Huerfano County, Colorado
Oral Interviews

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John Tompkins

Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Dick Chenault
Date of Interview - 6-29-1979
Interviewed by - Rosalyn McCain

John Tompkins
Date of birth - 6-29-1904
Ethnic group - German
Family origin - Kentucky
Date of family arrival in County - 1920
Location of first family settlement - Toltec

JT: I was working in Walsenburg, and I worked from there, went around to the Black Hill. I got to the Black Hill Mine. I worked the Black Hill Mine, and then I worked at Big Four. Then I worked at Old Turner. I worked at Little Turner. Then I worked at Maitland, worked at Maitland Mine. Then I worked at all those others, worked at Barber and Alamo. And then I came up here and worked at Ojo. I worked at Ojo for quite a while, and then I went to Oakview. I went over there in 1927, I think, and I worked there, that last part of 1927. I mined coal there. So I worked all around. I did all around mining. I mined coal in pretty near every mine from Walsenburg up to, around and back up to Ojo.

RM: They would find coal in one place, and you would work that for awhile. Then they'd close down, and you'd work another one.

JT: It never worked out. Just a big vein, the coal. Some of it was seven foot, and some of it was 18 inches. I've worked it where it was 18 inches at Tioga. I worked down there one time and had a place of coal. You was supposed to have it on contract, $7.21 a ton. And, they had an old mule in there, an old burro. They was pulling the cars out with that, up and down. I was working in the top vein, and they'd work the bottom vein out from underneath us. We got in there. They were using a punching machine, and had a board set up on a clamp. We put this puncher on there. They had what they called the clog block, you put on your foot and you pushed that behind that machine. It had two wheels on it. It would hit the coal. It would go backwards and forwards and bumping that coal and knocking it down. We finally cut in there one day, and we just about lost the machine, the punching machine. It went down in there. The bottom was all cut out. We had a panic then. That coal in there, just like little knolls. It caved down, you know, there, and the coal was just laying there in little chinks, pieces and big chinks. All you had to do was break it up and load it on. And they shut the mine down. Well, we went to Black Hill then, started running the Black Hill Mine, we opened it up. We opened the Black Hill Mine up and ran it for, I don't know how long. Black, Black Hill ??ttle Company called it. So I've worked at a lot of mines, about twenty—some odd mines.

RM: When did you start mining? What year?

JT: 1920 and 1940 is when I quit. That was the end to it. 1 started having this trouble in my lungs. My other brother, they one next to me, he died with it. They tell me that's what it does, it just closed in around your lungs, that's the black coal dust, and it cuts your air off. So I guess that's it.

RM: Were you born in this county?

JT: No, I wasn't born here. I was born back east in Virginia. I came here in 1920, to Toltec down there, and started mining coal.

RM: Did your brother come with you at that time?

JT: Yes, and my mother and my Dad and brothers. My oldest brother, he died of a heart attack or something or other, and this other one, the one next to me, got Black Lung and died. So there is a lot of Black Lung business, I guess. That's kind of hard.

RM: When did they start the Black Lung benefits?

JT: Well, I don't know. It came up when this president went in there, this one in there. They took it in to him about this Black Lung, and it started coming out in the paper that these men had to have pay for this Black Lung. Now there is a lot of them trying to get it.

RM: Do they all have as hard a time getting it as you have had?

JT: You have to have so many years in before you can get it.

RM: How many years do you have to have in?

JT: I had twenty—one odd years. I began back in 1920 and quit in 1940.

RM: How old were you when you started mining then?

JT: I was eighteen.

RM: You were just a kid when you started, then weren't you?

JT: Yeah. I mined coal with my Dad. And we worked for Littleton Coal. And I worked in the mine where they had black dampness, where they had air so bad that the carbide lamp wouldn't burn. That's the truth. You'd go in and start to go down that slope, and ”sptt” your lamp would just go out. Yeah, it would snuff right out. That's funny. Now, you wouldn't believe it……There she is now

RM: Here she is coming. (Ethel Tompkins enters) Was there a lot of accidents when you were mining?

JT: No, not too many, but there were a lot of them, though. Ethel, do you know who this is? This is, this is Steve's sister.

ET: Well, I should. Sure.

JT: Where you been?

ET: Over calling on our new neighbors. How is Steve, and what do you hear from him?

JT: She came here for some history, to hear something about the Black Lung. She and I were working on it. So you can sit down and tell her about the Black Lung and all the trouble we have had getting it.

ET: Well, history. Hmm. Zane Grey put out a book. It was loaned to me before I went to the hospital to read while I was in the hospital. And it had really got a lot of our local history. It has ....a lot of it took place at Las Animas and Purgatory River and the Spanish Peaks. Now, I could get the book for you, but right now it is loaned out. And I could get it, and there would be a lot of history there. And let me think.

RM: Did you live in the mining camps, Ethel?

ET: No, that was before my time here. So I am no help to you at all except that I can refer you to.

RM: I was just asking John when the Black Lung Benefits came in and how you went about getting them and the different troubles you encountered.

ET: 0rdinarilly, I don't think you would encounter as much trouble as we did.

JT: It was just seven years.

RM: Seven years ago?

JT: Seven years of getting it.

ET: You see, when the mines closed down around here, all the papers and everything was stored in a warehouse in Walsenburg, and it burned. So there went all the records. And as he said, we worked seven years trying to get it. Then you always run into these people that are a little bit, you know, “I know more than you do.” And all of this. And I went into the Social Security Office to get a certain paper, and he told me there wasn't such a thing. A little fellow, you know. And so he commenced giving all these papers out. And I said, “What's that?” And he said, “Well, these are forms for you to fill out.” And I said, “We filled those out seven years ago.” And he said, “If you filled them out seven years ago, you can fill them out again.” And I said, “No, we can't. There's no way possible because half of those people are dead now.” So then I went back and called his (John's) daughter-in-law, and she gave me the number of the paper that I needed, and so I got it. I said, I wished I had been a man for a few minutes. I would have tossed him out on his rear.

RM: Then John said, you had to go to court with a lawyer from Trinidad to get the benefits in the end.

ET: Yea, and they pulled a judge in here from Washington, D.C. Well, what does he know about mining in this area? You don't mine the same way in all areas. I just saw on TV the other night where they were using pumps made by Westinghouse, and they were pumping out, oh, I forgot how many gallons of water out of this mine. And the water then was being refined and, used. But they had to get this water all out in order to be able to mine the coal. Now not all mines are like that. And that's the reason that the coal miners, in my opinion, and everybody has been hit so hard. The government has put out rules and regulations that will apply to this mine over here, but this one 20 miles away is a lot different, and the same rules won't apply to it. And it is the same way with people living or a family living. Why, you tell us that we can have so much money to buy a certain amount of groceries and to buy a certain thing. Well, that may be all right for us, but it wouldn't be all right for you. I think that is where they have made their biggest mistake.

JT: I was telling her how many times I sent the money to Mr. Collins, and he'd send it back.

ET: We had quite a little time over that.

RM: I imagine Mr. Collins appreciated the fact that you were honest about it. Everybody got it straightened out in the end. It is a good thing, isn't it?

JT: The day that we went over to court, my daughter and I went in to the restroom, and I guess the restroom was for both men and women. But evidently some of the men who didn't get anything of this Black Lung deal, their forms that they filled out, and everything, was thrown in the waste paper basket, and I said to Sue Ann, “Well, they shouldn't have thrown those away because the laws may change.” And several of them was in Walsenburg, and one or two in La Veta. I came very near picking them up and mailing them back to them and telling them to hang onto them, and now I see by the paper that it changed.

JT: They've spent a half a million dollars on me, the government and welfare, to keep me living. Now they have to give me money to keep me living.

ET: This is one letter on the money deal.

RM: So was it 1978 that you finally got your benefits?

ET: They began March of 1976, “The month in which you filed your claim. The details of your monthly benefits are described in the enclosed award.” This is the one that tells about him getting it.

RM: So it was October 1977 that you finally got the money and received the form that you had been Okayed. I know you worked a long time before you finally got it to come through. That was really something.

ET: And I don't think that if he hadn't been operated on that we would have ever gotten it.

RM: It was those two doctors that definitely said that you had the Black Lung, wasn't it? :

ET: Well, the cancer that they removed was full of coal dust, so there was no way that they could disregard it. We might of, I don't know. But it would have been harder.

RM: It is a real shame that all the records were lost. I'm sure that made it so much harder for everyone.

ET: Let's see. Two days in a row I called people, and then to went to sign these papers. Then John went one morning by himself and got two more signatures he lacked. Now I don't know of anybody. Is there anybody left that could sign? Who?

JT: There's still Johnny and Joey Klickum.

ET: But that's all that's left.

JT: No, there's one more down there in Walsenburg, down there on 7th Street.

ET: Is he still living?

JT: Yeah, Bill Proud, a name was Proud. And then there's Merritt, Mrs. Merritt. She used to be the superintendent's wife at the mine when I worked at Toltec. I suppose she's dead by now. She used to teach school there at Pictou. My brother used to go to school with her.

ET: But you can see what we've gone through in order to get it. Look at the papers.

RM: Papers and papers and more papers, isn't it? I was telling John every time I see Steve, he says, “Well, how are the Tompkins, and did John get his benefits?” And I keep saying, “I never get to La Veta. I've been so busy; I haven't been over there at all.

ET: Do you have a big garden?

RM: Yes.

ET: Good. Is it doing good?

RM: It started off slow, but it is doing real good now. I see yours out here is doing good. John didn't answer my first knock, so I went back to see if you were out in the garden, so I took a look at your garden. It looks like it's doing real good. And how are you feeling?

ET: I'm doing better. I'm not quite so short—winded, and I breathe a little better. I don't have any pep. .... Now, you are more than welcome to read any of these papers, take a look at them, if you think it will help you any. A lot of them are the same thing over and over. And I'll tell you, and I just as soon not anybody else that the CF&I, if you know of anybody that is going to apply for Black Lung, leave them out of it. They fight it the whole way. I wrote to them and had a form come back, when did John work there and all of this, and in the meantime somebody told me that, so I never did send that one in. Right here, let's see if I have one here.

RM: When did you have your operation, John?

ET: Three years ago in February. Now here's all those signatures that we got.

JT: You wouldn't believe it hardly if I hadn't told you about all those doctors and so many of them dying and me still living.

ET: These are all signatures.

RM: So these are the signatures of the people from the mines saying that was when he had worked there.

ET: It sure was a lot of fun to run down that many people, make an appointment with them.

RM: That is really something. What a lot of work. And then to have people buck you on it to boot. Isn't that something?

ET: Yes, that's right.

JT: And unless you keep right after it, to have them fight you to keep you from getting any money. They don't like you to get nothing.

ET: Have you been to the library?

RM: I haven't been there too recently to this one.

ET: Well, Judy Welch in there is real good, and if you told her what you were doing.

JT: That book you had about Ludlow.

ET: Off hand I don't remember what the name of that was. But it had the Ludlow incident in it.

RM: One was called “Up From the Depths.” Bashoar was the author, Baron Bashoar. I'm reading that one right now.

ET: That's the one that is where I read it. How come me to read that book? I read an article about the author in a magazine or some paper. And that's how come I read it. And that's where I found it.

RM: His Dad was Union doctor during the strikes and everything. Even though he wasn't a miner at the time, he was well informed. He was also a doctor.

ET: Dr. Phipps is another one that is all for this Black Lung and will push it to the limit.

RM: It sure seams that the people that have Black Lung should have some help getting those benefits. It shouldn't he so hard.

ET: No, and according to those little articles, I think maybe it's going to get easier.

RM: That's good.

JT: I did tell you about that there money business that they paid out on me. And you should see what they are doing yet. I go to the doctors and down to the drugstore, and boy, really they dig you then. Sixty some dollars.

ET: Our medicine Wednesday was $60.00, and so was our groceries. They come to the same price.

JT: We got that much groceries, and then we went down there. I said, “Just a minute, I don't know if I have enough money to pay you or not?”

RM: That's a lot.

JT: We still owe the doctor for the prescription he wrote out. I don't know what he gets on a prescription, about three or four dollars a piece, I guess. Maybe more. They say, “Do you belong to Senior Citizens?” I say, “Oh, yes, I belong to the citizens.” And they are supposed, to check off so much, 10% off for Senior Citizens, “but I, don't believe they check off anything.”

ET: Oh, yes they do.

JT: Maybe they are crooks and just have that for an excuse. I get mad at them.

RM: So what did you do when you stopped mining? What did you turn to in 1940?

JT: I cut some trees and was dragging them out of the mountain. I never did stop. I never stopped. I just kept going as long as I could go. Till I ended up in the hospital. I never did give up at all.

RM: So after twenty years mining, you started having a lot of trouble breathing? That was when you just had to stop?

JT: I went through death on earth.

ET: Sure would like to see Steve.

RM: He always asks about you. But he just doesn't get down much.

JT: I don't think I would be here if I hadn't trusted in the Lord when I was on that operating table. I told the head nurse that at St. Mary Corwin Hospital there in Pueblo, and she said, “I believe every word of it.” They took me in there, and they kept giving me shots, giving me shots, and they wouldn't work. And I told her, “You know, I'm having a conference with my Lord. That's the reason your shots didn't work.” She said, “I believe every bit of it.” She said, “You're the hardest man I ever seen in my life to knock out.”

ET: I don't believe anybody in the world, had any be better care than he did out there. I don't believe he ever blinked an eye or wiggled a toe that there wasn't two or three nurses right there. And that's the reason he came out of it.

JT: And after I was in so much misery from that operation. I couldn't rest at all, just so much misery I just, every time one of the nurses came in there, I'd say, “Give me a shot.” They'd give me a shot and put me to sleep again. They let me sleep, I don't know how long there.

ET: So much of the time they make you get up and walk. But they'd get him up and just let him stand by the side of the bed and then put him back to bed. He was like that a long tine before they ever let him take a step.

JT: They never could fool me. They'd move my bed in there. I know that thing they had down the hail.

ET: One of the Granddaughters went to Sunday School. John was it the hospital at the time, so I was home. So I went by the church and picked her up, and then we were all going on to Pueblo. And she came out with this mobile owl made out of paint with great big white eyes with scripture verses and everything on it, and I said to her, “Honey, what are you going to do with that?” “I'm going to take this to Grandpa.” And I was afraid they wouldn't let him have it, but I didn't tell her that. She gets so excited; she's just like a bird. She just kind of hops up and down and works her shoulders. She gets so excited over anything. So, we took it up there. The whole family was there in the lobby that Sunday. My youngest daughter took him upstairs, and took the owl and got some tape and taped it on the wall. So when they took him out of that room and took him into surgery, why of course, they put him on the surgical floor. He knew he was in a different room. His bed was turned a different way, but he saw that owl every time he would rouse up a little bit. He'd sea that owl, so he knew he wasn't lost. He had quite a time. I don't know right now who to tell you to go to other than the library for anything on this Black Lung.

JT: There's still a lot of them trying to get that Black Lung. I had a Mexican come up here for me. He had that Morrell Mine up there for a little while trying to get the coal out, him and his boy, and he came to me and wanted to know if I'd help him to got on the Black Lung. I said, “You don't need that Black Lung. You got a pretty good pension anyway.” The government had all those Indians pensioned off. “You are on the welfare down there, and you just tell then you are entitled to your pension, and you get it. As far as me signing for you on the Black Lung, you didn't have enough time in to get Black Lung. You have, to have so many days, so many years. They won't let you on it.

RM: Well, I'll take these papers and xerox them and bring it back to you.

ET: You don't have to because we don't need it.

RM: How long did they use mules in the mines?

JT: They used them all the time I was mining. I used to drive a mule at Turner. Pulled my own coal. I'd go down and get a bunch of it, and load them and take them back out. I had an old burro down at Toltec. They had an inclined place where you set up. We were going up there. There were two cars on there. I'd get him to going pretty fast. I'd beat him with a stick. He'd, get up there on that incline, and they would pull him backwards. He didn't want to back up. One mule don't want to back up. Don't ever try to back up a burro. You can bring him up and turn him around, but don't try to back him up. You can't do it.

ET: Julian Tracey has operated a store here for years and years and years, and he knew all of these miners. He told me one time that John's Dad said that John could mine more coal than anyone he ever knew in a day. You might talk to him for local references. You'll find him a very nice person to talk with. He was in a position to know everybody. I' don't know about Howard and Pearl Moore. God knows they have been here long enough. And both of them are older than we are. And they used to deliver milk and eggs and that kind of thing to Ojo and Oakview and all of those places up in there.

JT: We had an old burro down there, a big old black burro. That's the one I drove in the mine one time. One night I was coming out, just walking along behind. I kind of hit my head. I was tired, and I was walking out behind this old burro. I had to come out the manway. I was walking along there behind this old burro with my head down. I had a carbide lamp. All of a sudden, something went like that and jammed back against my light, put my light out. There I was in the dark. I tried and tried, but that old carbide lamp wouldn't light. I just sat down. The old burro just stopped, too, when the light went out. He could see his shadow in the light in the water. They had a little water hole. They thought something had happened to me. They waited and waited and waited. Then my Dad came back looking for me. He came down the manway looking for me. Before he got down there, the old burro turned around and headed back toward ma. When seen the light he turned around and headed back for home. Then I hollered at my Father. “I ain't got no light.” He said, “We waited and waited and waited on you, and I came back and got you.” The old burro kicked that light out. When I got out, I got another lamp. They worked in there first, in 1884. You lay on your stomach and shovel coal this way.

ET: Then they wonder why they have Black Lung. Inhaling all that dust and dirt.

JT: You'd sling the coal back into the crack, you see. Then you'd have to, before you loaded it, get it back close to the crack. You'd have to get it to the crackway, which was three or four feet high. You had to get your trench up close enough where you could load your coal. It's quite a history. If I had to live my life over digging, coal, I don't know, I think I'd stall. I'd find something else to do.

ET: Well, there's men going in every day.

JT: I used to farm when I first came to Colorado. Back in the east we had farmed. We sold it, and then my Dad borrowed money on it.

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