For those who couldn’t make it to the July 1st lecture on immigrant history, we’ve put together some of the key information. Thank you to Prof. Gorby and his students, Corey Ptaszek, Elena Dugan, Matthew Tenaglio, and Ashton Wilson for their great research.
In 1916, Tucker County had the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any county in West Virginia, with roughly 16% percent of the population composed of people who were not born in the United States. This diversity is reflected in the list of fraternal societies from the era: the Sons of Lithuania, Sons of Italy, National Croatian Society, and many more. For a brief period, Thomas even had a newspaper that published exclusively in Italian. In 1903 the Davis Coal and Company sent for an interpreter who spoke 8 languages in order to better communicate with their workforce, and the interpreter they eventually hired, Wladyslaw Dackiewicz, was himself an immigrant from Poland. Even eight languages may not have been nearly enough, since by 1905 the Davis Coal and Coke Company employed workers from 22 different countries.
Above: A warning sign from Thomas written in 6 different languages.
Immigration also influenced religious life in Tucker County. For instance, the Catholic Church started out catering to Irish immigrants in Thomas, but soon had to cope with the influx of eastern Europeans by hiring a multilingual priest. Two Catholic masses were held on Sunday, with one in English for the “American” Catholics, and the other for the Poles, Lithuanians and Slovenians. Although some people thought that the church would encourage unity and assimilation, at first the tension between the newer immigrants parishioners and the established Catholics threatened to make the church just another source of division.
New immigrants worked on the railroad, in the timber industry, or in the coal mines. Some became successful enough to open their own small business, and many of the early business owners have names that are still familiar today. For instance, the Colabrese brothers immigrated in 1906 and got their start as coal miners, before opening a variety of mercantile businesses in Tucker County, including a general store on Front Street in Thomas. Giusseppe DiPaolo, whose name was later anglicized to DePollo, was another immigrant who became a business owner, opening his first store in Thomas in 1903. The Colabrese general store is currently Thomas Yard, and DePollo’s store is now home to the Purple Fiddle.
Above: A group out for a walk on “Tony Row”, the Italian area of Thomas
Not everyone who started as a miner went on to success. The early era of mining in Tucker County was dangerous, and an average of 5 miners a year died in accidents in the early 1900s, with many more suffering non-fatal injuries. There were also occasional explosions, like the 1907 mine disaster that killed 25 miners, almost all immigrants. There was little in the way of insurance benefits to help the surviving family members in those days, so the immigrant fraternal societies helped support the families of deceased miners.
During the peak years of coal production, between 1900 and 1921, Tucker County mines produced over 1 million tons of coal a year. The Davis Coal and Coke company had a huge influence over the life of miners, who shopped at the company store using scrip and often lived in company-owned housing as well. Not everyone was happy about this control, and several mine strikes occurred in Tucker County. In 1894, workers in Thomas and Coketon joined in a wider work stoppage, asking for higher pay, the end of the company store, and the recognition of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Immigrants were prominent in this early strike, with a faction of Polish workers continuing to strike after the official stoppage was ended. Unfortunately, the strike was not successful. The Davis Coal and Coke Company brought in more workers to replace the ones on strike, sometimes with armed guards to protect the replacements, and brought criminal charges against 30 of the strike leaders.
Above: Armed guards prepared to combat the 1894 strike.
The UMWA continued to struggle in Tucker County for many years after. A chapter formed in 1916, broke up in 1917, and reconvened in 1919. Another series of strikes occurred in the 1920s, and the company used a combination of new non-union workers and Baldwin-Felts detectives, who acted as a private police force, to quell the strikes. During the 1800s Davis Coal and Coke did not evict the striking miners and their families from company housing, but by the 1920s that tactic was used, adding another point of leverage for the company. Davis Coal and Coke was also known to influence local elections, and the local police force usually sided with the company. Immigrants again played a prominent role in the strikes of the 1920s, although that involvement sometimes had high costs. After the 1922 strike, 95 men and 10 women (mostly immigrants) were arrested, and sent from Thomas to Parsons by train. The train wrecked near the town of Limerock, killing one miner and injuring many others. The miner who was killed, Thomas Komac, was a Slovenian immigrant who had just been granted US citizenship six months before the accident.