The quieter the place, the harder one must occasionally look to find its past. Some places hold their histories close, resisting attempts to learn more.
Rosiclare might be one of those places. To all outward appearances, it is a pleasant, quiet town in Hardin County in southeastern Illinois.
If, however, you know about what happened there in 1916, you might be able to see beyond the relative silence to a time when labor unrest roiled in the streets. Blood was shed here over the lives and work of miners.
The quarry of the miners, or more to the point, the mine owners, was fluorite. Used in everything from steel production to jewelry, 90% of the fluorite in the U.S. occurs in southeastern Illinois.
The mine employed 450 men. The work was difficult and the hours were long. The mine owners claimed that most of their engineers and miners made $6/day, but word on the ground stated that it was closer to $2/day for many. Miners would work twelve to fourteen hour shifts amid acrid fumes and seeping groundwater.
The miners largely lived in company housing, not being able to afford to live anywhere else. The “company row” in town was little better than a slum of shanties.
In May of 1916, miners began their efforts to organize to demand higher wages and better conditions. They petitioned the mine owners for a 25% raise, an eight-hour work day, and the right to collectively bargain in the future. They were rebuffed on all fronts, told that if they didn’t like the conditions, they could always find another job.
In June, sixty-eight men walked out and were promptly fired. The mining company, as was typical in the time, put on extra “security.” These armed men were hired guns from across the river in Kentucky, brought in not so much to guard anything as to intimidate the miners.
Gunmen in the streets rarely leads to a peaceful outcome. These mercenaries marched through the streets of Rosiclare, terrorizing the striking miners and their families. Over 500 people were forced out of the area by these roving bands of armed men. What’s more, the sheriff approached William Sneed, the head of the United Mine Workers in Rosiclare, and told him that he would not be held responsible for the actions of these vigilantes.
The call for assistance for the striking miners went throughout the labor movement in Illinois. According to the Illinois State Federation of Labor, $12,574.90 was collected to support the striking miners in 1916 and early 1917.
The strike ended in 1917 and went in favor of the mine owners. Those miners who were fired had been replaced and there was little change in the working conditions. They would strike again unsuccessfully in 1920.
Such was the rhythm of life in Illinois’s mining country in the early 20th century, a rhythm that reveals itself to those who know the unquiet past of this now quiet place.
- “The Strike at Rosiclare.” Life and Labor 6 (October, 1916), 157-159
- Proceedings, 35th Annual Convention, Illinois State Federation of Labor, October 15-20, 1917 (Joliet: Joliet Republican Press, 1917), 61.
- “To End Strike,” Dubuque Times-Journal, August 2, 1916, p. 1+
- Hardin County, Past and Present (Morely, MO: Acclaim Press, 2015), 27-28.