The Family that Defied Rockefeller

Sites & Stories / Stories / The Family that Organizes

By Rosemary Feurer The Verna family had only lived in the US for a short time before they participated in the Great Coalfield Strike of 1913-1914. They weren't US citizens, but they sought to gain rights for US workers by overcoming divisions and fighting for a union. They  risked their lives in the brutal world in which hired armies fought unionization.

Left:  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.

THE VERNA FAMILY came from Italy to Illinois in the early 20th century.  Geltrude was from the Contestabile family, from Celano; Bernardo Verna’s family were from Fara San Martino, Abbruzzi. By 1911 he was listed in the Springfield Illinois directory as Bernard, living at 1901 East Jackson.  He was a rank-and-file activist in his union local and he and his family were staunch advocates for unionism. Illinois had unionized most of the coal mines by this time. Miners there were the strongest advocates for organizing in other states where a divide and conquer strategy enforced with political and militarization of the mining areas kept wages low. It was in their self-interest to organize these other states. Colorado's system was controlled by large operations controlled by Rockefeller interests that kept out unions with private guards and company towns.

Bernard Verna, grandson of Bernard and Geltrude, recalls what his father, Tulio, told him:

“Around 1912 the United Mine Workers of 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 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.

 

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."

Mother Jones came to support and agitate the miners, and was such a powerful threat to the operators that she  was imprisoned almost three months without charge by the military.  John Ammons, the Democratic Governor of Colorado was influenced by General Chase to believe she was so powerful an influence that they had to silence her. This was an outrage to the Verna family, and to all the strikers.

In January 1914, a thousand women led a protest against Mother Jones imprisonment, and Geltrude Verna led with an American flag. The march ended when General Chase charged the crowd, believing that the Italians had a plan to free Mother Jones using the women as a diversion.

Tilio recounted to Bernard, years later: "My mother carried the 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. Geltrude is shown here carrying the flag in this photo, and the newspaper article below tells more of the story.  The women were met by the national guard with bayonets. The Colorado national guard was composed of many private detectives and was paid by mine operators.

 

Photo from Western Historical Collections, Denver Colorado.

Mother Jones' imprisonment was part of the leverage that won hearings in Congress about the strike and the brutal repression. When John D. Rockefeller was asked if the cause of keeping out the union was worth the possible death of people, he replied, "I think it is worth it."

 

On Apr. 1914 the company guards and hired thugs and militia attacked and burned the largest of the miners' tent camps, the Ludlow colony. Eleven children, 5 women, and 3 strikers were killed that day.

Afterward, miners took up arms and fought the troops successfully in a war that lasted 10 days.

The union won the armed insurrection against those who had led the Ludlow massacre.

Bernard Verna: "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 )  joined in an armed insurrection in Colorado after the Ludlow massacre, when 11 children and 2 women immigrants were killed by militia and mercenaries.  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.

There was a reason that Bernard Verna kept quiet for the rest of his life for the role he played in the insurrection. The union leaders  were hunted down and imprisoned.

Bernard Verna: "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."

Tulio Verna later took took a trip back to where he remembered vivid accounts of the struggle:

"My dad (Tulio) and I traveled 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.

Geltrude died in 1918 and the children had to be placed in an orphanage for some time.

Bernard and Geltrude are buried in the Benld, Illinois cemetery.

(copyright Rosemary Feurer & Bernard Verna

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