A Memory Passed Down
By John Weber October 12, 2020
John Weber is a geologist who wrote to us when he saw that we were working on a Mother Jones statue campaign in Chicago. He tells how family memories led him to take his students to the Union Miners Cemetery. This cemetery has many stories to tell. We are happy to present this story on October 12, the date that Illinois miners took as a holiday in honor of the men who gave their lives for the union in 1898.
My Mom grew up in Chicago and is of Slovene and Lithuanian heritage. My Dad, of Swiss, Czech, and German heritage, also grew up downstate in Illinois. Through my great aunt, I learned of how powerful the memories of immigrant struggles and of memories of Mother Jones can be.
My Mom and Dad met through our extended family who, on both sides, live in neighboring small coal mining towns (Staunton and Livingston) in downstate Illinois near Mt. Olive, where Mother Jones is buried.
My Great Aunt Helen Straub (nee Widmar) was born in 1921, the youngest of 8 siblings. She passed in 2017 at age 96. Aunt Helen told our family about the life of my Great-Grandfather John Andrew Widmar (1879-1959), an immigrant coal miner from the Zasavje region of Slovenia.
Above: A small city on a Sava River tributary near where John Widmar's family had combined farming and mining to make a living.
Below: a geological map of Slovenia where coal is mined from the Tertiary aged (Terciar) rocks shown in yellow. The Zasavje region centers on the big yellow stripe in the middle of the map.
Above: John & Josepha Widmar ca 1907, in Yukon, Pa.
With millions of other immigrants, they sought a better life and honored the memory of Mother Jones.
Zasavje is a steep, hilly, rich and fertile region of subsistence farming. Coal (brown coal) was historically mined nearby in the Sava River valley at Trbovlje and Hrastnik.
The men of John Widmar’s time combined farming and coal mining to survive. Many of our living Slovene relatives still do subsistence farming, traveling down from the Zasavje villages and hills to bigger towns in the region and to the capital city of Ljubljana to work non-farming jobs, attend schools and university, etc.
It’s likely that John Andrew Widmar, like many other men of his time and place in Austro-Hungarian central Europe, was recruited to come to the Western Pennsylvania coal area by an immigrant recruiter from an American coal company around 1900.
John Andrew Widmar came to Ellis Island, and then to Yukon, PA, USA circa 1905 to work in the western Pennsylvania bituminous coal fields. His wife, Josephine Marie Widmar (nee Povše), followed shortly afterward.
Ed: Mother Jones was renowned among immigrant miners in this region, the Irwin Field. They were reported to have pictures of her on their walls. Slovenians were demeaned by many. But Jones thought they would make good unionists, and encouraged the women of the coalfields to take part in their struggles. It’s possible John and Josepha knew of Mother Jones from their time in Pennsylvania.
John quickly saved his money in PA & bought a farm in Ladysmith, WI sight-unseen and moved the family there. It was too cold and rocky and difficult to get ahead. They sold that farm and moved to mine coal in Livingston, Illinois, which my grandmother & all her siblings called home.
Great Aunt Helen's oldest brother, Jack (the second John Andrew) Widmar, who was born 1907 in Yukon, PA, worked with his Dad in the Livingston and Staunton, IL mines, probably starting at around age 10, before he moved to Chicago.
A powerful memory for my Great Aunt Helen was when her father took her to Mother Jones’ funeral in 1930 at the Union Miners Cemetery, Mt. Olive, Illinois. Aunt Helen would have been 9 years old then.
This event stuck with her well into her 90s, seeing the many people who made it one of the largest funerals in Illinois history. It must have been quite memorable! Many other immigrant miners and their families also attended the Mother Jones’ funeral to show their love and respect for her and her work.
Above: A family photo taken in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1930s. On the left, Helen Widmar is just a young girl. But the memories of attending Mother Jones' funeral would last a lifetime.
Above: Two photos show the enormous moment of Mother Jones' funeral in 1930. The top photo is from the American Miner, a dissenting publication of the coal miners lives. The bottom photo shows the thousands of people who lined the main street in Mt. Olive to pay their respects.
Helen must certainly have learned first-hand about the working conditions in both the Pennsylvania and Illinois coal mines that Mother Jones fought to change.
I believe this is why her attending the 1930 funeral was such a memorable event that she felt compelled to share.
Thanks to opportunities that my Slovene coal-mining ancestors helped to create, I am a Geology Professor at a state university in the Midwest. I take many of my classes on annual spring field trips to study the geology of Illinois and Missouri.
One of the most impactful stops that we make on these geo-pilgrimages is the Mother Jones monument and Union Miner’s Cemetery in Mt. Olive.
Students are blown away that this seemingly mundane place has such a deep history, and that geology drives history and affects human lives and families in such a fundamental way.
The Mt. Olive Union Miners Cemetery tombstones tell the history of families like mine, who came from all over Europe: Austro-Hungary (including later Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, etc.), Italy, Germany, etc. to work in these mines.
This region must have been a sort of “silicon valley” of its time, and an integral part of America moving itself forward through energy and technology.
Above: A immigrant gravestone using the Russian Orthodox cross.
Above: A Croatian immigrant gravestone in Union Miners Cemetery, Mt. Olive.
Today a Mother Jones monument and gravesite exists together with Union Miners' tombstones at this historically fascinating site.
Mother Jones fought hard for miners, children, and families like ours. Her monument honors their memories, hopes, and dreams, as well as her own life and work.