By CARL GREEN
Mt. Olive, IL – A couple of union guys, Jim Alderson and Don Stewart, are leading an effort to make much-needed renovations and repairs to one of the labor movement’s most historic sites, the Mother Jones Monument in Mt. Olive.
The great labor leader herself requested that she be buried in Union Miners Cemetery in the small, southwestern Illinois town, and the monument was dedicated on Oct. 11, 1936.
Alderson estimates that it’s been more than 20 years since the last major fix-up project occurred. “It needs a lot,” he said. “It’s been neglected for many years. We’re really just getting started.”
Stewart is president of United Mine Workers Local 1613, which represents miners in Macoupin County, and Alderson is a retired member of Teamsters Local 916 in Springfield, IL.
“I’ve just been interested in that monument for many years,” he said.
With Stewart and Alderson added to the cemetery board, they have already managed to pour a new sidewalk around the monument and install some lights. Now, after months of planning, they have a three-point plan with a $38,000 price tag that would include:
• Cleaning and sealing the bronze plaques.
• Cleaning and caulking the stone monument.
• Renovating the entrance.
They are now looking for financial support from unions and union members. Checks, noting Mother Jones Memorial Fund, can be made out and sent to Macoupin County Community Foundation, P.O. Box 45, Carlinville, IL 62626.
“We’re hopeful,” Alderson said. “We’ve been wanting to do something on this for over a year. Anything will be a help.”
They’ve just taken one big step – securing a pledge of support from the AFL-CIO. And if enough money comes in, more improvements will be made, Alderson said.
Young Mary Harris immigrated to America from Ireland with her family to escape a famine, then worked as a dressmaker and married unionist George Jones, an iron molder.
In 1867, yellow fever killed George and their four children, and Mary returned to dressmaking until the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Then she began traveling the country in support of working people and unions struggling to win a foothold.
By 1897, she had earned the title “Mother Jones” and went to Pittsburgh to help the Mine Workers in an important strike. She continued organizing for the union in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado and elsewhere, often facing banishment and reprisals from civic and business leaders.
She testified in Congress and across the country, giving evidence about a National Guard massacre of 20 striking miners and family members in Colorado, and speaking out on behalf of children forced into industrial work. She is believed to have been 100 years old when she died in Maryland in 1930, one of the nation’s greatest and most effective labor leaders.
The Union Miners Cemetery was founded in 1899 as a result of what’s known as “The Virden Riot,” in which four miners from Mt. Olive were among those killed. On Oct. 10, 1898, a train carrying 180 strikebreakers came through Macoupin County, trying to reach a fortified stockade in the town of Virden.
A group of local miners tried to stop the train but came under fire from mine guards on the train. In the ensuing shootout, seven miners and five guards were killed, while 40 other miners and four other guards were wounded.
Four of the dead miners were from Mt. Olive, and they were buried in the town cemetery until its owner objected to ceremonies the miners were holding. The adjacent Lutheran cemetery was also closed to the miners because of anti-union sentiment, so the union bought a small site nearby and created its own cemetery for them.
That is where Mother Jones chose to be buried. It remains a functioning cemetery with sufficient room for future burials.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” noted Jack Dyer, president of the Mother Jones Foundation in Springfield, a member of Laborer Local 477 and formerly an AFL-CIO Community Services liaison. “She could have been buried anywhere in the country, but she chose to come here. It’s a good story – it really is.”
PLANS FOR DINNER
The Foundation holds its annual dinner in Springfield to honor Mother Jones, followed by a ceremony at the cemetery. This year, the banquet is from 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Public Affairs Center of University of Illinois Springfield, featuring labor activist and author Bill Fletcher Jr. and songwriter David Rovics.
Both men will also attend the ceremony, beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 27 at the monument. To get there, take Interstate 55 north from the metro-east area and exit to the east at Illinois Route 138. The cemetery is on the north side of town; watch for the state directional signs.
In fact, improving an old billboard directing people to the cemetery is yet another one of the projects on Jim Alderson’s list – just as soon as the farmer who owns the ground can get his beans cut.
For more information about the Mother Jones Foundation dinner call 217-789-6495 or 217-691-4185.