Games of the Coal Camp Children

NOTE: The Utah State Historical Society originally published “Games of the Coal Camp Children,” written by Marianne Fraser, in Beehive History 7 (1981): 8-12. When a version of the essay was first published on History To Go, the Society incorrectly attributed Miriam B. Murphy as the author. We regret this error and apologize to Ms. Fraser for it.

Marianne Fraser
History Blazer, November 1995

Games played an important part in coal camp life in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the families of Utah coal miners were poor. Their children had few “store-bought” games or toys. But the rugged mountains surrounding the coal camps of Carbon County offered ideal hiding places for run-sheep-run and an excellent setting for top-secret adventures. For some, movies and radios were rare. And television, well, that was an invention of the future. This lack may sound terrible to today’s children, but those who grew up in the camps remember many adventures and humorous situations that rival today’s factory-made games or computer activities.

Through imagination, the children made the best of what they had. Evelyn Jones Patterick remembered playing house, a favorite pastime of girls: “My first doll was a beer bottle…. My mother said that was my doll so I wrapped it up. It worked just fine.” When they played house on a smaller scale, furniture was needed: “We made [doll house] furniture out of clay in Hiawatha. We’d make little couches and chairs and set ’em out [in the sun] and let ’em dry…,” said Fern Jones Boyack. Boys also built their own private world: “Everybody built a shack,” Edwin E. Hardee noted. “Two or three boys would…find material and tin and build a shack….rigged up real nice…with a bed and a stove…. They’d spend a lot of time in there playin’ cards, drinkin’ coffee and maybe cookin’ some eggs.”

Playing house was fun and helped to prepare children for adult roles. Games let them practice possible careers. A common job for some women during the 1920s was telephone operator. Practicing for that occupation was great fun. Fern Boyack explained: “We’d take a piece of cardboard…and poke holes all along [in columns and rows] with a nail…. We’d put telephone numbers over these holes and then we’d take two or three nails and those were our plugs…and then we put strings on the nails and then we’d plug those in and [say] ‘Number please.’ …We had fruit jar rings tied together for the operator’s headdress.” Besides talking to make-believe callers, the girls practiced skills of a higher sort. She said: “…We played Sunday School all the time and I always had to be the organist…. So I’d sit at the sewing machine and it had the treadle at the bottom, well that was my pump for the organ and I’d just play away and we’d sing songs….”

Most activities, like playing Sunday School, followed the better deeds of the adult world. Unfortunately, some children also imitated the hate displayed by a few adults. During the 1920s the violence, hate, and racism of the Ku Klux Klan appeared in Carbon County. Some children in Castle Gate were quick to follow this model, according to Edwin Hardee: “The kids used to organize in gangs…. They had [coal] strike trouble and there was some problems with the Ku Klux Klan….burning a cross on the hill…and it started the kids to playin’ games like that…. Some of the meaner kids…organized…’The Gunny Sack Gang.’ They put gunny sacks over their heads with eye holes cut in…like the KKK and they’d catch kids and harass ’em. They were quite mean.”

Fortunately, most children did not become involved in that kind of activity. But they did get into mischief! Adults recalled many pranks. One often-told story occurred in Castle Gate and involved a mischievous boy and a bakery truck, Hardee related: “We use to swim by the old highway, there’s a little hill there. And this baker, Ed Richeda, he’d come along with all the fresh bakery [items]…. [A boy] ran up behind [the truck], and opened the two back doors and swiped a tray of donuts and then ran…. Course the truck kept goin’ up the hill with the doors open…. Well a tray of bread would slide out, a tray of rolls. He lost most of his load…. [Mr. Richeda] caught him but not ’till after he’d passed the donuts to all of us.”

The children played jacks. This popular game had a hazard not too common today–slivers. Since jacks were played on the wooden porches, splinters posed a problem. Jump-the-rope and hopscotch could be really dangerous. Both games were played on the dirt streets. The children had to move quickly when cars drove by. The hopscotch grid had to be continually redrawn since the traffic and dust kept erasing it. The children also enjoyed roller skating.

One taboo for girls was skiing. It was not considered ladylike. That did not stop the adventuresome young girls, according to Saline Hardee Fraser: “We watched the boys skiing or making skis out of barrel [staves] and so we decided to try it…. We went up on the mountainside [in Castle Gate] and there was an awful lot of snow so we figured it covered everything and we didn’t have to watch out for the trees. We tied the barrel [staves] to our feet with rags and started down the hill. We darned near killed ourselves…. I got the darnedest spanking…not because we could’ve gotten hurt but ‘cuz little girls weren’t suppose to do things like that.”

One vigorous activity that was all right for girls was swimming. Although the boys and girls swam together, bikinis were definitely not in style: “We didn’t have swimmin’ suits then. We wore overalls, striped overalls, and our pockets would get full of water,” Fern Boyack said.

Taffy pulls were a favorite at evening parties, Evelyn Patterick remembered: “You’d make the taffy and then…pull it…till it got really nice…. You buttered your hands, stretched the taffy out, made a rope, and cut it in little pieces. Everyone with their dirty hands.” Remembering that the children seldom washed hands prompted Saline Fraser to muse: “Maybe that wasn’t chocolate taffy after all….” Ice cream was also a favorite food. There were no ice cream stores, but the mountain location of the coal camps proved ideal for ice cream production: “We made ice cream out of snow, canned milk and vanilla or lemon extract…” Fern Boyack said.

In many ways the world of the coal camp children moved more slowly than life today. The challenges were different, but the games served many of the same purposes as those played today. Knowing that one’s parents and grandparents experienced the rivalry, anger, and mischief of childhood sometimes makes growing up a little easier. After all, they survived! Not only did they survive, they cherished the memory of childhood: “Some people think, ‘What poor little kids.’ But it was a fun time,” Boyack said. The games the children played reflected the creativity, joy, sadness, and adventure that were part of growing up in the Carbon County coal camps.

See Marianne Fraser, “Games of the Coal Camp Children,” Beehive History 7 (1981).