Book excerpt: 'Friends of the coal industry'

December 21, 2012 

Excerpted from Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill. Published in 1963 by Little, Brown & Co. Republished in 2001 by the Jesse Stuart ­Foundation. Used with permission of the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Editor's note: In Chapter 10, Caudill tells how coal operators manipulated elections to ­support politicians who were chiefly ­sympathetic to their profit margins.

At election time the coal companies sometimes sponsored mammoth parties at which beef carcasses were barbecued and dispensed with barrels of beer among the voters. Candidates favored by the companies were brought into the camps and introduced by company "big shots" at gatherings of miners. At the political "speakin's" which followed, spokesmen for the operators were careful to point out that the continued prosperity of the new towns depended upon the election of Republican officials. By such cozenage and intimidation the companies managed to elect to the United States House of Representatives lawyers who had represented them in title suits and who were known to be safely conservative. They sent to the state legislature nonentities who advocated little or nothing for the improvement of the region and whose sole purpose was to serve as apologists for the coal interests, expounding the thesis that the ­operators had brought a bright new day to the mountains and that the state government ought to leave the industry and all its ­activities strictly alone.

But the interest of the coal companies in politics was not directed primarily to the election of congressmen or state legislators. Their first and most important interest lay in the election of county judges, sheriffs and tax commissioners, because in the control of these offices the companies were to find the power to police their camps and to limit taxation of their property to rates approved as reasonable by their general managers. Under the archaic Kentucky Constitution immense power is vested in a swarm of county officials, each of whom is elected for a four-year term. They possess the power to assess and tax property, and the coal barons were determined to keep both ­assessments and tax rates low.

The first goal to be sought was the election of friendly ­politicians as tax commissioners. The ­commissioner or "assessor" was (and still is) charged with the duty of listing all the property a given taxpayer owns and setting upon it an evaluation which represents, in the commissioner's opinion, its fair market value.

If a taxpayer had reason to believe that the assessment of his property was unjustly high, he could appeal to the county board of tax supervisors for a downward adjustment. This board consisted of three "reputable" taxpayers appointed by the county judge. Hence it was absolutely essential to the coal companies that they secure the offices of tax commissioner and county judge for trusted friends if they were to minimize their property taxes.

At informal meetings of company executives, candidates for these offices were chosen. Usually they were indigenous mountaineers who had worked as surveyors, store clerks or bookkeepers for the companies. They were men whom the operators had sized up as being safe, docile and absolutely­ ­unradical, and who could be trusted to heed the advice of the Big Bosses. Local men enjoyed the advantage of being related by blood to many mountaineers and by marriage to others. We have seen that it was not a difficult matter for the coal companies to manipulate the votes of their armies of employees. In addition to their gentler tactics, which have already been mentioned, the operators sometimes informed their workmen that, if people hostile to the companies were elected to these important offices, taxes would rise to such high levels that the companies would be compelled to suspend operation, thus idling their numerous employees and causing a first-rate crisis. While to enlightened minds such pretenses were absurd, they were generally accepted by the credulous miners — who dutifully turned out to vote for "friends of the coal industry."

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