Network of Labor history sites grows
By CARL GREEN
Waggoner, IL – You’re trying to get home from Springfield, or maybe from Chicago. It’s just an hour or so to St. Louis, but someone in the car needs a stop.
Good news – the state’s Coalfield Rest Area on southbound lanes of I-55 near the town of Waggoner in Montgomery County, at mile marker 65, is still open.
But now it’s more than just a rest stop. It’s a Labor Movement history lesson, part of the budding Mother Jones Trail across the nation.
As you get out of the car, you’ll see a four-by-four-foot monument erected in front of the building, entitled “The Coalfields of Illinois.”
It explains how coal made Illinois an economic force by the 1880s and how mining companies brought workers from overseas to take low-paying, dangerous mining jobs, leading to a great union organizing movement and the rise of the United Mine Workers.
Finally, it introduces Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the Irish immigrant who became the movement’s leading organizer and who battled for workers’ rights and justice across America. The plaque has a photo of Mother Jones at work and another of some of “her boys.”
AND MORE INSIDE
Inside the rest stop, on the wall between the public information area and the maintenance room, is a life-size, colorful picture of Mother Jones plus more information about her long and incredible life of loss and triumph, plus a great photo of miners literally standing their ground, accompanied by memories of Illinois child miners who became union leaders.
This quote from Mother Jones is featured: “I took to organizing in the coal fields. When asked, Mother Jones, where do you live? I say, wherever the workers are fighting the robbers, there am I. We have broken the chains of chattel slavery. Now industrial slavery is the battle you are in.”
The displays give a hint of the great American story that is Mother Jones, and they are intended to make viewers curious about the rest of the story, which they can find using links listed on the wall. They can also pick up the trail a few miles to the south in Mt. Olive, site of her burial monument and the new Mother Jones Museum.
The rest stop project has been years in the making, and it wasn’t quite complete even at its dedication event on Monday, Dec. 11, attended by about 40 people include Brian O’Brien, Ireland’s ambassador to the Midwestern United States. The inside work was done, but members of Laborers Local 1084 of Hillsboro were waiting for their chance to complete installation of the plaque, which was on a temporary stand.
MORE TO COME
The larger project will go on for years. First will be raising about $6,000 to install complementary historical materials at the northbound Coalfield Rest Area, just across the highway.
Organizers then hope to create Labor Movement history lessons at locations across the state, such as near Centralia, site of the mine explosion that claimed 111 lives in 1947 – and not far from a rest stop on I-57.
“We need markers telling Illinois’ Labor history throughout the state,” said Mike Matejka, a longtime Laborers’ leader and vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society. “Every town and city has a unique story. Just like we have our Lincoln Heritage Trail, we need to have a Labor trail throughout this state.
“I just think of all these people who go cruising down this highway, thinking there’s nothing here but cornfields. When they stop here, there are going to learn about a story of human effort that needs to be remembered.”
Northern Illinois University Historian Rosemary Feurer, who led the effort to create the historic site at the rest stop, said it should reach people who otherwise pay little attention to their own history.
“This is the history of the immigrant working class that built this state and made it what Mother Jones called the best-organized Labor state in the country,” she said. “The Labor Movement has never been legitimate in the eyes of the powerful, so bringing this history forward in a public space is just amazing, and the attention it gives to this legendary figure is so important.”
CHILD LABOR ISSUES
Feurer said it was intentional that part of the project focuses on child labor issues.
“That’s a message in this day and age – hearing the voices of immigrant children who became labor leaders,” she said. “To start with, here we have memories of Mt. Olive, Illinois, child miners. They came from nothing, and they used their own collective organization to become something.”
Sponsoring institutions listed on the marker include the Mother Jones Museum, the Illinois Labor History Society, the Illinois State Historical Society, Northern Illinois University and the Mother Jones Heritage Project.
Feurer also cited the efforts of the Mother Jones Foundation, which holds the annual Mother Jones Dinner in Springfield, IL; the Union Miners Cemetery Perpetual Care Association, which has restored and maintains the monument and cemetery and helped to develop the museum at Mt. Olive City Hall; and the Cork (Ireland) Mother Jones Committee, which holds a large festival each year in the town where Mother Jones was born and which has already lauded the rest stop project on its own website.
To visit the rest stop from the St. Louis area, go north on I-55 to the Farmersville exit and then return south five miles to the rest stop. To contribute to the Mother Jones Museum or the northbound I-55 rest stop project, go online to the donations page at motherjonesmuseum.org.