Herald and Review from Decatur, Illinois on March 23, 1997 · Page 84
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Herald and Review from Decatur, Illinois · Page 84

Decatur, Illinois
Issue Date:
Sunday, March 23, 1997
Page 84
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0 H Herald & Review Decatur, Illinois Sunday, March 23, 1997 Wd lost everything' even Christmas On the eve of Christmas in 1932, the joyous sounds of the season ceased in the coal mining village of Moweaqua. It was a day everyone wept, a day fathers and sons perished in ... uiio I 5 i . if V . Mf LJi Kj, 1 f- m 'x -i--' ' H (I'f, : : ,, I 1 ' - , "v.. xJx rl " . . . 4f ' ' ' .-Jut V ----- 4 - : 1 1 i h s 1 iff?! !,? . I ! 1 f f ,3 I j 1 f I ! f f I By TONY REID H&R Staff Writer Herald & ReviewHerb Slodounik STOUTHEARTED MEN: Former miners, from left, Charles Dowd, Joseph B. Hibbard and Lotsi Smorado remember when coal was king in Moweaqua. that had entombed his friends. "You felt for 'em. It was a horrible way to die," said Hibbard, who would later work for Caterpillar Inc. "But back then, you needed that mine job so bad." Mining families grew up accepting tragedy as an occupational hazard; death came quickly in accidents or slowly with disease. "My father died in 1930, leaving mother with three kids," Hibbard said. "He was a miner and suffered from 'black lung,' the disease you get from breathing coal dust. I'd quit school to mine and get some extra money for us." lb earn it, men like Hibbard blasted the coal loose and then working stooped or kneeling in narrow tunnels shoveled it into mule-drawn wagons. "It was hard, dirty work, and you'd see men filthy and sweating, stripped to their underwear," Hibbard said. "But it paid maybe $15-20 a week, a good wage back then." The money looked better and better as the 1930s Depression dragged on and on. And, for many families, mining was all they knew. Fellow Moweaqua miner Lotsi Smorado, 82, still lives within a mile of Hibbard and recalls how, growing up, almost every man he knew was a miner. "My dad mined and both my uncles were miners," said Smorado, whose family emigrated from Czechoslovakia. "And we all knew the dangers: an uncle was killed in the ex plosion, and many of the others who died were my neighbors and friends." Smorado had lost his own father in April 1932, killed by gangrene that spread from a foot wound suffered underground. Despite the legacy of misery surrounding him, Smorado was working in the mine by the age of 19. "I grew up in it, it's what I knew, and, at that time, there was hardly any other work except farming," Smorado said. Later, after the mine closed and after serving in World War n, Smorado moved to Wood River and put in 35 years as a welder for Shell Oil Co. Retiring in 1977, he moved back to Moweaqua in 1989 and now lives near his lifelong friend, Charles Dowd. Born in Moweaqua, Dowd, 83, would later go into business for himself as a successful bricklayer. But there had been no escaping the mining in his blood, either; he'd worked at the Macon County Co. coal mine in Decatur from 1933 until it closed in 1947. While he never mined Moweaqua coal, he was no stranger to its tragedies. Dowd's father worked there and died of black lung, and his brother Earl, a 35-year-old father with five children, was killed in the Christmas Eve blast. "Oh God, I have nightmares about mining to this very day," Dowd said. "I dream I am trapped and I can't get out and I don't know what to do. When you've worked in a mine, and when you know what it's like down there, that is a very, very frightening dream." "Each morning they walk into the yawning mouth of the mine-dragon. Its whim may be to let them walk out whole at evening. It may be to crush them in its dark bowels or suffocate them with its fetid breath and spew out their mangled or lifeless bodies for their widows and orphans to claim." the Decatur Daily Review, Jan. 2, 1933. DANGEROUS SPACES: Squeezing into narrow fissures in their pursuit of the coal vein, Moweaqua miners risked death or injury every day. That piece of wood in the foreground helps to hold up the mine ceiling. OWEAQUA This village's dragon has been dead for 62 years. The Moweaqua coal mine the "mine-dragon" had opened in 1889 and shut down in 1935, finally buried by rising costs and falling demand for its high-sulfur coal. But there are still a few men left who remember what it was like to walk into the dragon's jaws and risk death to earn a living. Old miners like Joseph B. "Joe Ben" Hibbard, 81, who started work just two weeks before a mine explosion claimed dozens of lives on Christmas Eve, 1932. Hibbard was lucky; like more than 50 of his colleagues, he had Dec. 24 off. But 56 other miners, anxious to earn some extra money for Christmas, showed up for the 8 a.m. shift. Swinging their shiny dinner buckets and chatting happily, they descended 621 feet into the earth and headed along black tunnels running a mile beneath the fog-shrouded prairie. And there the dragon claimed them. "We used open carbide lamps," Hibbard recalls, "and they reckon that's what ignited it." A seeping cloud of methane gas exploded, and only two of the 56 escaped with their lives. Several victims were incinerated immediately in the blast. Those initially left alive had scrambled in terror from the dreaded "black damp" a choking surge of gas that follows methane explosions. Black damp was the mine-dragon's "fetid breath," and it suffocated the rest to death as they fled. The tragedy's bitter Christmas gift to Moweaqua was 33 widows and 75 fatherless children. Families stood at the mine head in a vigil running into days as the bodies were dug out. Many victims were father and son, dying side by side or in each other's arms. Their names Jurick, Tirpak, Potsic told of ethnic roots stretching back to immigrant miners who'd left Europe seeking a better life. "My own grandfather emigrated from England, and you had people of many dif ferent backgrounds living here then," Hibbard said. "And yet we all knew each other I must have known at least 40 of those who died." Hibbard was one of the unpaid volunteers working to repair the mine after the explosion. By the end of 1933, the mine was open again, and Hibbard was back underground, digging coal from the same earth NO ONE TO SAVE: Rescue workers head down into the Moweaqua pit, but they were destined to find only bodies. The caged canary was a living early warning signal for detecting deadly methane gas. The birds are much more sensitive to methane than humans and they stop singing and quickly die when exposed to it. MOWEAQUA Joseph Tirpak can't face Christmas anymore. It's been that way ever since Christmas Eve, 1932, when an explosion deep inside the Moweaqua mine -claimed the lives of his father, Mike, 49, and brother Andy, 18. They died leaving Anna Tirpak to raise Joseph and three brothers and four sisters left at home. "How could it be Christmas again after all that?" he asked. Joseph, 74, still lives in the house he was born in. The same house where Red Cross volunteers brought food gifts to help the family cope in those bitter days after the tragedy. "We lost my dad and we'd lost my brother it was like we'd lost everything," recalled Joseph. He says his Mom got something like $5 a week from an insurance settlement and the kids all pitched in to help, doing odd jobs and then getting out to work full time as soon as they could. "It was like every time somebody got 16 years old, they left to get a job," said Joseph, a retired school janitor who kept his vow to stay away from mining. "They were hard times." All that's left of the original family now is Joseph in Moweaqua, brother Michael, 76, in Decatur, sister Marge DeClerck, 67, in Assumption and another sister, Amelia Kiwak, 74, in Chicago. "We don't talk much about what happened," said Joseph. "But, like I said, Christmas is a real sad time of year. And, to this day, I never put up a Christmas tree or light so much as a single light; we all lost so much back then, it just wouldn't seem right." i jj HARD TIMES: Red Cross volunteers offered food donations in December 1932, after father Mike Tirpak, 49, and son Andy, 18, died in the mine explosion. Pictured, back row from left, are Michael Tirpak, 1 2; Mary Mahone, 23, married sister; neighbor Anna Potsic, 13 (her father and brother were killed in the blast), and widow Anna Tirpak, 46, holding youngest daughter Marge 2-12. In front row are William Tirpak, 6; Amelia Tirpak, 9, and Emma Tirpak, 7. Standing in front is 4-year-old Bill Mahone, Mary's son - they had traveled from their Chicago home to visit the family in the wake of the tragedy. The picture doesn't show all the Tirpak family brothers Steve, 13, Joseph, 9, and sister Helen, 14, also lived at home. Those milk bottles were given right back after this picture was taken. "We had a cow and we didn't need the milk," said Michael, now 76 and living in Decatur. "Mom told the women to give it to someone who needed it more." Changing times: Ilium a vanishing breed Mining in Illinois is still a big business, but it's a shadow of its glory days. The industry employs 5,000 miners who unearthed 50 million tons of coal in 1996, according to the Illinois Coal Association, a mine owners' group. The state's production peaked in 1925, when 77,000 miners toiled in 255 locations to remove more than 100 million tons of coal. In the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 the year of the Moweaqua mine disaster 44,078 miners dug 31.4 million tons of coal. Over the years, mines have closed and new technology and production methods have cut manpower needs. Even so, Illinois is still the sixth largest coal producing state in the nation, says Taylor Pensoneau, vice president of the coal association. There are 20 Illinois mines working today, and Central Illinois has four of them: The Tunis Coal Co. mine near Elkhart; the Monterey Coal Co. mine south of Car-linville; and two mines near Virden and Farmersville operated by the Freeman United Coal Mining Co. In Moweaqua, residents have long looked elsewhere for economic survival. "What helped Moweaqua was Decatur," recalled Lotsi Smorado, 82, who worked in the town's mine before it shut in 1935. "Lots of people were able to find work in Decatur." Soy City is 30 minutes away by car and still plays a big role in Moweaqua (population 1,800). Village Trustee Evelyn "Boots" Lowe estimates that half of Moweaqua's work force holds jobs at companies like Caterpillar Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and BridgestoneFirestone Inc. People choose to live in Moweaqua because it offers small town charm with amenities, such as "a very good school system," she says. "We also have a grocery store, two doctors, a dentist, a car dealership, a good library, a nursing home, a retirement center and low cost housing. It's a great place to live and raise a family."

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