Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Jim Mine, Named for Shoe Size

The Seymour Herald - 23 May 1957
By Richard Gilbert and Tom Morrow
  The “Big Jim” coal mine had its beginning about 1900 when A. G. Widmer sank a 200 foot shaft on land presently owned by John Argenta Sr. located on the northeast edge of Seymour.
  The mine was called the “Big Jim” because Jim Morrison, who owned the property at that time, wore a size 13 shoe. The mine was originally called “Big Jim No. 13,” but this was soon shortened to “Big Jim.” The “Big Jim” was one of the largest coal mines in southern Iowa.
  Widmer owned the “Big Jim” and the “Sunshine (Seymour Coal Company) mine.” He later owned the “Streepy mine” located near Numa.  Widmer incidentally, was the first person in Seymour to own an automobile, a model F Buick. The car was such a novelty that on several July Fourth celebrations Widmer would give rides around the square for 10 cents a ride.  He then donated the proceeds to a worthy cause. Widmer was the son-in-law of the late Dr. Ernest.
  The business office for both the “Big Jim” and the “Sunshine” mines was located in the building now occupied by Grismore's jewelry store.
  The “Big Jim” consisted of a 200-foot vertical shaft from which four main horizontal shafts branched out over a large area. One main shaft stretched a half-mile east below the Milwaukee railroad track; another led off toward the H. N. Mahaffrey farm; a third went in the direction of the Harve Lord farm; while the fourth shaft tunneled under the town of Seymour. From the four main shafts there were many smaller shafts that branched out to cover a wide area.
  The mine was operated, even by today's standards, in a very efficient manner. The four main shafts were lighted by electricity, and an electric-powered car which ran on steel rails transported coal along the four main shafts. Mine ponies hauled the coal from smaller shafts to one of the main shafts and from there it was transported on the electric railroad to the vertical shaft. There were seven mechanical coal cutting machines used in the mining operation.
  The ponies that were used in the mine were kept in stalls built at the base of the vertical main shaft. The ponies never saw the light of daylight from early September until mid-spring, but in the summer they were taken to the surface every evening. The ponies could not be exposed to cold weather since the temperature change from the mine would cause pneumonia.
  The “dump,” consisting of slag and dirt brought up from beneath the ground, made the “Big Jim” mine a landmark for many years. This “dump” covered an area of six acres and was easily visible for many miles.
  The “Big Jim” mine provided employment for from 200 to 250 men and had an output of about 600 tons of coal a day. Nearly all the coal mined was shipped on the railroad, one of the coal mine's best customers, but some was sold to the townspeople. About six or seven freight cars were loaded every day. The wages the workers earned depended upon the amount of coal they could mine. The average wage was about three to four dollars a day. Coal sold for about a dollar a ton.
  With so many men working at the mine, a village soon grew up around the mine. The “town” consisted of 18 to 20 small houses, two boarding houses, and a saloon. There also was a grocery store located on Youngs Avenue, “The Italian Store,” operated by Jack and Pete Cambruzzi.
  Many persons are familiar with some of the men who worked at the “Big Jim” early in the 1900's. George Elmore was the head engineer, blacksmith and general foreman for the mine; John Reay was check weighman for many years.  Another person who worked at the “Big Jim” was a person who was known by nearly everyone as “Big Dominick” Maddalozzo. Several of the men who were employed at the “Big Jim” are still living today in or near Seymour. Among these are John Argenta Sr., Fred Sebben, Beno Sebben, John Sebben, Simon Mores, Frank Saccaro, Tony Sebben, Johnny DeGard, Tony DeRocco and John Reay.
  The main vertical shaft, the opening where all men, coal, slag, ponies, and machinery were brought up out of the mine, contained two separate steel elevators called “cages.” These two “cages” made up a “catch” which was powered by a steam engine. The “catch” stopped at two levels above ground—one at surface level and the other at the top of a tipple where the coal was unloaded into railroad cars.
  Below, on the floor, there was a long pull-rope which was fastened to a steel triangle at the surface. If the men in the mine wished to send a load of coal or other materials to the mine tipple they pulled the cord twice, which was ta signal to the “catch” operator to take the elevator to the top. When the men were going to ride the “catch” they signaled with three rings to tell the operator to bring the “catch” up slowly and stop it at the ground level.
  One day, George Jones Jr., who worked in the mine with his father, boarded the cage for a ride to the ground level. However, for some reason or other, he failed to signal to the “catch” operator that the elevator was to be stopped at the first level.
  The operator presumed that he was to take the “catch” all the way to the tipple and so started the elevator up the shaft at the speed used to haul the coal. Young Jones, unaware that the “catch” would not stop for him, started to step out at the ground level but was quickly dashed against a heavy wooden beam supporting the tipple as the “catch” whizzed upward. The blow knocked Jones off balance and he fell 200 feet to the floor of the mine and was killed.
  Although this was only one of several accidents that occurred at the “Big Jim” it is remembered because of the irony connected with it. Several weeks before his death George has visited a fortune teller who had come to Seymour with a carnival. She predicted that George Jones Jr. would not live to be 21. Naturally, George told his fellow workers at the the mine, much to everyone's amusement, of the Gypsy's prediction but after his death there was a great deal of speculation about the fortune teller's statement.
  In the spring of 1918, operations at the “Big Jim” mine came to an abrupt halt. During the night there was a cave-in at the bottom of the main vertical shaft, caused by the pressures that had been placed on the braces over the years.
  Widmer estimated that it would cost several thousand dollars to clear the mine before operation could be resumed and felt that because the merchants of the town received the business of the miners on his payroll, they should contribute towards the cost of clearing the shaft. They refused, however, and Widmer got a few men to enter the mine through the air shaft and salvage the equipment. He then sold the mine and took the equipment to Missouri where he opened a new mine.
  Several years later parts of the huge “dump” were hauled away for use as ballast and in road construction.
  (Note: Bill Augustine, John Argenta Sr., and Lawrence Ruby assisted us in gaining information for this article.)
  This article from The Seymour Herald is included in the coal mining exhibit at the Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon, Iowa. The editor sincerely appreciates that Brenda DeVore of the Prairie Trails Museum sent a copy of it to post in The Jerome Journal at my request.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like Widmer ran a pretty fair operation for his employees. The ponies are another story. I just can't see why he wasn't willing to pay to clear the mine himself. Payroll for about a week should have covered the expense. It's almost like it was a matter of principal to him after the town's merchants wouldn't contribute.