‘O how I wish to be with you’

Artifacts from Fratersville mine disaster will be donated to museum

A precious, heart-wrenching family heirloom will be available for public viewing after Sept. 8.

“Dear Ellen, I leave you in bad condition but set your trust on the Lord to help you raise my little children. Little Elbert said he trusted in the Lord and said for you all to meet him in Heaven."

"We are all praying for air to suport [sic] us but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. Burry [sic] me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. It is now half past one,” wrote Jacob Vowell, to his family moments before his death on May 19, 1902, from the Fraterville mine explosion.

A reproduction of Jacob Vowell’s last words to his family are on display at the Museum of East Tennessee History. Friday, Sept. 8, original artifacts from the mine disaster will be donated.

“The Fraterville Mine Explosion exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History contains an image of Jacob Vowell’s farewell letter ... It’s a wonderful exhibit, but it contains no original artifacts from the explosion. That’s all about to change,” Coal Creek Watershed’s Carol Moore said.

The explosion at the Fraterville mine was one of deadliest mining disasters in the state’s history. Some 180 or more miners in Coal Creek lost their lives. Vowell, and about 20 other miners, wrote farewell letters to their families as they lay on the cool, damp ground, dying, surrounded by total darkness ... Knowing that had but a few short time to live.

The “luckier” ones did not die alone, but with fellow miners to comfort them.

Vowell’s letter is a particularly wrenching one that describes how he longed to be with his wife Ellen and their children during his final moments on earth.

“O how I wish to be with you. Good bye all of you,” Vowell wrote longingly to his wife.

“Ellen, I want you to live right and come to Heaven. Raise the children the best you can.”

In addition to instructing Ellen to “take care of the children the best you can” and to “live right” so they would be reunited in the world to come, Vowell also made note of what items of value family members could use that belonged to the soon-to-be deceased miners, and where they could find their deceased loved ones’ valuables.

“Powell Harmon’s watch is in Andy Woods’ hands,” he told family and friends, informing them where they could find the watch. The fact that Vowell included in his farewell letter the mention of Harmon’s watch points to how valuable the item was viewed by Harmon and his friends and family — enough to instruct family members where to find it.

What Vowell’s letter and those of the other miners did was reassure family and friends that the miners — though their lives were cut short by a tragic mining accident — had all died “a good death” by accepting their fates and expressing their belief in God and in their own salvation.

Some also expressed hopes that their loved ones would also find salvation so that they would be reunited with them in the hereafter when their times came.

It was a way to console their friends and families and leave them without a dreaded sense of uncertainty that an unexpected death sometimes brought.

Americans in the early 1900s still clung to Victorian era notions about how one’s life should end.

The Coal Creek miners were no different, according to the accounts they left behind detailing their last thoughts.

The idea still prevalent at this time was the notion of “the good death,” which was the belief that when one’s time came to die, one should be willingly ready to give up one’s soul to God, and that one should die at home on the deathbed surrounded by the comfort of family and friends because the belief was that family members needed to be present to witness the death in order to determine the state of the dying person’s soul.

The prevailing belief was that the last moments of life would shed light on the dying’s spiritual condition. At deathbed vigils, kinfolk observed dying relatives to discern what their chances were for reuniting in the afterlife.

Last words, then, were highly significant.

In their farewell letters, the miners used their pens instead of their traditional deathbeds at home to relate to their families and friends that they had been conscious of their fates, had accepted their fates, and were prepared to meet God.

These farewell letters illustrate how much the miners and their families in Coal Creek shared many of the same values and beliefs about the meaning of death and life that the majority of Americans held in the early 1900s, and more importantly, what the miners viewed as the most important things in life: God and family.

Missing from the exhibit are original artifacts from the explosion, but, according to Coal Creek Watershed Foundation representatives Barry Thacker and Moore, that is changing, thanks from the recent decision from some of the miners’ descendants to donate items to the museum to be included in the Fraterville exhibit.

Barbara Titus, the great-granddaughter of Powell Harmon, has agreed to donate Harmon’s watch—the same one mentioned in Vowell’s letter that was in the possession of fellow miner Andy Woods—to the museum for safekeeping, while sisters Louise Nelson and Marie Morts will be donating their great-grandfather David Dezern’s oil lamp.

Dezern perished with his four brothers and two brothers-in-law in the explosion but family members were able to recover his oil lamp that was found on him at the site of the explosion.

Briceville Elementary School students, many of them descendents of the Fraterville miners, and the general public are invited to attend a dedication ceremony at the Museum of East Tennessee History located on 601 South Gay Street in Knoxville on Friday, Sept. 8, at 10 a.m, a press release from the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation announced on Aug. 25.

“Artifacts from Powell Harmon and David Dezern will be invaluable additions to the Fraterville Mine Explosion exhibit. We hope it inspires other descendants to add to the collection by donating personal artifacts of Fraterville miners,” wrote Carol Moore, Coal Creek Watershed Foundation representative, in the press release.

Barry Thacker, founder of CCWF, stated in an email earlier this week that Harmon’s watch and Dezern’s cap lamp “are priceless donations because they have stories and personalities associated with them” much like other historical artifacts of similar value.

According to Thacker, the exhibit currently consists of only a photo of Vowell’s farewell letter, a photo of Vowell with his family, and a reproduction of his field book containing his farewell letter.

“The mining exhibit contains no actual artifacts from the explosion, which is why the donation of Powell Harmon’s watch and David Dezern’s cap lamp are important—they are priceless just like Davy Crockett’s rifle at the museum. Even more compelling than the artifacts are the stories behind them and their journeys to the museum,” Thacker said.

At the dedication ceremony on Friday, Sept. 8, the public will be able to hear some of those stories behind the artifacts and learn how they ended up at the museum.

Thacker related that the mining exhibit has been at the museum for several years as a key part of East Tennessee history.

He said donations from Dezern’s and Harmon’s descendants came about after CCWF hosted a memorial service in 2002 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Fraterville Mine explosion. In 2004, Thacker said Knoxville Actor’s Co-op wrote and performed an original play called “Measured in Labor,” based on the lives of the Dezern family following the explosion.

“Louise [Dezern] told us then that someday she and her sister Marie Morts wanted to donate their grandmother’s cap lamp to the Museum of East Tennessee History,” Thacker said.

Titus, who previously worked with CCWF on getting a historical marker at Briceville Library for the “Legacy of Condy Harmon,” told Thacker recently that she wanted to donate Harmon’s watch and farewell letter to the museum. Both Thacker and Moore say they hope the donation ceremony will encourage other descendants to come forward and make donations to the museum.