Bon Jellico, Kentucky

   The community of Bon Jellico (referred to by residents and on this web site as ‘Bon’) was located on 1500 acres along Briar Creek about two miles west of Williamsburg, Kentucky on Highway 92. Bon Jellico Coal Company started mining coal in 1912 and closed down in 1937. The word ‘Bon’ means good and ‘Jellico’ came from the seam of coal on the mountain. The Bon Jellico coal-mining town was incorporated in 1911 by two men from Knoxville, Tennessee (Arthur Groves and William Everett) and some local investors from Williamsburg. The land and mineral rights were purchased from Mike Richardson and others “from mountain to mountain and beyond that formed Bon Hollow as it is today”.

   Early in 1911, Maynard King, who lived at the old farmhouse on the ‘Gus Fritts farm’ just west of the intersection of Main Street in Williamsburg and Highway 92 West, was brought in as a construction worker. The railroad was built by hand and one-mule scrapers going up Bon Hill (also called ‘Apple Tree Hill’). The Lovitt family, who lived at the base of the hill, had a lot of “close calls come their way as the rail bed was graded and blasted out of the cut. A blast killed one milk cow and barely missed Mr. Lovitt who was standing in the yard. They would yell, “Fire in the Hole” and the kids would run and hide.” The railroad from the L&N (Louisville and Nashville) line from Savoy, Ky. was completed in 1911, and W.T. Smith from Kensee, Tennessee built the houses.

   During the 25 years that the mines at Bon Jellico operated, some 350 different men and their families worked at Bon and lived either in the camp or near-by. The little mining town on Briar Creek affected some 3,000 lives.

   A powerhouse, making electricity for the mines (but not for the houses, school, or store) was built in 1912-1914 and operated by Mr. Ova West. Before the powerhouse was in operation, the company used small mules to pull the little one-ton mine cars out of the mines. To keep the mules from going blind in and out of the mines, a blindfold covered one eye as he entered the dark mine, and they changed it over to the other eye as he came out into the sun light. Canaries were kept in the mines to detect presents of toxic gas. A tipple (tip house) was built and operated by Mr. W. A. Green and Mr. Alex Nunley. This is where coal was weighed and graded into Blue Gem Coal and into three grades: block, egg, and steam. An incline up the mountain 490 feet long was built to let the six one ton loaded mine cars down and the six empty cars up. A drum house was built with a large drum for the large rope used on the cars. Mr. Melton G. Lovitt worked in this area of the mining process for most of the Bon Jellico mine operation. The mines had its own blacksmith shop where repairs were made. A Mr. Brown, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Bunch worked at the shop.

   During normal times about 125 men worked at Bon. Usually, the number of 40-ton/50-ton-railroad-cars loaded was 6 to 10 cars (500 tons) per day. During World War I up to about 175 men worked at one time. During the war the mines operated ten-fourteen hours per day and loaded as many as 17 railroad cars each day. In 25 years only 11 men lost their lives in the Bon Jellico coalmine; that is one man for each 300,000 tons of coal mined. “That’s too many but a lot better than many mines in the area.” Some of the men who lost their lives in the mines at Bon were Andy Walker, Frank Kilby, Sam Smith, Leonard Smith, Fuller Peace, Jim Huddleston, Bill Cornelius, Sherd Stanaford, and Brad Patrick.

   Each man who loaded coal into the little cars in the mines had a number to match his name. To make sure the men at the weigh station and the tipple knew who loaded that particular car, he would hang his number on a nail on the inside left hand corner of the car. Mining the Jellico seam of coal at Bon Jellico was not without its problems. The seam of coal was only from 24 to 40 inches thick; so miners were always standing on their knees or sitting to load the coal in the small cars. Most of the work was done with pick and shovel, “but the Bon coal loaders were tough and ready to work.”

   Money was scarce. An average day’s pay for eight hours was $2.50 - $3.60. Bon paid employees only on the 15th of each month. If you ran short of cash, you could sign a paper slip and get some cash on the 30th day of the month.

   There were 75 houses in the camp. The camp was divided into three areas (#1, #2, and #3 or the Colored Camp). Rent for the small houses was $4.00 per month, and for the larger ones rent was $6.00 per month. The houses were located along the creek and along the hillsides with little wagon roads and paths running along by the houses. There was no electricity. There was no plumbing; so they used the little two-hole house, complete with a Sears & Roebuck Catalog, at the end of the path. There was a well with a pump located about every 6 or 8 houses, and water was a problem in freezing weather. A fireplace fitted with an 18 or 20-inch grate heated the houses. A fireplace was located in every room except the kitchens, which were heated with the cook-stoves.

   In 1912 a company store, called a commissary, was built. The company began to use their own money, called scrip. That simply meant that you were set up with a charge account in the office. The metal scrip, good only in the company store, was charged to your account and collected before you received your paycheck. Groceries were cheap: coffee $.15 per pound, soft drinks $.05 each, postage stamps $.03, all can foods $.10 and $.15, $.15 per gallon for gasoline, $.15 for 2 pounds of sugar and $.10 for a pound of pinto beans. The first storage manager was Mr. Charlie Owen and the first office manager/bookkeeper was Mr. Forman. Another bookkeeper was Mr. John Copeland; he later moved to Turley, TN. and was bookkeeper at the mines there. The other storage managers (commissary managers) were Ernest Freeman, George Tye, Earl Lovitt, and Mrs. Celia Thomas. The store manager was also the postmaster. You could mail a first class letter for three cents; postcards were one cent. The postmaster’s pay was determined by the number of letters that were mailed—about ½ cent per letter. (Local elections with the associated political mailings were true political patronage.)

   A Horse and wagon driven by Mr. Jim Pemberton made deliveries to Bon Jellico residents of coal and groceries.

   There was another grocery store near-by, which was owned and operated by Mr. L.B. (Bird) Stanaford. The Stanaford store was cash or credit and did not accept Bon scrip.

   There was a two-room school in 1912–1926 and a three-room school built in 1927. The school was the “heart of the community” and also served as the church. In 1912–1913 there were about 160 students. So each teacher had his hands full. There were no school buses, and after the 8th grade you had to walk two miles to high school in Williamsburg. Rain or snow didn’t bother the students, and there were no paved roads. Many never missed a day of school. Mud-covered shoes were left at Mr. Joe Lawson’s store, located on North 11th Street in Williamsburg, for a cleaner pair. Cumberland College, a two-year Southern Baptist affiliated college specializing in teacher education during the time of Bon Jellico, was located in Williamsburg; many children and grandchildren of Bon Jellico miners graduated from Cumberland College. Cumberland College was renamed “University of the Cumberlands” in the early 2000’s.

   The coal-mining town of Bon Jellico was an asset to Williamsburg and Whitley County. “Yes, Bon Jellico was a peaceful beautiful little mining town with the best people in the world. We went to school together. We know each other.”

This information was largely taken from interviews with Earl Lovitt by Williamsburg Grade School project, circa 1984.

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