Union Miners Cemetery

Schmeder art

Photo Art Courtesy Pat Schmeder

The Union Miners Cemetery has a “spirit-thread” of labor history connected to it. It is in Mt. Olive, a small mining-town that was once the center of a rebellious group of miners who helped to secure Illinois as the solid rock for the United Mine Workers Union. Today thousands of visitors come each year to pay their respects to the memory to Mother Jones and the spirit that guided her and the founders of the labor movement in the United States. They reflect about the connections between the past and the present. We are working to preserve these memories by preserving the monument and site.

The cemetery was established in 1899, when commemorations of the miners killed in the 1898 “Virden riot” became controversial in the established Virden cemetery. The bodies of the Virden “martyrs” were re-interred in a cemetery established as the Union Miners Cemetery by the Mt. Olive United Mine Workers local. Commemorations of these events in the following years contributed a great deal toward sustaining the sense of historic purpose that led to a generation of activism in the Illinois coal fields. They did this by claiming the kind of memorial space that was denied in other places, such as Haymarket, where police often disrupted commemorations. This built a sense of connection between past and present in the area, and made it clear that ordinary workers had changed the course of  history. The role of the ordinary worker came into focus. Mt. Olive was one of the few places in the country where labor history was taught before the 1970s.

Mother Jones' letter designating that she wished to be buried at Union Miners cemetery.

Mother Jones’ letter designating that she wished to be buried at Union Miners cemetery. Click to enlarge

Mother Jones’ decision to be buried in Mt. Olive (see letter, left) was due to the battles that were rooted not only in the 1890s but in the 1920s and 1930s; she valued the voice of the ordinary miner, and she felt that President John L. Lewis, who the head of the United Mine Workers was eliminating that rank-and-file voice. One month after she spoke at the commemoration event on October 12, 1923, she wrote indicating that she had chosen the site as her burial place. In 1930 she died and was initially buried there, with the pallbearers being the last remaining survivors of the “Virden riot.”

Soon, a fundraising effort was underway by the miners to build a fitting monument to Mother Jones. In the heart of the depression, when miners around the country were often penniless, they donated in mostly small amounts to build a tremendous 80-ton Minnesota pink granite, 22 feet high, flanked by two bronze statues of miners. They dug the site themselves. The site itself evokes what Mother Jones meant to a generation of trade unionists.

This is a unique place in the history of the labor movement; it was the only union-owned cemetery in the country. This is a place with a monument to Mother Jones, but it also evokes the power and potential of the labor movement. It is a place of reflection and remembering, of thinking of the labor movement’s roots. It is a shrine not only to Jones but to the sacrifices that connected human rights and labor rights, a place where people wonder when and why labor lost power.

A priest blesses Mother Jones new resting place, 1936.

A priest blesses Mother Jones new resting place, 1936. Text written by Joseph Ozanic, who organized the event with PMA members. However, it appears that this is the old gravesite, and the prayers are conducted before transferring to new Monument site.

 

A festive spirit takes hold as members of PMA Local 35 and those in the community dig the base of the monument with their own hands.

A festive spirit takes hold as members of PMA Local 35 and those in the community dig the base of the monument with their own hands. Description of this picture by Joseph Ozanic, who organized the event.

 

Joe Ozanic, left, points to the design for the monument, 1936.

Joe Ozanic, left, points to the design for the monument, 1936.

 

 

Postcard showing monument, 1940s

Postcard showing monument, 1940s

 

The Andrew Geynes Auxiliary of the Tovey Progressive Miners Union of America local marches alongisde a large number of delegations to the Mother Jones Monument/Union Miners Cemetery in 1936. Following in Mother Jones path, the Women’s Auxiliary sought to memorialize the long struggles to build unionism in the nation’s coal fields, and argued that women should have a broad role in the economic destiny of the nation. Gyenes was the first casualty of the mine wars of the 1930s, shot down by a National Guard soldier as he was talking to a strikebreaker. His wife, Julie, vowed to march in the picket line the night he was killed. These dramatic events were as much a part of why Mother Jones was remembered as was her own activism. Illinois members felt a tie to the drama of her life of agitation. These and many other photos of events in the 1930s at the Union Miners Cemetery are in the possession of Nelson Grman, Staunton, Illinois.

The Andrew Geynes Auxiliary of the Tovey Progressive Miners Union of America local marches alongside a large number of delegations to the Mother Jones Monument/Union Miners Cemetery in 1936. Following in Mother Jones path, the Women’s Auxiliary sought to memorialize the long struggles to build unionism in the nation’s coal fields, and argued that women should have a broad role in the economic destiny of the nation. Gyenes was the first casualty of the mine wars of the 1930s, shot down by a National Guard soldier as he was talking to a strikebreaker. His wife, Julie, vowed to march in the picket line the night he was killed. These dramatic events were as much a part of why Mother Jones was remembered as was her own activism. Illinois members felt a tie to the drama of her life of agitation. These and many other photos of events in the 1930s at the Union Miners Cemetery are in the possession of Nelson Grman, Staunton, Illinois.

cem gate sm

1974 photo of new gate entrance. The sign reads, The resting place of real union people. In the background you can see the American flag that was also placed at this time.

Joe Ozanic, who had been the spearhead of the original monument to Mother Jones, began an effort to get the site designated as a National Historic Site; it was designated in 1972. They built the new entrance, with the defiant declaration, “The resting place of real union people.”

In the future, we’ll be telling you more about the stories of the people on the monument. Most of them were killed in the mine wars of the 1930s. By then the miners in Illinois had rebelled and formed another union, the Progressive Miners of America. The PMA kept up the commemorations for years. In the 1980s, the Mother Jones Foundation in Springfield Illinois began a renewal of those commemorations.

Currently the caretaker of the monument is the Union Miners Perpetual Care Association. Recently, coordinated by the Illinois AFL-CIO, this group has spearheaded a fundraising drive for the restoration of the cemetery, in conjunction with Mother Jones foundation, Illinois Labor History Society.  They also secured an Illinois Tourism Grant for this work. The work of volunteers remains the foundation for the preservation of the site.  The site will be re-dedicated in October 2015.

 

 Jim Alderson, retired Teamsters member, uncovered the headstone of Alexander Bradley at Union Miners Cemetery this week. Behind him is the large monument erected in Bradley's memory in 1918. Bradley was the immigrant miner who catalyzed the 1897 great miners march throughout Illinois and who met Mother Jones in 1897 at the convention that called for a general strike


Jim Alderson, retired Teamsters member and member of the Union Miners Perpetual Care Association,  recently uncovered the headstone of Alexander Bradley at Union Miners Cemetery recently. Behind him is the large monument erected in Bradley’s memory in 1918. Bradley was the immigrant miner who catalyzed the 1897 great miners march throughout Illinois and who met Mother Jones in 1897 at the convention that called for a general strike

 

Work at the Mother Jones Monument. Left, Jim Alderson, Marc Landers of Bricklayers Local #8, who are donating their labor, Don Stewart of United Mine Workers of America, and Mike Katchmar. All are devoting their time as a labor of love for this historic site

Work at the Mother Jones Monument. Left, Jim Alderson, Marc Landers of Bricklayers Local #8, who are donating their labor, Don Stewart of United Mine Workers of America, and Mike Katchmar. All are devoting their time as a labor of love for this historic site