Brothers endured harsh mining conditions

From our March 2012 issue

By Edith (Dolly) (Milne) McEwen – Lloydminster, Alta.

Three of my brothers worked underground at a mine at Pinto, just south of Bienfait, Sask., during the 1930s.

Pinto, which no longer exists, had a small store and post office, and if I remember correctly, a railway station. These little mines diminished after the strip mining took over.

I remember the carbide lights the men wore on their mining caps, as they would get them ready to light up in the kitchen at home. They were very smelly and I wondered how they could wear them underground with no fresh air.

They dug the coal out with pick and shovel and loaded it onto a small railcar which was pulled to the top entrance by a mule and loaded into boxcars from there.

My brother, Bill, told how he had made a pet out of one mules by giving it tidbits from his lunchbox.

Whistled for mule

When some of the miners wanted the mule to pull their car out, Bill would tell it to go and hide. Then when he got his car loaded, he’d whistle and the mule would be there to take his load out.

They got paid by the cars they loaded so the other miners wouldn’t be losing their turn.

It was a dirty job. There was nothing harder to wash than the clothes they wore and brought home for me to wash in an old hand warmer washing machine. I also scrubbed them on the washboard but they still didn’t look clean.

They roomed and boarded in a large boarding house which had a kitchen and a long dining room on the ground floor and one big long room above where they slept. There were no showers or bath facilities.

They all slept in this one long room. Some of the men never bathed or changed clothes all winter, so the smell in the room was quite stinky.

The food was poor, cakes were soggy, and they were fed as cheaply as possible. Living and working conditions were very poor. My brothers would like to get home on Sundays for mom’s good dinners, bringing friends along.

Compelled to shop at company store

Men with families were housed in miners’ camps with small shacks. They were compelled to buy at local stores where they were charged higher prices for everything.

They weren’t allowed to shop in Bienfait or Estevan where they could buy cheaper, or send away to Eaton’s for clothes. If they did send out for clothes, they had to pay the store the money they saved by getting it elsewhere.

It was reminiscent of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song: “St. Peter don’t call me I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

The mining conditions are what prompted Tommy Douglas to run for parliament, claiming no one should have to work under those conditions.

He really cleaned them up. The facilities had to have separate rooms and showers, and the men had freedom to buy from where they chose.

We lived about 15 miles from these mines. My brother, who stayed at home, would leave at about 5:00 each morning with team and sleigh and go for a load of coal, getting home at 6 p.m. after a cold hard day.

It would take a couple of trips to get our winter supply of coal. Families from Manitoba would haul coal from those mines as well.

One evening, three or four farmers stopped in to see if they could put their horses in for the night. They had a large box of food, so mom helped warm up their supper. They slept on the kitchen floor and were up long before daybreak.

I had the opportunity to tour underground and was glad I didn’t have to work there.

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