Bernard and Geltrude Verna in the Colorado Coalfield War 1912-1914

Bernard and Geltrude Verna in the Colorado Coalfield War 1912-1914

The Mother Jones Museum and the Mother Jones Heritage Project seek to preserve the memory of stories that might otherwise be lost. We are lucky to learn of the story of Bernard and Geltrude Verna.

Bernard Verna tells the story of his grandfather, his namesake and an Illinois United Mine Workers activist, and his grandmother, Geltrude,  an activist as well. They were Italian immigrants who took their kids to Colorado in 1912 to build the union. The Verna family was from Springfield and Benld, IL.(Benld is 5 miles from Mt. Olive, where Mother Jones and the Museum is located)

“Around 1912 the United Mine Workers America asked my Grandfather Bernard Verna, a Springfield, IL coal miner, to go to Colorado and secretly do union organizing.

Bernard and Geltrude took their four little kids to Colorado and moved into a company shack in a mining canyon near Ludlow. My dad (Tulio) remembered that his Mother was so upset with the condition of the house that she made them sleep outside the first night. The mines were right there and Dad remembered that as a young boy he was fascinated by the mining machinery.

The Verna family during the Colorado Coalfield War. Geltrute and Bernard, center, with their children, left to right: Margaret, Etilo, Tulio, Lena. This picture was taken in Trinidad during the coalfield war days. The UMWA hired a photographer in Trinidad to provide every family a photograph. This was in part to counter the portrayal of the company that disparaged the immigrants struggling for the union. In company propaganda they were treated as simple-minded and coarse, easily led by “outside agiatators.” The photographs were intended to convey respect.

The Verna family during the Colorado Coalfield War. Geltrude and Bernard, center, with their children, left to right: Margaret, Etilo, Tulio, Lena. This picture was taken in Trinidad during the coalfield war days. The UMWA hired a photographer in Trinidad to provide every family a photograph. This was in part to counter the company propaganda that disparaged the immigrants struggling for the union. In company propaganda they were treated as simple-minded and coarse, easily led by “outside agitators.” The photographs were intended to convey respect.  Photo courtesy Bernard Verna family.

Conditions were bad. It was: load 16 tons and then get cheated because the weighmen worked for the company; get paid in script and owe my soul to the company store; about 100 miners per year killed because of unsafe working conditions; etc.

The union called a strike in Sept. 1913 and 13,000 men and women walked out of the canyons, through sleet and bitter cold, and made camp on the Colorado prairie. Colorado Fuel and Iron (owned by the Rockefellers) also owned the railroads and they purposely delayed the union shipments of tents and cast iron stoves.

Scabs were brought in and there were conflicts between the strikers and the company guards. The governor called out the Colorado National Guard. However, it turned out that they were bought and paid for by the owners.

The famous firebrand, 82 year old Mother Jones, made repeated attempts to visit and offer support, however, she was detained by company guards on each attempt.

On Apr. 1914 the National Guard, company guards and hired thugs attacked and burned the largest of the tent camps. Eleven children, 5 women, and 3 strikers were killed that day. (Some years later the union erected a large granite monument to that “Ludlow Massacre”.)

A full scale war then broke out on a 40 mile front. Ten days later Pres. Wilson sent in federal troops to establish peace.

All this is described in a few books, including “The Great Coalfield War” by Sen. Geo McGovern and L. Gutteridge. As soon as that book was published in 1972 my Grandfather’s three living children (Tulio, Lena and Margaret) immediately recognized their father as being the man that is 2nd from the left in the front row of one of the pictures in that book.

Bernard Verna (2nd from left, front row) who had been fighting for the union joined in an armed insurrection in Colorado after the Ludlow massacre, in which 11 children and 2 women immigrants were killed by militia and mercenaries. Bernard had been sent there to “salt” (promote the union by getting a job in a non-union mine) and the family had endured much. The deaths of the children caused them to fulfill their aim to take up arms to defend the union. They routed the Colorado guard and had won the war by the time federal troops brought "peace". They never won the union, but the battle for it resonated across the U.S. and steeled Illinois unionists to preserve their union traditions.

Bernard Verna (2nd from left, front row ) who had been fighting for the union joined in an armed insurrection in Colorado after the Ludlow massacre, when 11 children and 2 women immigrants were killed by militia and mercenaries. Bernard had been sent there to “salt” (promote the union by getting a job in a non-union mine) and the family had endured much. The deaths of the children caused them to fulfill their aim to take up arms to defend the union. They routed the Colorado guard and had won the war by the time federal troops brought “peace”. They never won the union, but the battle for it resonated across the U.S. and steeled Illinois unionists to preserve their union traditions. Photo from McGovern and Guttridge, The Great Coalfield War.

 

Earlier in the conflict, in Jan. 1914, about a 1,000 women traveled to Trinidad to march in protest and to support Mother Jones. My Grandmother carried an American flag. The embarrassed general (his horse had spooked and thrown him) of the Guard ordered three calvary charges, with sabers drawn, into the marchers. Lena and Margaret remembered their Mother coming home that night with bloody knees.

In January 1914, after Mother Jones was jailed without charges, women in Colorado launched a protest in the streets of Trinidad in protest. Geltrute may well be the woman carrying the flag in this photo. More research is needed. The women were met by the national guard with bayonets.

In January 1914, after Mother Jones was jailed without charges, women in Colorado launched a protest in the streets of Trinidad in protest. Geltrude may well be the woman carrying the flag in this photo. More research is needed. The women were met by the national guard with bayonets. Photo from Western Historical Collections, Denver Colorado.

Eventually my Grandfather was arrested and jailed in Trinidad. The union bailed him out and snuck him and the family out of CO and back to Springfield. So he never went to trial. On his hip in the picture is Colt .45, New Service revolver, with a 7.5″ barrel, quite a weapon.

My dad and I explored the Ludlow/Trinidad area, and he found the slabs of the row of company shacks they lived in during that time.

Eventually the family moved to Benld, Il and my Grandfather worked in one of the mines until they finally closed it down. He was then in his 70s. My Dad went into the mines when he was 14 but after 10 years he went into police work.

Bernard and Geltrude are buried in the Benld cemetery. Their story was private until now. We thank Bernard, their descendant, for sharing it. We want to bring it and others to life in the museum.

This story connects Italy, Illinois and Colorado memories. It is an immigrant story, a story that shouldn’t be forgotten.

This family engaged in extraordinary movements, risking their lives for the union. We’d love to hear your comments.

We’ll be presenting the story of another family, Charles and Cedi Costa, whose entire family was killed in the mine wars, in a future post. It is certain that the Verna family knew them, and lived quietly with their memory for the entirety of their lives.

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I am the director of the Mother Jones Heritage Project. I teach labor history at Northern Illinois University and am completing a book, Labor Rights and Freedom Struggles in the Illinois Coal Fields.

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous 5 years ago

    I do not know what to say here. I am a Giugler, as was my father, and his father. My grandfather worked the coal mines in Varna,IL and other mines including the Cherry Mine, he avoided the disaster by moments. The names are so familiar. Verna, Bernard, were they just common in Italy?

  2. Author
    Rosemary Feurer 5 years ago

    Thanks for commenting. I am not sure about how common these names were in Italy. I will ask our knowledgable Italian supporters and get back to you.

  3. Anonymous 4 years ago

    Hello Mr. Donorovich, I am a member of the museum board and come from an Italian family, too. We have a Costa family in the tiny town of Livingston in Madison County near Mt. Olive. Amy Costa is working on her family history. We know some of the family went to Colorado and live there today. Amy talked about the Costa family and their participation in the Ludlow battle at the Miners Day celebration at Mother Jones tomb in the Union Miners Cemetery last October. I will make sure that Amy sees your note on this page. Many thousands of immigrant Italian families came to southern Illinois to dig coal, many, but not all, of the families came from Northern Italy, from the Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto. Several of us who are descended from these families are attempting to discover more about their lives and to keep their story of sacrifice and hard work alive. Please keep in touch and we will let you know what programs are upcoming. I hope you will come to visit the cemetery and museum some day. We need to add your family story to the archive of Italian families work in the mines. I hope you and Amy will share Costa family information . Buona fortuna.
    Joann Condellone

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