Recollections of a Coal Miner’s Grandson

One of Ken Penhale’s earliest memories, around age two, was spending time with his grandfather, Charlie ‘Papa’ Hinds, in his workshop eating vanilla wafers. He also recalls later treks through the nearby woods with brothers, Sonny and John, picking huckleberries and gathering up pine knots for kindling.

Charles Hinds worked in a series of local area mines—first in Imogene, then at Coalmont, then at Superior—located where present-day Helena’s Old Cahaba subdivision is.

Life in a mining community was rugged even then and certainly by today’s standards. Many of the miners were transient workers, many single, and thus lived in boarding houses near the mine sites. Convict labor was also common. Recently, historian Penhale received memoirs written in 1958 by Sarah Iola Mitchell Eisley, who was born in Helena in 1872 to the John Mitchell family, then farming 156 acres near Falliston.

Prior to this, Mitchell had been Warden for two years at the coalmine penitentiary, and his daughter recalled: “The prisoners all liked him, and told him when he left that they would break out. Every Sunday morn he would take a big bucket of nice food to the sick men. It didn’t make any difference whether they were white or black. Sometimes he would put a pillow on the pommel of the saddle and take me with him, and, oh, how the prisoners would make over me.”

Charles Hinds, later to be incorporated Helena’s first mayor in 1917, earned responsible positions of foreman and fire boss at Superior, and met his future wife, Eula Mae, most likely at the boardinghouse run by her mother. They were married in 1906 and soon had daughter Mary Lou, and son, George. Charles and Eula, by 1912 moved from Falliston into a cabin (later the workshop Penhale remembers) at the end of what is now Tuscaloosa Road while building a new and larger home. This still-standing house boasted the first indoor plumbing in Helena.

Children of working communities may have had limited forms of entertainment, but they did not apparently lack for a sense of humor, as revealed in this 1941 photograph of Boso Rogers and Jyon Corbett in the yard of the Brown Lumber Company. Corbett’s father, Howard, owned the Company Store and Boso was likely the delivery boy there.

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