Helping coal miners get by Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power and Michael Cary (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – June 19, 2016)

A Westmoreland County program from the Great Depression holds lessons for today

The recent struggles that area coal miners confront in the face of declining demand for their product highlight similar struggles that Western Pennsylvania miners faced eight decades ago. In the Great Depression, as now, miners faced the prospect of long-term unemployment and, for many, permanent displacement from the mines.

An experimental program championed by Eleanor Roosevelt offered hope to hundreds in Westmoreland County, and offers an important reminder of what citizens, working through their federal government, can do for each other in the face of daunting circumstances.

The situation was beyond desperate for Westmoreland County miners and their families in the 1930s. They were devastated by unemployment, lack of housing and hunger. By the time voters put Franklin Roosevelt into the White House, most miners had been out of work for years.

Some continued to live in company-owned coal-patch houses even after the shafts closed, but mining companies did not favor this arrangement and forced families from their homes. Most struggled to find shelter. More than a few moved into the idled coke ovens that dotted the landscape. Others relocated frequently in search of the elusive job or to seek shelter with friends or relatives. One man said his family moved 11 times in one year.

Hunger haunted their lives. Children especially were vulnerable. In West Virginia, the state opened National Guard camps to children for two weeks in the summer so they might get enough to eat to stave off malnutrition’s worst effects for the rest of the year. Children gained weight temporarily but soon lost it. Malnutrition wore them down, sapped their energy and exposed them to disease.

Grace Abbott, head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau under President Herbert Hoover, invited the American Friends Service Committee to help provide food relief to the starving children in Scotts Run, W.Va., near Morgantown. But the Quakers soon recognized that free milk was inadequate to the task and contemplated broader solutions.

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