The Spirit Remains

The Way We Worked Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition is currently on display at the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin. Located in southeast Kansas, Miners Hall Museum features the stories of the Kansans who made their living in and around the mining industry.

In preparation for The Way We Worked, Miners Hall Museum hosted a “Telling Your Story” essay contest. This is the winning entry from Linda O’Nelio Knoll. Knoll is an educator, author, and historian who also presents “The March of the Amazon Army” for KHC’s Speakers Bureau

The Spirit Remains by Linda O’Nelio Knoll

Cutting a path nearly half a mile wide, the twister, believed to be the worst tornado in Crawford County history, touched down on Sunday, May 4th, 2003, and ravaged its way across the county, tearing through the streets of Franklin, Kansas, leaving destruction and death in its path.

Franklin, much like other southeast Kansas camp towns, was established in the early 1900s as immigrants from Europe made their way across the ocean and settled in mining camps that dotted the prairie. These were the boomtown years, when coal was king and there was plenty of work for able young men. My grandparents, John and Frances Paulin, were among those early inhabitants of the mining camp that would become the town of Franklin.

John Paulin, born in Austria in 1888, left his family at the age of seventeen and traveled to America. He would never see his family again. He arrived in Pittsburg by train and, after a night at the Europa Hotel, made his way north to a spirited mining camp called Franklin, paid a weeks rent at a company owned boarding house, and went to work as a coal miner. He would mine coal in the area for forty years, spending his entire life, until his death in 1975, a proud resident of Franklin.

My grandmother, Frances Femac, arrived in America in 1914 with her mother and siblings, at the age of 14. Her father had arrived in 1908 to work the mines. It took him six years to save enough money to bring his wife and five children over from Ljubljana, Slovenia. The family was soon traumatized by tragedy as they lost their father, and, soon thereafter, the oldest brother, Johnnie, was killed in a mine cave-in. Just nineteen years old, he died the first day he reported to work. Frances’s mother took in boarders, mostly single miners, to “make ends meet.” One of those miners was my grandfather, John, who met, and later married, my grandmother after renting a room at the boarding house known to serve “the best meals in the county.”

Rather than lament the hard times, grandma Frances, who would live eighty-five years as a resident of Franklin, remembered those difficult years as a collective adventure. And, like the quilt pieces she sewed together, she stitched her personal stories to the dynamic patterns of strikes and marches that accompanied the political and social history being made around her during those often-volatile years. “Without struggle there can be no progress,” she told me. “You must keep going.” It was a statement that spoke to the spirit of generations of coal mining families who lived daily under the threat of death, poverty, and discrimination.

Following the 2003 tornado, the voices of my grandparents, and thousands like them, echoed through the community. Its residents, though stunned, pulled together, and, through hard work, commitment, and vision, turned the devastation into a quest, a collective adventure. Franklin was rebuilt and reborn. The spirit remains.