Early Days On Paint Rock: An Oral History
(EDITOR’S NOTE — The following article is the second installment of an oral history by Letcher Sexton which was recorded by his sister Edrie Huff in January 1979 and was later transcribed and printed in the Spring, 1986 issue of the Scott County Historical Society Newsletter).
A new tipple made it much more convenient to transport the coal and the little thousand pound coal cars to the new and better tip house. And somewhere along at this time, my Dad decided I should be put to work a little bit. So, between the ages of nine and eleven I was taken in to help him get his coal in the number two mine, which was on the right as you go up into Punkin Hollow.
He had a room that had a little moisture in it and, anyway, I was big enough and with my narrow shovel, I could help him out considerably. I was especially good in moving his drill tools around. The drill tools were the augers and the thread bar and the posts and the tube extensions. And there was a crank to make the auger turn. It fitted on the thread bar. The thread bar had a thread box that fitted in the posts with threads on it to force, at regular speed per turn, the advancement of the auger to cut the coal. Well, I was quite handy at the moving those around, but he’d want me to crank that thread bar to drill the hole. I remember I could just barely get it over with two hands, and squatted down and on my knees and lay down, I tried all different positions to be able to crank that. I could do it a little. But he could come over there and take one hand and he’d kneel down, since the coal was only 28 inches high — didn’t leave much room between the top and bottom to straighten up. He could straighten out, but he couldn’t straighten up. He had power, he could just turn that crank around and right away he’d drill up two feet. Then he’d take it out and put in a four foot bit, drill it out two feet more, then take it out and put in a six foot bit, and drill it up two feet more. Then he had a six foot hole to put powder and fuse in to blast out a section of coal.
They had a regular time, at quitting time, to blast out. So, I learned how to stick your lamp under the fuse and light it so it wouldn’t blow the light out. Accidents were caused by persons with a small light that didn’t know how to light a fuse and hold their lamp so that the flame wouldn’t blow out. Dad taught me how to sound out the slate above you and tell whether it was dangerous or not. How to put up brace posts and caps on them, drive them up tight so the roof wouldn’t come down, or chunks fall out’ of it. He almost made a miner out of me.
It was along about this time that he got a summons to go over to Huntsville and appear in court. It seemed like in some mine, somebody had got hurt. And they had a lawsuit and not much that I can remember about it other than they asked dad a lot of funny questions and, finally, the judge got disgusted, either at dad or the lawyers one. He turned and said, "Mr. SEXTON, in your opinion, how long does it take a man to become a dependable coal miner?"
Dad said, "Your Honor, some may learn within four months. Others may learn within six months. But there’s some that will never learn."
So, I fiddled around for several months helping him in the coal mine. It was all interesting to me, but I was a lot more interested in what some of the other miners were doing. And, every time I could sneak out, I’d sneak around and try to get in a conversation with some other miner and usually, he’d want me to go because he’d be busy doing his work. But it was in this mine that DAVE JEFFERS, while eating lunch and sitting on his tool box, a chunk of slate fell out and broke his back. The result brought about his death not long afterwards.
That’s the first coal mine accident death that I can remember. There’s some others that I’ll mention a little later on.
(End of one taping session and beginning of another).
This is January 30, another day I promised to carry on... I’m not sure to whom I made the promise, probably sister EDRA.
At this time, I wish to tell about the dinner hour. During the time from 11:30 to 12:30, some of the miners that lived nearby took their dinner by chasing home. Well, I was one that run home and got my dinner and run back. I could make it in about 20 minutes.
By that time, the regular miners, who had carried their lunch with them, had their dinner over with and were resting comfortably around a big sandrock there and telling tales and jokes. and one that I remember very well was one about the big watermelon that was grown in Georgia. This tale was told by BOB ELLER, we called him, one of the miners. And listening was four or five other miners. This watermelon that he told about was a mighty big one, according to his tale. The watermelon grew so big that, the way he described it, it would feed a hundred people — all the melon they wanted.
And one of the miners said, "BOB, that melon that you’re talking about, I bet if it got busted all those creeks and rivers around there would overflow. Bob says, "I’m not sure that that would happen, but some of those branches might rise a little bit."
They seemed to accept and joke about it a little further. A couple of days later, that watermelon subject was brought up after a little interesting song by SHORTY ADKINS, as he was called. And, of course, I had got up as close as I could to SHORTY without getting in his way because I liked that fellow and he seemed to like me. After the song was finished, SHORTY said, "I had a trip to Knoxville in the last day or two. And on this trip I passed by a big blacksmith shop and they had a big chunk of iron red hot on a big anvil and they was three or four men beating on it with sledge hammers. It was all red and they were hammering away with great noise. I went on to Knoxville and when I came back that evening, they had that thinned out on one edge and I was curious so I went up there and I said to one of the men: "What in the world are you making — that big thing’s got a blade about a foot wide and about six feet long? What are you making?"
"Oh," he said, "I had an order from Georgia. There’s some farmer down there that had a big farm and he wanted us to send it down that night."
He said, "I wondered about that all the way home.., that big butcher knife that they was a’making." And, he said, "After I’ve studied it out, I could only come to one conclusion."
And BOB ELLER spoke up and said, "What was that conclusion, Shorty?"
"Why," he says, "that conclusion was that they were making that knife to cut your big Georgia watermelon!"
So, that is one of the jokes that I remember there when I was a kid about nine years old.
There was an explosion in this mine. And that explosion occurred on a Saturday and dad took me to Cherry Fork Church to hear Uncle REUBEN preach on Saturdays about once a month. And this happened to be that Saturday. And dad crowded me into the seat and sat over to the edge next to the aisle and the other part of the seat was against the wall. I could slide back and forth on the seat for entertainment, but I daren’t try to get out from my Dad. And they had a strip underneath of the seat in front and underneath the seat on one I was sitting on there was no way for me to get down and crawl through, so I had to take it. And I did.
I can’t ever remember what Uncle GEORGE preached. He had a sing-song kind of way of preaching that was very interesting but it was hardly understandable to me at my age of about eight or nine.
Now, during the time that we were up there, an explosion occurred in this No. 2 Pumpkin Hollow Mine and a Mr. HILL and a Mr. BLEVINS got their face pretty well pitted and speckled with black mine dust. That’s about all I can remember of that.
Then, along not far from that time, AARON (or Allen?) DUNCAN was caught by a slate fall and it resulted in his death a little later. And then, W. M. or BILL SMITH was caught in another slate fall and his back was broke. He survived on the bed helpless for more than five months before he died.
And then, along about 1910 (I’m moving this up a little), the Pumpkin Hollow No. 1 Mine exploded. At that time I was attending school at Oneida School... they didn’t have a high school there, then.., and staying with my grandmother. On this day before Christmas the school turned out about two o’clock and I remember walking home with CLIFFORD SEXTON, about four miles through the Tunnel Hill tunnel and along the railroad ‘til I got down to Stanley Junction. And at Stanley Junction they had a store and someone said there was an explosion at 11:30 up at the mine. And this was between three and four o’clock that Clifford and I arrived at Stanley Junction.
We went up immediately to this Pumpkin Hollow No. 1 Mine and went to the wide opening inside the mine — it had been made so they could have a side track, or a double track, at this point about 50 or 75 yards long. And then beyond that, there was an entry that turned to the right and one to the left. The left entry had had a door to cause the air to be sucked around and through the entry to the right. But the explosion had occurred... it was a dust explosion set off by having two or three heavy shots in a close place and made dust and set the dust on fire.
So, this was a dust explosion that occurred one or two days before Christmas, 1910. It had blown down the curtains and the doors and other arrangements that caused the air to circulate around the mine. Therefore, the men that was in there would be suffocated by the carbon dioxide that was hanging in the air. So I turned to a group consisting of FRED PHILLIPS, MITCHELL THOMPSON, Uncle BILL SEXTON, and EVERETT DUNCAN and we was proceeded ahead up the airway. As they got (unrecognizable word) backup to force the air along, we followed it up. Dr. M. E. THOMPSON came along with a box full of ammonia and he’d give us a little teaspoon every now and then and we kept on until we got a way back under the mountain. We came across first MONROE SEXTON, that was laying on his stomach, his face down, in a little airway. Right ahead of him lay his brother BILL SEXTON, who was a first cousin to the other BILL SMITH that had died before. And then on up in a room that had been cut back about 50 or 60 feet, we found JOHN FREEMAN (Sexton), laying on his right side, facing down the room, with the little lamp in his hand and fully dead. So the five of us managed to scoot him back to the airway, down this room that the coal was 28 inches high. In other words, it was only 28 inches between the slate above and the rock floor below, and we laid on our sides and managed to scoot him down until they got him through the airway to where some of the slate had been shot down and loaded out, then they could carry him over to the entry. And the entry was about eight or nine feet wide at the bottom and about four feet wide at the top, and six feet from the floor to the top of the entry. We started down this entry and I was carrying his right leg and hip, and had just got started about 10 or 15 feet when I had to let down and holler to the others, "I’m losing my strength," and I run back up into this airway and immediately fell to sleep.
LUTHER PENNINGTON came in and slapped me and waked me and got me
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up enough that he could manage to get me to walk hanging over his shoulder to get me down to where there was plenty of fresh air.
I got home that night and I slept about 14 hours straight through. And that’s my memory of the explosion in which the three Sexton brothers were killed. These were sons of EMANUEL SEXTON and WINNIE WEST SEXTON, who was mother’s uncle.
Somebody told a tale about a salesman traveling around in the hills and up the hollows in a horse and buggy. Well, there were very few roads that a horse and buggy could be taken over together. But this salesman was doing the better areas and at one place in a rainy spring season, he passed along a field and he saw a young boy over there all by himself hoeing out weeds in a corn patch and the weeds was about to take it. And the boy was lookin’ pretty bad. So, he hollered out at the boy, "Hello, there boy!"
The boy hollered, "Hello," and kept on hoeing weeds out of the corn. And the salesman hollered, "It looks like you’re having a pretty tough time a’keeping the weeds out."
The boy said, ‘Yes, it’s been too rainy to get out here to plow it and look after it like it should’ve been."
The fellow says, "It looks like you’re going to have a yellow crop this year."
The boys says, "I hope so, we planted yellow corn."
An the salesman felt a little steam there and he said, "There’s not much between you and a fool, is there?"
The boy looked up and said, "No, just a fence."
And that sent the salesman on his way.
KATHERINE WEST, who later married HARRINGTON, taught a subscription school there on Paint Rock. And dad subscribed for me — I must have been somewhere around eight and nine years old at this time — and I had to walk about three quarters of a mile up to the building that the school was in. It was started in an old church building that was burned down not long afterwards, just south of the commissary, southeast of the commissary in old Alma.
It was a very nice church building, built by the company to serve the families of the miners. They used it a lot. Uncle GEORGE CECIL used to come there and hold meetings. And then there was a preacher that came in that they called the Holy Rollers. And he had a few nice people with him when they held meetings that I can remember.
But it was in this building that KATHERINE started her subscription school. And, of course, I was a little bit hunting for devilment and I came to the tip house where they have some fairly coarse dust and I put some of that in my pocket one day. And I made me a slingshot with a cutout piece of rubber tab on it to hold my stones or dust or whatever I’ wanted to shoot. But the rubber was made out of women’s garters. I’d cut them in two and put them around a forked stick and they were pretty strong garters and I could shoot pretty good with them.
One day I looked over across the aisle, on the side where the girls sat, and I saw one of the girls with her dress up about her knees. They wore mostly longer dresses in those days. And her legs looked white and kindly fat, so I loaded my slingshot pouch up with this coal dust and got it down in the aisle and pulled it back and let it go.
Well, this stung this girl’s legs and she didn’t know what had happened and let out a little yell. And the teacher come back in investigate and she looked all around and everybody, including me, had their nose in the book and just as innocent as could be and that went on for a little while longer. I loaded me up another and give another shot, and that time the girl squealed because I’d pulled the rubber a little tighter and let the coal dust go a little harder and it stung a little stronger. And KATHERINE come rushing back there. And I was the only one, she said, that could have done it, so she invited me to come out into the aisle. And I got out in the aisle and she was going to search me. And she did. And she found this sling shot. And when she found it, I grabbed for it, too. I had hid it under my clothes. I got a hold of one of the forks and she got a hold of the other fork and in the pull the fork split, and that left me with a broken slingshot. But she got it away from me and I didn’t have any more garter slingshot.
But I did learn and I did enjoy going to school to KATHERINE.
Now, going to another subject, along about 1907 or 1908, dad thought I should go over and stay with Grandma SEXTON. That would be his mother, who had Aunt WINNIE and MANDY, two daughters with her, and three of her grandchildren. And my job was to help them with the farm work around there. They lived on 109 acres, had a big double log house. Had a well and a spring. Had mules and had an old horse and a colt named Pin-(line missing in transcription) to that enjoyed playing with. Then they had chickens and guinnies and turkeys around. And an old peacock that I used to be afraid of when he spread his tail in front of my face and showed me how pretty it was back there.
‘They had some bee gums but they had just about died out. I hauled in wood, plowed, and went to the store and, in the fall of the year, I started walking two miles to school in Oneida. (I think I’d better leave the rest of this for a little later about a school story and move on to the shutdown of the Roberts Coal Company and the closing down of the mine).
Along about 1910 or before.., when it closed down, they left very little coal to be taken out of the old Cornbread Mine that had lasted about 20 years. The electrical machinery had all been removed. The tipple was beginning to show signs of decay and part of the tipple that went across the branch had already been taken down, leaving just the part the coal was tippled over into the railroad cars.
About this time, R. A. WOOD took over and opened the Boneyard Mine again and we had a little operation going up there. And at that time, I had worked with dad and Uncle BILL and Uncle FERNANDEZ (?) BILBREY had made a contract over at the Pumpkin Hollow Mine area for another section and they operated the mine and I drove a mule from about a half a mile where they brought the coal out of the mine in cars and lined them up on top of a little grade, hill, with the track running steeply down and used old Spoonfoot, a mule that we had at that time, to take them on over to the old Pumpkin Hollow Tip House. And I was the weigh master, the tip master, and the mover of the coal cars to get them right under the tipple, and carry the empties back up to the top of the hill where another mule skinner and another mule took the empties back in and get them loaded and bring them back full for me to pick up again.
This was in the winter of 1911 and -12 and that was the coldest winter I ever remember ever experiencing in this area. The creek that run alongside the railroad down by Stanley Junction and over from our house got dammed up by freezes till the water would rise up three foot high and then flow over little bluffs .of ice. There was only a few places we could cross the stream and take a chance on getting the mule to cross, because of this dammed up ice and icy water. I believe that the temperature stayed at zero and below from the latter part of January up to the middle of February of that year.
That was worked on up ‘til May and then dad and Uncle BILL and FERNANDEZ closed this mine over there down and went to work for R.A. WOOD at the Boneyard Mine. And up there I was transferred to a mule skinner to gather the coal from inside the mine, while JOHN GOODMAN was the mule skinner that took it about a mile around a tramway to get to the old Cornbread Tip House that is still in use.
Now, just before . . . in 1911. I’d succeeded in getting appointed to teach school at the old Foggle’s (?) School. And that was to begin in July, the last of July, 1911. At that time, I lacked about three months of being 17 years old. I faced the school students, that ranged from about 18 years or 19 years old down to about 5 years old, in all 6 grades? Then, the enrollment was between 80 and 100. So, you can imagine what a problem I had. But I managed to teach that school and two years later, the citizens wanted me back, so I do have a little something to brag about.
FRANK JEFFERS, son of RANEY JEFFERS JONES, accidentally was blasted to death in a coal mine in the hill across from Paint Rock Creek and railroad, south from the new schoolhouse. I remember JOE KIDD carrying his limp body to his mother’s home. FRANK had a brother, JAMES, and a sister, JOSIE, and an older sister, ELDORA, who was the wife of W. M. or BILL SMITH. Also about this time, RANEY’s son, JIM, shot and killed a Mr. FORD and a Mr. FOSTER. After being shot down, Mr. FORD was able to kill JIM as he began to run away. The shotgun blast almost removed the back of JAMES JEFFERS’ head. This event happened along the railroad directly across from the creek and railway from JOHN KEETON’S home, above the rock cut. This is a sad year for... RANEY JONES.
Now, sister LATONIA may have been old enough to remember mother’s taking us with her to pay respects when the corpses were laid out waiting their coffins. I do not know which one of the Sons died first. JOSIE had married MORRIS DUNCAN, son of MARION DUNCAN. A year or so later, he and another man left Paint Rock and was never heard from again.
Now, we get to BARRY SIMPSON. He with his Sons HARVE and JESS opened a coal mine about 300 yards west of the JOE KIDD opening and built a big, high tip house. This mine soon played out and was closed. However, in the mine the big, black wild bear hoax was staged. Thus, a yearly calf hide was well stuffed and painted black. A lantern was lighted and placed for light to shine through the removed eyes. The apparition was hung on a stretched length of wire suspended from the roof of the entry and a pull wire was arranged to move the animal back and forth. The operator was placed safely back in the mine so he could manipulate the bear and imitate the bear’s ranging growls.
Bear tracks were made in scattered areas, so that the bear hunters could find the bear tracks leading to the damp earth which had been wetted by carried water leading directly to the mine.
Then, the arranged bear hunt began. Three or four men with their gullible one included in the group. All had rifles except the pigeon man, who had a shotgun. Several other men kept hidden so as to approach when the pigeon man saw the raging bear, got scared, began firing and backing away. When the bear backed away into the dark mine, he began to get bold and brag. The mad bear advanced again; more shots were fired. The bear’s eyes went out, then the crowd got large and hollered, ‘You sure killed that bear!" All the children yelled. By that time, the children had accumulated. And the bear imitator and manipulator came forth with the stuffed calf. Now, the hoax man became very mad and began raising his shotgun say, "I ought to kill you.
Some of the men nearby grabbed him and got the gun. It took a lot of talk and apology and several free drinks of whiskey to calm and pacify him Then, with the help of the whiskey, he began to laugh. And he laughed even to a belly laugh.
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So, it ended the bear hoax in a friendship and good humor.
At that time, in 1902, there were no autos, no radios, no televisions. Fun and distractions and entertainments were homemade, along with whiskey, brandy, beer, cider, applejack, biscuits, cracker and bread, cakes, pies and other goodies too tedious to mention.
This is the last day of January, 1979. and I think I’ll tell about a visit that Grandpa CHRIS SEXTON made to our homeplace on Paint Rock. At the time, I was around five or six years old. My grandpa came walking up through the field with his walking stick — I was playing outside — and I ran down to meet him. Well, he was giving me a look-over, didn’t say anything, just kept right on walking. Come on up to the house, went up on the porch, saw a chair and went on over and sat down in it. Mother came out and they greeted one another with a few words. Mother asked him if he wanted anything to drink, and if he wanted anything to eat.
‘Won’t you come into the house?"
"No, I just want to rest a few minutes."
And she looked kind of funny.
And he said, "I just needed a little walk and I thought I'd walk down here and see how the family was along I’ll be going in a few minutes."
And directly he kind of perked up and said, "How ‘bout taking him with me?"
Mother said, "Alright," as far as she knew.
He said, "Alright, get him ready."
So, she got me ready and he stuck his finger down in a few minutes and come off the porch with him. We walked on until we come to a fence about 100 yards from the house that we had to go through to follow the old wagon road that went up through Paint Rock, where we could get on the railroad and continue walking toward Tunnel Hill.
Now, he hardly said a word and I turned the finger loose and continued to jog along beside him. We got on up through Paint Rock a little ways and we-came to what was called a rock cut, and there the water was gushing out and there was a tin cup sitting by it and he picked up the cup, took a drink of water himself, caught another cut and give me a drink of water and I wondered why he didn’t give me a drink of water first. And the only answer I could figure out was, if it’s good enough for me it ought to be good enough for you. I’ve tested it and it ought to be safe enough for you.
So, we drank the water and he emptied the cup and sat it back and started just a little farther and the section foreman of the railroad maintenance crew was tamping the ties at the upper end of the cut. And, as soon as we got up with them, GEORGE SHARP seemed mighty happy to see grandpa and they talked a minute or so — George did most of the talking —and then he looked over at his crew and he said, "Put your tools on and set it on."
Then he picked me up and set me on (the section car) with the tools. Then he told the men we’d go up to Tunnel Hill, he had a little job that needed to be done up there. And that was about three quarters of a mile, partially upgrade all the way to Tunnel Hill.
So, grandpa and GEORGE SHARP, the foreman, walked back behind and I couldn’t hear what they said. But I was rather amused to get to ride on this section tool car. There was four men and they just pushed you.., and, finally, we arrived at the entrance to the tunnel.
GEORGE came over and put me off, then he said to the men, "Set her off." They picked it up, one at each corner, set if off at the side of the track. Then he said, "Bring your tools and fix this track along here." And while they were doing that, grandpa stuck his finger down to give me the sign that I should go with him.
He took a little path along the right side of the road that went on up the side of the tunnel and up to a ridge road at the top of the tunnel that led westward. So, we followed on up to this ridge road to kind of a haul road, a wagon haul road, and we followed on across the hill, climbing a little higher and higher.
We got all the way to the top just before we turned down a little bit, to come down to the brow from which we could look down on the CHRIS SEXTON farm. He had 109 acres there and partially cleared with some fields in the valley and some fields on some ridges. And he had a pasture and a meadow and fields for corn and fields for hay, and all that I could see down there. But what interested me more was looking down on the barn and seeing all those guinnies and turkeys and geese and pigs and the cows and the calves all running around. Then I looked down a little farther to the right in a hollow to the right of the house and there was a colt and a mare and a mule and another kind of bayish colored animal, horse. And looked toward the house and there was apple trees all along, and a paling fence along the side. And I know today that there was about two acres reserved along that paling fence for his garden area. And then right between the house and the garden was a great big top of a barn.
And over to the left was a big feed shed and another shed. On down was the house, a great big double loghouse, quite long and it had a big long porch along the right hand side. And on the left hand side of the logs an enclosed area that might have been a porch that was now used for a kitchen.
Anyway, grandpa and I went on down this hill and down past the barn and through the gate and on past the well and around into the house. Of course, at that time, there was my grandma, Aunt MARTHA, and WINNIE, and MANDY and Aunt SALLY still at home.
I was kindly restless and wanted to look around. And Aunt WINNIE took me to walk around the house. And they had flowers in little beds all along the front of the house. We walked on around past the smokehouse, looked over at the big cedar tree at the back of the bow of the hill. Under there was a bird with a long tail, the longest tail that I’d ever remembered seeing. And that was, Aunt WINNIE said, the old peacock.
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 3, No. 2 – Winter 1992
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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