Growing up on the farm, we had a few traditions—mostly imported. New Years was a family holiday. Kith ‘n kin visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Years, however, was just Mom, Dad, me and later Grandma.
The farm was located in the middle of coal country in southern Illinois. The population was mostly Scots/Irish/English who brought mining skills learned in the coal mines of England and Wales. During the Union/Mine Owner wars of the early 20th century, many East Europeans were brought in as strike breakers. After the strikes were resolved, the East Europeans—Poles, Hungarians and various Russians, became good union members and added their traditions to those of their predecessors. However, their new traditions were mostly religious holidays than of New Years.
One tradition that became almost universal was the tradition of the gift of coal. The tradition was that the home would have good luck if the first person to cross the threshold in the new year was a dark Englishman, Welshman, Scot, Irish (add other nationality here) wishing everyone within Happy New Year and bringing a gift of a bucket of coal to warm the hearth. My Dad fit that job description and since I was the next oldest (only) male in the house, I assisted with the tradition.
Come New Years Eve around 11PM, earlier in some locales, the men of the house would leave with a bucket of coal, their shotgun, and, for those who imbibed, a bottle or mason jar of holiday cheer. In town, they would usually head for the closest bar or other gathering place and wait for the mine whistle to blow the arrival of midnight.
At the farm, we had three close neighbors; John Davis, our neighbor just across the road from the farm, Sy Malone, a friend of Dad’s who had a small farm a quarter-mile to our west, and Ken Shoemaker who lived a couple of hundred yards to the east. All were coal miners or had been. Ken Shoemaker was also a bus driver for the High School. John Davis’ place was the most central of us and he had a heated barn for his heifers. That was our gathering place.
Ken and Sy usually arrived early bringing some ‘shine that Sy made in the woods in back of his house. John would join next. By the time Dad and I arrived, they were sitting around a kerosene heater and usually well lubricated. The men talked and drank. Dad sipped tea from a thermos he had brought. I listened. I heard quite a bit of gossip, bragging and stories while waiting in that barn.
Remembering those times, I’m amazed that with all the drinking that occurred, there was never a firearm accident. I think folks were more used to guns in those times. Many were WW2 veterans such as Ken and Sy Malone. John Davis supplemented his mine income by trapping pelts and as an occasional commercial meat hunter. Dad was a long-time hunter as well. They were experienced folks who acquired gun-handling habits that just weren’t broken even when one has consumed large amounts of alcohol.
In coal country, the time standard was the mine whistle. The whistle blew at shift change each day, at noon, and on New Years Eve, at midnight. The closest mine to the farm was about five miles away. That mine, Orient #2, was on the north edge of West Frankfort. Dad, John and Sy worked there. Ken worked occasionally at Orient #3.
When midnight neared, everyone loaded their shotguns—usually with #6 or #7 1/2 shot, and went outside to listen for the whistle. At the stroke of midnight, delayed only by distance, we heard the mine whistles; Orient #2 to the south, followed by Old Ben #9 to the south-east. Another whistle arrived from the west, followed slightly late by Orient #3 from the north. The men raised their shotguns and in turn fired three times into the air. Nine shots in all.
As the sound of their shots faded away, I could hear the patter of falling shot and the echoes of other shotguns rolling in from surrounding points. In the far distance, I could hear the Sheriff let loose with his Thompson sub-machine gun…a weapon confiscated from Charlie Birger decades before. Charlie Birger was tried for murder and hanged—the last public hanging in Illinois.
As the gunfire died away, each man picked up his bucket of coal, his shotgun and began the trek home to be the first dark-headed man to cross the home’s threshold. In lieu of hair, John Davis wore a dark hat.
It was a short walk for Dad and me, just across the road and up the drive. Dad walked up to our front door and knocked. Mom would answer and Dad would exclaim, “Happy New Year!” and we’d go inside to the warmth. Mom would have coffee or more tea for Dad, a glass of milk for me and either cake, sweet rolls or home-made doughnuts depending on what she and Grandma had made that day.
New Years was a family celebration, but New Years Eve was one for males. A celebration in the cold or in a warm barn. A gathering of men, boys, talk, drink and memories. The communal celebration of the coming year.