About John Mitchell in Spring Valley
In Mitchell 5 L to R is Andrew Carnegie, William Jennings Bryan, J.J. Hill (railroad president) and Mitchell.
Our City of Spring Valley was the home of the most distinguished man to call Spring Valley home, John Mitchell.
Mitchell was the fifth president of the United Mine Workers of America. No Man who has come out of the coal mines of this country has won such a place in the hearts of his fellow workers.
Digging coal in Spring Valley, Mitchell learned the precepts of honest and broad unionism from his fellow miners. In the early days of the unions, a union meeting was always concluded with, “God Bless You John Mitchell.” He was a quiet mannered, unassuming man, known nationally, but in his home town he was “Jack Mitchell.”
Born in Braidwood, IL in 1870, the son of Robert Mitchell, a worker in the mines, John was a breaker boy at the age of 12. He said of himself, “I have no recollection of a care-free childhood in which play, laughter, and pranks had their place. His mother died when John was three years old and his father was brought home dead from the mines when John was only six.
John was left in his stepmother’s care, who was an honest, just Scotch lady, but a rigid disciplinarian. Her motto was, “Tell the truth and shame the devil.”
The poverty and hardships that followed had an impelling influence on John’s life. His mother had to take in washing and John had to help her. He couldn’t go to school and as he helped hang out the wash on Saturdays, the boys stopped on their way to the swimming hole to make fun of him.
During the cold winter nights, he spread a heavy soldier’s overcoat over his little half brother and him to keep them warm. His father had served in the Civil War and when he was discharged, he brought home with him his soldier clothes. John said, “When we were snug and warm beneath that coat, I felt proud that my father had been an American soldier. “
Through all all the years, I felt that same pride in the memory of my father and the love of my country. This, with a good name, was our sole heritage from him.
Then along came a stepfather and soon afterwards, John, who was not allowed to go to school, and too young for the mines, left home. He was only ten years old when he set out into the big unknown world to seek his fortune. He got a job on a farm for $1 a week and his board, and in a short time he was doing the work of a regular farm laborer.
At the age of twelve he went into the mines in Braidwood and attended night school.
In 1886, he came to Spring Valley, two years after the first mine shaft was opened by the Spring Valley Coal Co. He was already a man of experience.
Soon after arriving here, he boarded a freight train for the mines in Colorado. There he lived with the family of Dan McLaughlin, a dedicated union man. Dan had much to teach John and it was from him that John learned what undying energy some bring to the hopes and work of their lives.
Returning to Spring Valley in 1888, he was only 19 when he went through the troubled times of the miners’ lockout of 1889. He marched with the striking miners in 1891. Coming home from a meeting in Chicago after the Convention of 1898, he was hailed as, “The father of the eight-hour day.”
In 1891 he left for the coal mines of New Mexico, only to return to Spring Valley the next year. He called Spring Valley his home until after he had given up the Presidency of the United Mine Workers of America in 1908. In 1892 he married Catherine O’Rourke, a motherless miner’s daughter. They had five children, three boys and two girls. The home now occupied by Lillian McNamara (in 1976) at 210 East Dakota St. is still known as the Mitchell home.
At the age of 20, John Mitchell was made a master workman of the Knights of Labor. Before he was 30 he was elected President of the United Mine Workers. He built the membership from 43,000 to 300,000 and not only won the love and gratitude of his men but also a place for himself among many important leaders. From his work in the inferno of the coal strike of 1902 in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, he made a friendship that bound him and Theodore Roosevelt together.
Mitchell, a coal miner’s son, came into a place of the esteem of Roosevelt that few men have surpassed. If he had consented, the Democratic Party would have made him their candidate for Governor of Illinois and he was mentioned as a nominee for Vice-President on the 1904 Democratic ticket.
He gave up the Presidency in 1908 and moved his family from Spring Valley to New York where he became a member of the New York Industrial Commission. He died in September of 1919, only 49 years old. He had belonged to the Spring Valley Local #8617 all through the years and Joseph Casassa of Spring Valley, then treasurer of the Local paid death benefits to Mrs. Mitchell.
Mitchell was accused of amassing money illegally, but no evidence has ever been found proving Mitchell had ill-gotten gains. The miners loved and remembered him by erecting a statue in his honor in Scranton, PA, on which is the motto “Champion of Labor, Defender of Human Rights.”
In 1961, on the 75th birthday of Spring Valley, a bust of John Mitchell was dedicated and placed in City Hall. The late Judge C.N. Hollerich of Spring Valley said, I feel that this memorial will prove to us, especially to the young people who are growing up in a different era, a lasting reminder that nothing is impossible if there is sufficient determination and a fighting spirit which refuses to accept diversity.”
*Information taken from an article written by the late Spring Valley Historian, Bernice Sweeney, printed in the June 29, 1976 Bicentennial Edition of the Spring Valley Gazette.