SPRINGHILL – A lot can be learned about a community by witnessing how how it remembers its past.
It’s been more than fifty years since the coalmines closed and this community began the healing process that comes following disaster, and mending wasn’t exclusive to mining families. It was truly a community effort, as observers of Miners Memorial Day – or Davis Day – in Springhill recalled.
“Even though my father wasn’t a miner, we were affected by mining as much as anyone else,” Barbara Moore said inside the St. Andrew’s-Wesely United Church during Davis Day services in Springhill.
Family connections tied many to the mined. Moore’s uncles were miners. One would be the first to get out of the mine following the 1956 explosion, the other was the last body recovered. Friendships, too, made connections to the mines. Following the explosion, Moore’s home became the centre for a much needed service as the rescue efforts started getting underway – sandwiches.
“One memory I cherish is that of everyone gathering at my home and making an assembly line of sandwiches for volunteers and that lasted as long as my dad could find bread.”
Mining was a culture in Springhill and if by some strange twist of circumstances you could actually find someone who had absolutely no family or friends in the mine, they were still part of that mining culture. Nicknames for neighbourhoods, likes Rowsers and Hillers, was part of the everyday talk; the company whistle for shift changes at the mines was heard throughout the community; homes were usually painted a dull brown because of the coal soot in the air. And a tremor underfoot would bring everyone in town out to the mine head.
“Being a citizen of Springhill in those coal mining days, it didn’t matter if your family worked in the mines or not,” Moore said. “We were all affected by those disasters.”
One of those disasters didn’t even happen in Springhill, but it has connected coal mining communities ever since.
In 1925, William “Bill” Davis was a coal miner in New Waterford. Empire Steel and Coal owned the mines and they owned the stores. They also had control over the town’s water and electricity, so when the miners of the day went on strike the company was in a position to make life miserable for everyone.
“Bill Davis had seven children,” Rev. Wayne McCarther said. “When his wife sent him for milk, he couldn’t go to the store because the company closed it during the strike.”
Instead, Davis went to a neighbour where they milked a cow, Davis paid for the service and, putting the bottle of milk in his jacket pocket, headed home.
“On his way home, an officer working for the company, fell off his horse,” McCarther said. “Bill went to help but someone though he was going to harm the officer and shot Bill Davis.”
The found the bottle of milk still intact inside his jacket pocket. Davis was dead and another single-mother joined the world.
That was just one of 300 shots the company’s police force shot that day when they were set on the striking miners. In the fallout, the company stores were looted and vandalized and the military was eventually called in to return order. It was the second-largest military deployment ever for an internal conflict, second to the Northwest Rebellion lead by Lois Riel.
Since then Miner’s Memorial Day – or Davis Day – has been observed on the anniversary of Davis’ death.
Mining in Cumberland County and Nova Scotia wasn’t just limited to Springhill, Sydney or New Glasgow. It could be found in River Hebert, Joggins, Chignecto, Strathcona, Glace Bay, Moose River… all over, really. And with mining comes tragedy, death and change. Mining communities learned to grieve and learned to heal. Single mothers were strong and friendship filled voids where fathers once stood.
Change, Moore said, comes with time itself and when remembering the lives of miners on Davis Day we not only remember their lives and deaths, we remember something about mining communities that connect them to one another that others might not understand.
“We have survived. We have adjusted.”