Reprints: 1999 – Mr. Burscher’s gift

The year 2000 has gotten a lot of press because of that millennium thing. It’s a big deal, I know, but the past few weeks have caused me to turn the clock back and dwell on the first few years of this century. 1904 to be exact.

As many of you know, I enjoy renovating houses as a hobby. The older the better, not only for the architectural character but the hidden history. While tearing apart walls in some of the older homes, I’ve found all kinds of tidbits about a building’s history and the people that lived in it. Everyday objects like postcards and letters are common. I’ve always hoped to find a forgotten stash of hard-earned money, but, at least for me, the treasure has proved elusive.

The 1890’s house that Dana (Coffield) and I moved to East Elm in Lafayette had my heart pounding for a few seconds, though. I was pulling down the old ceiling one day and a sealed envelope fell to the floor. It was about a quarter-inch thick, as if someone had stashed a pile of bills and forgotten about it. I was pretty excited about striking pay dirt, but instead found scraps of paper torn up to appear as a pile of money. Someone wanted to play a dirty trick, but why?

I discovered a piece of history in the walls of a house I’m renovating on East Oak in Lafayette last week. The home consists of two parts, both built at least 90 years ago. The previous owners, Sam and Cynthia Witt, told me that the west section of the house was a scale house at one of the coal mines and had been moved there and joined to the existing house many years ago. The old assay office is about thirty-feet long and sixteen-feet wide and formed a living room, bathroom and bedroom of the home. I’ve since split the home back in two and had each piece moved off the old foundation so that a newer foundation can be poured.

The foundation sills and rim joists are quite rotted on the old assay office, so the first task while the building is off the ground is pulling the rotted wood and siding off in preparation for new. Dirt and insulation usually pours out when old siding comes off, but in this case I found two rolled-up documents resembling rolled-up blueprints. Each well preserved roll had about five pages of 1904 payroll records from the Mitchell coal mine, which was located on the hill about a mile northeast of the assay building’s present location at 403 E. Oak near Pioneer Elementary. The Mitchell was one of over a hundred coal mines that operated in Lafayette, Louisville, Erie, Marshall and Superior from 1860-1958. Most of the mines closed by the 19405. The Mitchell closed in 1918.

As the records reveal, this assay office-turned-home didn’t come from any old mine, it came from the nearby Mitchell. The handwritten January, 1904 and March, 1904 ledger details the work routine of the Northern Coal and Coke Company’s hundred or so mine employees, from the mine engineers who made about $ 1.25 per hour to the “timber men” who made about 37 cents per hour for positioning timbers to support the tunnels and overlaying rock.

Engineer Joseph Simpson made $42 for two weeks work. Timber man Thomas Davis made $36 for 96 hours of work. Dirt remover Theo Bengough made $7.50 for twenty hours work. There was a blacksmith and several mule drivers, track layers and air machine operators.

Miners were paid by the ton. Each miner averaged about 80 tons (160,000 pounds) of the low-grade coal over an eleven day period during peak heating season. The average pay was about 35 cents per ton. William Scott mined 88 tons in two weeks and made a total of $31.10. Joseph Irwin mined a whopping 105 tons and made $37. Superman Joseph Harrbour mined 117 tons and made $41.10. The payroll records indicate the mine produced 3,000 tons of coal over the two weeks from Jan. 1-15, 1904.

Miners had Sundays off, but many of the timber men, bratticers (men in charge of partitioning mine tunnels so that air flowed from the surface to rooms the miners were working in) and dirt removers worked straight through from the 3rd to the 15th. Working 200 feet underground from before dawn to after dark meant no sunshine for almost two weeks straight.

There are some familiar names on the payroll, mostly of English and Irish descent. Surnames like Simpson, Harrison, Miller, Noble, Wiseman, Hicks, Hurd and Irwin. (Three members of the Hicks family worked at the Mitchell. During the coal miner’s strike four years later, Ben and Monroe Hicks were arrested for defying a judge’s order not to congregate on the streets of downtown Lafayette.)

There are also many long forgotten names, like the part-time clerk named Burscher who penned the accounting document. I’m not sure he was the one who moved the building to Oak Street, but he sure left behind an interesting piece of history.

Leaving pieces of my everyday life in the wall of the old assay office is not something I’ve considered, but maybe it would be best to leave a few pages of Mr. Burscher’s payroll records for the next renovation a hundred years from now. Or maybe I’ll tear up some paper, put it in an envelope and hide it in the floorboards. Nah.

(This column is written by Doug Conarroe and first appeared in the Lafayette News on Oct. 4, 1997. It was later discovered via photographic evidence that the scale house Doug renovated came from the Simpson Mine, not the Mitchell Mine. Information about the 1910 strike from story written by Beth Hutchison in Lafayette History: Treeless Plain to Thriving City.)