If we sang it once, we sang it a thousand times. “Sixteen Tons” was No. 1 on the Lowell Elementary School hit parade, holding the record as the most requested song in fourth-grade music class.
To be perfectly candid, I hadn’t thought much about the old miner and his doleful lament until just recently. We were having dinner with friends when the subject of the “company store” came up. I knew I’d heard that phrase somewhere. In a flash, I was back in class belting out that old familiar chorus:
“You haul sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go — I owe my soul to the company store.”
What was this company store and, more importantly, why did this guy owe his soul to it? Must be serious if his debt could forestall his death. As I’ve always said, if you need an answer, find a teacher.
Welcome Richard Joyce, history teacher at Wilmington High School in Wilmington, Illinois, from whom I learned:
Soon after the discovery of extensive coal fields in the 1860s, large corporations bought huge tracts of land, mines were sunk and “boom towns” exploded in size as miners flocked from eastern states and Europe. Life was horribly difficult for the miners and their families. The underground work was dangerous, dirty and damp. Miners picked and shoveled the coal for 10 hours a day, breathed stale, dusty air, and many developed the ailment “Black Lung.”
The most common complaint of the miners, however, concerned their pay and the total control that the companies had over their financial well-being.
Most mining towns were “company towns.” The coal company owned the land. They built, rented or sold the houses to their workers. If the miners quit work or went on strike, the company could evict them from their homes. They often forced workers to buy at “company stores” where credit was more readily available, but the prices were much higher.
Companies sometimes paid in “scrip,” which was taken in trade only at the company store. At times, men who refused to buy from the company store were dismissed.
Well, that certainly explains things. It’s not only a song; it’s a history lesson. Makes me thankful to be living in 2023 and not 1898. I mean, really, can you even imagine living under such intolerable and unfair economic conditions?
How could a company hope to stay in business these days if it was encouraging — dare I say, enabling — its customers to purchase goods and services beyond their means?
Gone are the days when a person would become depressed because a company had a grip on his or her future income. We can only imagine what that would feel like — to owe your soul to a company, or a store.
No, siree. These days, stores care about their customers more than their bottom line. They would never charge usurious interest rates or outlandish fees, or even think of offering credit to the point that a customer could ever become overextended.
You know, it’s good to take time for reflection now and then, to make sure we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. After all, we sure wouldn’t want to repeat them! Oh, we’ve come a long way, baby!
Or have we?