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‘The Last Miner’ recalls dangers of working mercury mines in Clark County

By Wendy Ledbetter
For the Arkadelphian

Some 50 people gathered at the Clark County Historical Association’s November meeting to learn a little about the local cinnabar veins and hear the memories of Jack Daniels, possibly the only remaining miner to work the local mines. Daniels, 96, recounted his experiences in the mines, including some near-misses and dangerous situations, fielding questions from CCHA President Bob Thompson and other guests.

“I thought, ‘This is gonna be easy.’ … I’ll never forget how happy I was when lunch came.”

— Jack Daniels, ‘The Last Miner’

Thompson and CCHA Secretary Charlotte Jeffers opened the event with a brief overview of cinnabar and the process of extracting it. Cinnabar is a mineral form of mercury. The local vein is called the Mississippi Formation and stretches 22 miles from western Clark County into Pike County. In some places, the vein is a mile wide. According to Thompson, the mill at the now-abandoned town of Graysonia was experiencing a slowdown and some of those labors moved over the the cinnabar mines.

Daniels, in attendance with his wife Roxie and two sons, Damon and Tim Daniels, demonstrated an incredible ability to recall details and a sense of humor.

Pictured are 96-year-old Jack Daniels, sitting, CCHA president Bob Thompson, and Daniels’ sons Damon and Tim. Photo by Wendy Ledbetter/For the Arkadelphian

He began by talking about his early life, including the difficulties of growing up during the Depression era. He lived with his grandparents until he was 14, when he decided he could no longer stay on the farm and moved to Amity with his sister. He worked at a sawmill until he was 16, when he landed a job at the Pate Mine, shoveling rocks. He was paired with a short man who was shoveling rocks. Daniels’ job was to keep up with that man’s pace.

“I thought this is gonna be easy,” Daniels recalled. “About 10 o’clock, I’d give out and he’s still the same. I’ll never forget how happy I was when lunch came.”

Daniels recited the process, including details of the process to move the rocks from the mine to the furnace where it was processed. He earned $2.82 a day. The majority of that money he spent on cars and gas.

Lavern Holder, at left, talks with those in attendance.

When cinnabar rocks go through a distillation process, the result is mercury. Thompson said the process is actually fairly simple but the problem is handling it safely. Daniels told about encountering pure mercury dripping down the walls of the tunnels.

Asked if there were safety protocols in place, he said “We didn’t even have a first-aid kit. Back in the ‘40s, coming out of the Depression, nobody worried about anything but buying a car and making a living.”

Jack Daniels talks with CCHA president Bob Thompson.

Daniels described the process of drilling holes and setting charges, the repercussions that could be felt far outside the mines, and the dangers that were a common part of the daily work. But he also remembered the lighter side of his experiences. When a co-worker was struck in the face by a pipe, Daniels was chosen to drive him to the hospital.

“They had me take him to town because I was the fastest driver,” he said.

During the race toward Arkadelphia, the man told Daniels to slow down because he’d rather lose his eye than to have a wreck.

Daniels knew of some men who gathered the cinnabar on their own, “bootlegging” the process to produce mercury. Though the finished product was incredibly valuable and it was possible to do the distilling without a commercial furnace, it was difficult to sell. In modern times, people also realize how dangerous this is.

Daniels cited several near-misses he experienced, including a short fall and a collapse. Those experiences convinced him he should do something else after only a couple of years working the mines. He said that is probably the only explanation for his long life when most of the men who worked in the mines succumbed to the health issues associated with mercury poisoning.

According to Daniels, the local mines shut down partly because it was cheaper to mine in other countries, partly because military contracts came to an end, and partly because of the dangers associated with mining. He talked about other jobs he held after leaving the mines, including playing music, working in ship yards and oil fields, delivering pies and working for asphalt companies.

“I’m a country boy and country at heart,” he said. “If you’re from the city, I apologize.”

Thompson cited the purpose of the CCHA – to preserve and share local history – and thanked Daniels for helping with that goal.

The CCHA will hold their next meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7, at the First Methodist Church in Arkadelphia. The meeting will include finger food and fun, according to organizers, and everyone is invited.

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