A letter I sent off for funding a documentary. Something I have no training for whatsoever. We shall see …
Prof. Linda Mayes & Prof. Karen Yu
Directors, Collaborative for Southern
Appalachian and Place-Based Studies
December 4, 2014
Dear Linda and Karen,
Many thanks for your recent e-mail invitation to apply for funding for course development and scholarly projects through the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian and Place-Based Studies. You indicate that, for projects to be undertaken in the summer of 2015, you would like to see an optional one-page project proposal on December 5th. This is really more of a whisper of a project proposal, the merest soupçon of an idea, but I would like to go ahead and forward it to you in the hopes that you can tell me whether it is the sort of thing you envision funding and whether the project seems to fit within the scope of the Collaborative.
As part of my rushed and haphazard prepping to teach in the University’s First Year Program, “Finding Your Place,” I began to explore the region for locations to take students to and projects they might be interested in. As a classicist, I was hoping to draw connections between mythological ideas and local history and folklore, and to some degree, this was successful. But when I began to stop forcing matters in the hopes of finding some thematic, “teachable” coherence, I think my preparation for the course really began to improve.
One of the more remarkable stories I came across came to me quite by chance. I had been out to visit the little house museum of local Grundy historian, William Ray Turner, who was very generous with his time. As it happened, the air conditioning unit at our house ceased operating and needed to be replaced—for many years, our local handyman has been the University’s head HVAC, Tony Gilliam. He and I got to talking about Mr. Turner, his museum, the history of Grundy County, etc. By and by, Tony said, “Did he mention Mine 21?” I looked at him blankly. “No, what is that?”
On December 8, 1981, Mine 21, one of several underground coal-mines operated by Grundy Mining Company in the unincorporated area between Palmer and Whitwell, Tennessee, exploded and killed thirteen miners. While not on the same scale as the disasters in Fraterville (May 19, 1902, in which 216 miners were killed) or Cross Mountain (December 9, 1911, in which 84 died), Mine 21 was the worst mining disaster in Tennessee since the introduction of modern safety precautions. The Department of Labor would eventually rule that “a cigarette lighter taken into a coal mine in violation of Federal regulations touched off a methane explosion,” but “accused the Grundy County Mining Company, the mine’s operator, of failure to evacuate workers from a methane-laden shaft, to adequately ventilate the shaft and to enforce a Federal regulation prohibiting smoking materials in a mine” (New York Times, May 5, 1982). The next year, Grundy Mining agreed to pay 10 widows and their children $10 million in damages, a fraction of the $60 the families had originally sought (New York Times, February 19, 1983).
Tony told me this story as he was flushing out coolant from my AC unit. A former coal miner himself, he had worked in 21 many a day, as had his brother. “Probably everyone who works on the staff at the University lost a loved one that day,” he said. Later on, I had a chance to talk to Scotty Parson, a chief plumber for PPS. Scotty is younger than Tony, and never worked the mines, though his brother was killed that day in 21. “I remember the last time I saw him,” he told me. “He had been working all day and was covered in coal dust, just as black as night. We laughed, because he had come over in a hurry out of the mine and hadn’t had a chance to wash up.”
I am certain most of my colleagues on the faculty and administration who have never heard of Mine 21, and there will be many who are unaware that there was ever any coal mining carried out in the region. To some degree, that is understandable. In 1997, Tennessee Consolidated Coal closed the mines in Grundy, and with that, the only real venue for work in the region. Many of those former coal miners came to work in maintenance or buildings and grounds for the University of the South. The disaster of Mine 21, a local version of all the mining disasters that have taken place across the country for over a century, is an event that binds many who work at Sewanee together in a way that is utterly invisible to many others who work at the same institution.
A few weeks ago, after we had talked about it many times, Tony took me and a few others over to Palmer to see what could be seen of Mine 21. We drove to the location where 21 had been—closed since 1997, the mine had been “faced,” or closed completely over. At one time, 40-50 men worked day-long shifts at this mine, while trucks carried out hundreds of tons of coal. But where all this activity had once taken place, there were only the remains of a dirt road. The rest was overgrown. “It’s almost as if Nature just wants to swallow up this place,” my friend Lizzie said, “to complete the process of amnesia.”
We drove back to Sewanee afterward, and I began to think about what she said, and there and then, it occurred to me that I wanted to make a documentary film about Mine 21. Now, I have no experience whatsoever with film-making, though I have been encouraged by Greg Pond to forge ahead. “I had breakfast with Lizzie today,” he wrote me. “I think that you should partner with or teaching an upper division class for some of out more experienced students and make a documentary about the coal mines.”
I want to do this, because I think it will do a lot to help faculty and administrators understand the situation of some of the people they work with. I want to do this to encourage people in our community to talk and listen to others in their communtity. I want to do this, because stories like this deserve not to be forgotten.
I am happy to talk with your further about this, although at this point, what I’ve written above is all I have to say. It may well be that this project does not fall within the scope of what you imagine with Collaborative funding. In any event, many thanks for reading this far. I hope your Thanksgivings were peaceful, and that the busy season ahead will be happy and productive.