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Coal Miners Reunion celebrates a legacy and a way of life

  • Curator of the Coal Creek Miners Museum in Rocky Top Lisa Pebley shows a piece a jewelry made from coal from the Briceville coal mines. - Ken Leinart

  • The trio of Larry Richardson, Eddie White and Larry Byrge were part of the entertainment at the Coal Creek Miners Reunion last Saturday. - Ken Leinart

  • Three generations of a miner’s family: Margaret Fritts, Alison Todd and Kippy Fritts Todd. - Ken Leinart

They came together to celebrate, to pay homage, to share.

The Coal Creek Miners Museum’s Coal Miners Reunion Saturday was a time to reflect on a way of life.

It’s hard to pass on the heart of coal miners, to put into words the bonds that miners share, the experiences that only families of coal miners have in common, because coal mining is not just a profession.

It’s a way of life.

Take, for example, Margaret Fritts. She and her daughter and granddaughter were at the Coal Creek Miners Museum in Rocky Top Saturday morning. They are “three generations” of a coal mining family. It is part of their identity, part of who they are and how they describe themselves.

Margaret Fritts’ father, Lewis Emery Kesterson, was mine inspector in Briceville. And though Kesterson died in mid-1950s, the family is forever linked, through him, to the mines, and to coal mining.

And there is a hidden beauty in coal that only someone who is linked to mining can find.

Lisa Pebley, who is the curator of the Coal Creek Miners Museum, has found that beauty hidden in coal.

She makes jewelry, ornaments, and figurines out of the coal that comes from Briceville.

“It’s our coal,” she said. “And we’re proud of it.”

It is at such events as the coal miners reunion that organizations reach out to miners to tell them about programs to help them — because mining is dangerous and some of the danger is accumulative, such as black lung.

The Tennessee Black Lung Program was at Saturday’s reunion offering help, offering a resource to those who are, or will be, afflicted by a sickness only coal miners will face.

The program is located in LaFollette and anyone who wants to reach out to the program for help in filing claims may do so free of charge. The pprogram staff will mail an information packet and application and explain how the program works.

Look for its Facebook page at TN Black Lung Program.

There is also a shared history, a shared sadness, that pervades this gathering. The Fraterville Mining Disaster, the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster — two of the deadliest events in the history of coal mining.

The Fraterville Mine disaster happened May 19, 1902. The Coal Creek Miners Reunion was also used as a remembrance of that event.

Official records say 216 miners died as a result of the explosion, from either its initial blast or from the aftereffects, making it one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history.

The Cross Mountain Mine disaster happened December 9, 1911.

In spite of a well-organized rescue effort led by the newly created Bureau of Mines, 84 miners died in the disaster.