Bill, Benny, and The Shooting Man
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During the 1950’s and 1960’s there were many independent truck mines throughout the Southeast.
If a man knew mining as well as good business practices, he could earn a decent living working the coal seams known as Red Ash, Widow
Kennedy, Jawbone, and Big Banner. Mountaintops produced the Big Banner seam. Below that was the Widow Kennedy seam. Next was the Red
Ash seam which was the largest producer of coal at that time. Below that was the Jawbone seam which was a lesser grade of coal. Larger
coal corporations favored the seams of coal deep beneath the earth which required the process of ‘shaft’ mining. A small mine owner
used every means to get his product to market and this required using family members who were strong enough to do a decent days work.
Bill and Benny grew up in Buchanan County Virginia known as the southwestern region. Black
gold, better known as coal, was plentiful, and still is, sometimes protruding out of the ground at grotesque angles. Ancient upheavals
in the earth produced these sculptures as the earth was forming itself into what we see today.
Cleve, father to Bill and Benny, was a mine owner. He had owned several mines around the county and, for some reason he always wanted
Edd Shortt, known as the ‘shooting man’ to be in charge of the men as well as planting the dynamite to pull the pillars of coal. Cleve
knew Edd to be a very honest man, always as good as his word. Edd always gave him an honest day’s work and was able to produce the
coal needed to fill the large tipple. Edd also made sure that the other workers did their jobs and that these men were always treated
When summer came, and Bill and Benny were not in school, Cleve allowed them to
work around the outside of the mine. Their job was to keep coal droppings cleaned up, make sure the men had fresh water when they
came out of the dark mine, and also kept the slate pushed over into the adjoining hollow. Slate is the rock encasing the coal on the
top and bottom of the mine. They also had to answer to Edd as well as did all the other men. Cleve was not always around to make sure
things ran smoothly, as he had other things to do, so the lot of making sure the boys did not hurt themselves or sleep too much on
the job, fell to Edd.
Edd had a way of working with men that most mine bosses did not possess.
He had no formal education, as such, but had learned mining from the ‘ground up’. He taught by example. He would not ask any man to
do a job that he was not willing to do himself. Bill and Benny benefitted from Edd’s example, both spiritually and physically. Edd
was the father of ten children and had learned a thing or two about raising boys. He kept Bill and Benny very busy while working with
Before coal can be pulled with dynamite, there is a process involved. First, holes
are bored deep into the pillars at angles with a drill and large augers. This was before the days of modern machinery for pulling
the pillars. Secondly, sticks of dynamite were tamped into the holes with the fuses continuing to play out to the face of the coal.
Dummy bags, filled with plain dirt, were then tamped into the holes to prevent the dynamite from backfiring to the face thereby wasting
the charge. Preparation, done properly, produced a clean pulling of the coal with the least amount of damage to the overhead capping
of slate rock. Edd kept Bill and Benny busy most of the hot, sultry Virginia afternoons filling the dummy bags with dirt from the
surrounding hillsides, as well as their other duties.
What coal loaders hate most
is to enter into the face of a mine and have to move slate all morning before the coal can be loaded into the one-ton mining cars.
It is difficult enough to have to lie down to load coal in one of these ‘drift mines’! When slate falls with the coal, which sometimes
happens because the strata was loose to begin with, then the mine owner as well as the loaders lose time and money. Edd had a reputation,
among the miners of Buchanan County, for producing the most coal with the least amount of slate, thus the title ‘shooting man’.
Bill and Benny worked these mine jobs from early teenage years all the way through high school and even after entering college they
would sometimes return to help out at the mine during summer breaks. These two boys were very involved in sports in high school as
well as college. Benny would have become a very fine professional quarterback had he not hurt his knee playing for the New England
Their father, Cleve, earned a good living as a mine owner as well as running
a small country store. He taught Bill and Benny the ethics of working hard at whatever one chooses to do. Their mother, Cutie, was
also instrumental in teaching them, as she helped to run the business, staying involved in their sporting events, and remaining a
wonderful mother all her life.
These two boys went on to become perfect examples of Americans
who through hard work and perseverance are able to pursue the American Dream. Both are retired now from being public servants and
I am sure that each would like to remember the man who was a wonderful example of how to handle men, how to shoot coal, and how to
stick with a job until it was finished. We could all benefit from that kind of teaching.