The system was so corrupt that the miners never had a chance to get ahead for the most part. "Tennessee" Ernie Ford sang a song by either Merle Travis or George Davis (authorship is disputed) called "16 Tons" that pretty much sums up how the system worked. Until the rise of the union movement the system persisted. Here is the song:
Being a miner was not a very good thing financially, but owning the company town was a very good thing for the owners financially. The Forbes family owned the town and were, by the standards of the day, quite rich. In 1913 they built the house in which I grew up, and it was opulent for the day. I wrote about it here and here.
The Forbes built a dressed sandstone three level building to house the company store in 1890. I know that is the date because the date is carved into one of the stones over the front entry. By the way, the sandstone was local and is still in high demand for high end interior and exterior work, although the building downturn has reduced that demand significantly. I hope that it picks back up, because I get a royalty from stone quarried there.
Dynasties comes and go, and the Forbes family were no different. When the coal mines were booming, they did very well indeed, but when the Great Depression came the mines pretty much shut down except for domestic consumption. Since coal was so cheap and plentiful there, most people heated their homes with coal burning stoves and lots of people cooked with it.
Coal is really a good domestic fuel, with a high heat value. It smokes much less than wood and a lot of heat value can be piled into a relatively small space. My grandmum heated her house with a Warm Morning coal stove. Here is a picture of an old advert. Here stove looked like the one with the arrow pointing towards it. But I digress.
After the Great Depression began Hackett sort of dried up. The Forbes family still had some money, but their income was greatly reduced. While they were high flying when times were good, they rapidly decayed because of the economic downturn. See, in the company town economic model, wealth is gained by paying the workers in scrip, then inflating the prices of items at the company store. The scrip was worthless any other place, so the owners would pay cash for their merchandise and then sell it to the workers for much more than it was worth in scrip. This sounds like a losing proposition, but it is not. Remember, their income came from selling the coal, and at the time coal mining was extremely labor intensive. By paying with scrip they were able to get labor at a discount, and they made a fortune ripping off the workers.
By the time that my parents bought the house in 1953, there were only two Forbes left. Fanny, I believe her name was, still lived in the house. According to my parents she was quite mad and more than a little spooky. I do not remember what they did with her, but she stayed in the house after they had taken possession for at least a short while.
The house had been retrofit for electricity sometime in the 1930s or 1940s and it was a mess. The wiring was all exposed on the interior walls, and the old switches were the pushbutton ones. My parents had a real electrician come and modernize the wiring, and the electrician installed proper outlets and switches, and fished the wiring through the walls, no small feat for lathe and plaster construction.
I remember that there was a patched place in the plaster in the north wall of the living room. The story is that two of the Forbes boys got into a fight and the one shot the other with a .22 rifle, and the miss damaged the wall and the patch was made to cover the bullet hole.
By the time that I was cognizant, there was only only one real Forbes left. His name was Plim, and he was pretty old. He lived across the alley in an old rock building on the upper floor. The bottom was at the time a furniture factory, and I guess that Plim still owned the building. It was pretty deteriorated, and after he died I used to sit on the balcony of my house and watch bats fly out of broken windows of the upper floor, even though the lower level was by then a coin operated laundrymat.
We actually would use that laundrymat now and then when my mum's washing machine was on the blink (or when my grandmum wanted to dye cloth!). It was run by the Carters, and they were always nice to me.
The Forbes family deteriorated from a combination of profligate spending, the Great Depression, and alcoholism. Of course, Prohibition kicked in in 1919, a decade before the Depression, but that did not keep them from drinking the remainder of their money. Before they began to get poor, they would buy illegal alcohol, but because of its illegal nature, there was a premium on it. Plim, my parents told me, finally started drinking lemon extract because it was cheap and contained 85% alcohol.
This story is right out of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, and sadly, is a repeating meme. By the way, if you have not read it, you should. Sister Jennifer gave it to us at Saint Anne's as required reading when I was in high school, and it won Buck the Pulitzer prize in 1932 and was certainly responsible for her becoming a Nobel laureate in 1938. I am not an avid fiction reader, but this is outstanding.
As far as I know, the Forbes direct lineage became extinct when Plim died in the mid to late 1960s. There were some indirect relatives, one of whom was John Mackey, about whom I wrote last week. John had the original book of plats for the Hackett area, and when coal was once again becoming viable there the coal company people would often borrow it for royalty and other legal purposes.
I do have another personal connexion with the Forbes family other than growing up in the house that they built. In my study sits a solid mahogany desk, complete with a plate glass cover that is half an inch thick. My father bought it around 1968 or so from Mr. Rutledge who had bought the building that was the company store from the Forbes heirs. He had no need for the desk, so Dad wanted it and used it for years until he retired, and then he gave it to me. It is a beauty, with full dovetail joints in the drawers and a wooden locking mechanism that secures the rear of each drawer. I am missing the key, but one could easily be made. I am assuming that is from the turn of the 20th century era, give or take a decade. It is one of my prized possessions, and I use it a lot.
Well, that about does it for My Little Town for tonight. Please feel free to include episodes from your youth, regardless of whether you grew up in a little town, the country, or the city. I know that I enjoy reading them, and from the comments, so do others.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith