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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Son of the Struggle

The following article originally appeared in Goldenseal Magazine in the summer of 2006. Since Blizzard passed away a few months ago, I thought I would resurrect the interview in order to share the experiences of a man worth remembering.

Son of the Struggle:

William C. Blizzard Jr. Remembers the Mine Wars


C. Belmont Keeney

Born deep in the coal country around Cabin Creek in 1916, William C. Blizzard Jr., has lived a life every bit as colorful as his family’s legacy. A student of journalism and photography, a World War II veteran, and freelance writer, Blizzard has journeyed a long way from the coalfields of his youth. But the legacy of his birthright casts a long shadow. William’s father was the famed United Mine Workers leader Bill Blizzard, who rose to prominence during the West Virginia Mine Wars and became one of the key figures in the 1921 Armed March on Logan and the subsequent Battle of Blair Mountain. As a boy, William watched as his father and other union leaders such as Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney were tried for murder and treason. He sat next to his father when the jury found him not guilty and observed his father’s continuing leadership role in the UMWA, working alongside men such as Van A. Bittner and T.C. Townsend until he was appointed president of District 17. While his father led the union, Blizzard Jr. carried labor’s banner with his pen and camera, writing for such publications as Labor’s Daily and The Nation. He has recently published a book entitled When Miners March: A History of the West Virginia Coal Miners where he recounts the career of his father and the story of the Mine Wars in West Virginia. Still lively, energetic, and full of wit, Blizzard Jr., met with me in October 2005, a mere two months shy of his eighty-ninth birthday, to reminisce about his life, his father, and how the union cause has marched on through the past century.

Chuck Keeney – Let’s start by talking about your youth. You were born in Eskdale, West Virginia. Did you grow up there?

William Blizzard – I didn’t really grow up in Eskdale. My mother and father lived in one of them coal company houses for a time. When I was about five years old my father was looking for a place to live after his acquittal. He was looking around and found this old house with a tin roof and an outhouse around St. Albans. It was a small house, but a two story one. From there I went to school in St. Albans, West Virginia. I went to high school in Boone, County in a Presbyterian School for the first two years and my last two I went to the high school in St. Albans. We didn’t have much of anything at that small school except what you would call the basics; reading, writing, and arithmetic. So I was delighted when I transferred to St. Albans where they offered Latin and Chemistry, which were classes that I really needed and really wanted.

CK – Where did you attend after high school?

WB – West Virginia University.

CK – Did you graduate from there?

WB – Yes I did. Actually, I had… rather, I wouldn’t say tempestuous, but I was really unhappy with the school. I felt out of place because I was there with wealthy people who were connected with the coal industry on a management level and you know, I was kinda a lone sheep. I just didn’t feel like I was treated very well. I didn’t like it and I almost quit. But I didn’t have any real choice. My parents would’ve wrung my neck if I quit. So I stayed and graduated with a B. A. degree. I also had minors in French and Spanish.

CK – So people treated you differently because of your father?

WB – Yes, well I thought so. At first I didn’t know why it was but as I look back I realize that a reason for the way some people treated me because of my father’s role in labor. My parents realized it, though they didn’t say anything to me. They initially sent me to high school away from St. Albans, where there were kids whose parents were in railroad and coal management and they thought I might be mistreated. So they sent me to that Presbyterian school in Madison.
CK – Was your family Presbyterian?

WB – No, no. My mother told me, “When you get there you tell them that you’re a Republican and a Baptist.” My people, by the way, were Republicans. My father was. It seems like an anomaly but that’s the way he was and he stuck with it the rest of his life except during the FDR years, you know, Franklin Roosevelt. He changed the whole nation. My father and other labor leaders had a favorable government for a change.

CK – You served in World War II. Tell me about your service during the war.

WB – Well, I had already graduated from college and I didn’t want to leave my new wife so I just waited around ‘till I was drafted and I just took what they offered me. I told them I would like to get into some photography if there was an opening and it happened that there was and so I went to a photography school in Denver, Colorado. After that, it wasn’t very much longer after that we were sent overseas to serve in, I guess you could call it an intelligence area. It was an informational gathering thing, using P38 planes, in those days the fastest planes the U.S. had. They took guns out of them and put cameras in instead. The pilots would fly along and they would take photos of enemy territory. Most of my work was in the film processing.

CK – You were in the Pacific theatre. Is that correct?

WB – Sure was. Yeah I was in the South Pacific. We landed in Australia first. I didn’t stay there long at all, though. I was then shipped on to New Guinea. So we set up a laboratory there and a base where the P38s would fly their missions from.

CK – Didn’t you attend Columbia University after the war?

WB – Yeah, after the war I moved to New York City with my wife. I was paid by the government on the GI Bill to go to school and I wanted to anyway. Columbia University was within walking distance of where I lived and they had listed there in their catalog a whole series of professional writing courses and I studied magazine writing, newspaper writing and so forth.

CK – After which you became a freelance writer and worked some for the Charleston Gazette. Is that correct?

WB – Yes, well that is true.

CK – How long did you work for the Gazette?

WB – Let’s see, twelve years. 1959 is I believe when I started. The reason they hired me was because I had multiple skills; I was a photographer and I was a writer. I drove all over West Virginia and interviewed various people and writing about locals and so forth. Anything about West Virginia that I thought would be interesting to West Virginians.

CK – How did you incorporate your military experience in photography with your

WB – It wasn’t really a difficult task Well, actually I worked for magazines a great deal, and newspapers. When they wanted to save money they had me do two jobs instead of one. It got me more jobs but it meant double the work for me. A lot magazines want separate people for each task but many of the times they let me do both. I still have most of my old cameras, in fact. I’ve taken pictures everywhere, the southwestern deserts, even Europe. Sometimes taking pictures can be pretty dangerous. When I covered the Widen Strike[1] it was a pretty volatile atmosphere (laughs), and you were taking serious risks to go into the strike zone and take good pictures. Luckily I never got shot at. But it can be a risk.
I also did some work for Goldenseal. One of the articles, a labor one actually. The Goldenseal editor had contacted a man who had done a great deal of wood carving in the area around the New River. I was hired to take pictures of the carvings he had done.

CK – What kind of carvings were they?

WB – He did carvings of individual people or groups of people. Most of them were representations of workers, going about their tasks. It’s been a long time ago, but I think some of them were coal miners.

CK – Of all the stories you covered, which one stands out the most?

WB – I suppose (reflects a moment).. the one that stands out the most was not for the Gazette, but the one I delighted in the most was a story on the radio astronomy observatory in West Virginia. They were looking for signals from outer space… you know to see if they could contact any intelligent life out there. They got scientists to come down from some of the large cities and universities to live there for a time. I wrote the story for the Marathon Oil Company. They had a magazine that they published and they got me to go down there and write the story on radio astronomy and take the pictures.

CK – Where did you work after the Gazette?

WB – I worked for a labor paper. It was called Labor’s Daily. It was established in Charleston, on the west side. It was intended to be a national periodical for the whole labor movement. I worked there two and a half or three years.

CK – Were you involved with any other labor activism besides Labor’s Daily?

WB – Not specifically labor activism, but I did some articles for The Nation. One of them was on the Widen Strike and the whole labor situation in West Virginia. And one was a biographical sketch of the editor of Labor’s Daily. Ralph White was the editor’s name. I don’t know whether he is still alive or not. He was real happy to have me, partly because of my skills and partly because my father was president of the UMWA District 17 and the paper, of course, wanted the support of the major unions. He called himself Scoop after he became a newspaper guy. Scoop was put in charge of Labor’s Daily by the International Typographical Union. It was a big job. This union was divided into two factions. One faction financially supported the paper while the other faction opposed. The faction that opposed was all in a fuss because of the Red Scare that McCarthy got started up in Wheeling. This faction, because they feared the paper was a little too far left of the ledger, so to speak, wanted to dissolve the paper. I wasn’t ashamed of being apart of the paper and I’m not afraid to mention that some of the people I was associated with were affiliated with socialists although I wasn’t directly involved with their politics. I refused to disassociate myself with people because of their political views as long they were pro-labor. From the way I understand it, Labor’s Daily was eventually dissolved as a result of the Red Scare. We were on the FBI’s bad side (laughs).

CK – You have recently published a book on the labor movement, specifically the UMWA in West Virginia and the Mine Wars called, When Miners March. When did you write the book and what made you decide to write it?

WB – Well, I had thought about it a little bit for a while when I was taking my various writing courses at Columbia and I bumped into another student there who was writing something on the Mine Wars for a master’s degree or something and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to start thinking seriously about writing something on it. I wrote it while I was working for Labor’s Daily and they published it in the newspaper as a serial. I was good friends with the editor of the paper and he wanted badly for his paper to be supported by the UMW, so we thought it would be a good idea to publish what I had written.

CK – How did your work finally make it into book form?

WB – It became a book many years later. It was originally written around 1952, I wanted to get it published as a book, but I was busy with other jobs as a freelance writer and it kind of dropped out of my plan. I did get an agent at one time, but she and I didn’t get along too well. She did say there were some publishers interested but the work was a bit too controversial, something that not everybody’s going to be agreeable about, you know. My book is very much biased in favor of the coal miners, well I don’t really think of it as being biased (laughs) but anyways, I thought it important that the coal miners’ story be told.
So, many years later, I moved down to where I am now in Winfield and one day somebody tapped on my door. There was this guy standing outside and he had something under his arm and he told me he was looking for Bill Blizzard and I said, “Well, you found him.” (laughs). He explained to me that he had gotten a copy of my manuscript and had been using it in teaching some labor history classes out in the Midwest and he had tracked me down. He asked me if I would like to get it published and I thought, why not?

CK – Who was the man who found you?

WB – His name is Wesley Harris.

CK – What do you want people to take from your book?

WB – I wanted to show how people lived and give in great detail the things that the newspapers had ignored, not being very sympathetic to the miners. I wanted to cover the years leading up to Blair Mountain and show what deeds had been done to the miners and how such things had forced them into violent action, to where they felt they had no other alternative. Whether they were correct or not in their actions, I’m not going to say. I know my father thought they were correct.

CK – Let’s talk for a moment about your personal recollections from the Mine Wars. After the Armed March on Logan and the Battle of Blair Mountain, your father, along with many others was tried for treason and murder. Although you were very young, do you remember anything from the Treason Trials?

WB – The only thing I remember very vividly was sitting beside my father in the courtroom when the jury came in that acquitted him. I was sitting right beside him and as the jury came in my father watched very intensely and nervously, obviously, and as they came in my father sprang up from beside me almost straight up in the air and landed on the table in front of us. And there he was squatting on the table as the jury filed in and I wondered what in the world was he doing that for? (laughs) I remember that very well and of course after he was acquitted there was a big hullabaloo but I didn’t pay much attention to all of that, being only about five at the time. But I never will forget how my father acted when that jury came in.

CK – The Mine Wars were filled with a number of colorful leaders and characters from both sides, some of whom you knew. I’m going to mention a few names for you and I’d like you to run a few names by you and get your impression of these individuals.

WB – Okay.

CK – Frank Keeney.[2]

WB – Yeah, Frank. I didn’t really know him well early on, but I knew him much better in later years after he had been kicked out of the UMW by John Lewis and they wouldn’t let him back in. He tried to form his own union but it was later broken up, probably none too gently, by UMW organizers. But my father and Frank never did have any dislike for one another. He was a very decent guy who got a raw deal out of the whole situation. I bumped into him accidentally in Charleston when I was older and he was parking cars in downtown Charleston. Who could believe that Frank Keeney would end up as a parking lot attendant? But there he was. Later on, I got to know him and found that he was a strong supporter of my father before and after Blair Mountain. Frank and I became great friends.

CK – Fred Mooney.[3]

WB – Fred was, as far as I know, was a strong union fella, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But Mooney, now this is secondhand, but according to my mother, Mooney had a reputation of being somewhat trigger happy. I’m not kidding. My parents had a theory that he was crazy. At least that was rumors I heard as a kid. They told me that around Mooney you’d better watch your back. Mooney invited my father to go squirrel hunting with him and Keeney told my father, “Don’t you go with him. He’ll shoot you.” My father replied, “Not if I shoot him first.” (laughs) They both did go hunting together and my father sat under a tree and Mooney never did anything. So it ended out all right I guess.

CK – Van Bittner.[4]

WB – I knew Van Bittner better than any of the rest of them because he worked with my father and was in our home a lot at the time. He came from a coal mining background. My only impression… Mr. Bitter… I thought he was an extremely bright capable man and at the same time I thought he was the most vain man I had ever met in my life (laughs). Simply because the way he spoke about himself and how he spoke about books and his opinions. He was vain. My father knew about it too but wanted to keep his job and Van was president of District 17 at the time. My father was working for him at the time, before he became president.

CK – T. C. Townsend.[5]

WB – (laughs) Old Tom! He was my father’s attorney during the treason trials. He also helped my father get some jobs before the Armed March and that was tough to do because my father wasn’t always the most welcome guy in the workplace if you know what I mean, because of his past and all. My father supported him when he ran for governor in 1932. Some people in the old days called him a crook, but I don’t know whether it was true or not.

CK – What would you like for people to remember about your father?

WB – That he was a very, very strong advocate of organized labor, that he was a coal miner and had been subjected to the same treatment as other miners of his day.

CK – Well, thank you so much for sharing some of your memories with me today.

WB – You’re quite welcome. My father would probably bang me on the head if he heard all that I just said, but he’s not around hear anything about it so I guess it’s okay.


[1] The Widen Strike (1952-1953) was a UMWA strike in Clay County, West Virginia. Violence in this strike, between company officials, strikers, and replacement workers, was a common occurrence. For more information read C. C. Stewart’s, “Strike Duty: A State Trooper Recalls Trouble in the Coalfields” in the Winter 1995 issue of Goldenseal.
[2] Also from Cabin Creek, Frank Keeney was one of the leaders of the Paint Creek, Cabin Creek Strike (1912-13) and UMWA District 17 president during the Armed March on Logan. He later formed his own union, the West Virginia Mine Workers.
[3] Fred Mooney served as UMWA District 17 Secretary-Treasurer from 1917-1924, and a close ally of Keeney’s. Mooney later wrote an autobiography entitled Struggle in the Coalfields.
[4] Bittner was a union organizer and closely connected with John L. Lewis. Bittner worked with the UMWA in Alabama, Illinois, and West Virginia, where he briefly served as District 17 president in the 1930s. Bittner became a strong political voice in the state during the 1940s.
[5] A Charleston lawyer and former coal miner, T. C. Townsend defended Blizzard, Keeney, Mooney, and other miners during the Treason Trials. Townsend later ran for governor in 1932 on the Republican ticket, with the support of Van Bittner and Blizzard, but lost to Democrat Herman Guy Kump.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Chuck for posting this interview. Also thanks for posting your previous articles. One led me to your book on security with the great article on your great-grandfather and Cabin Creek. I would like to make a feature film about the Cabin Creek/Paint Creek Mine Wars. I wonder if you have been able to visit the new WV State Museum?- Steve Fesenmaier, WV Labor History Association