By Fleming Smith
On December 8, 1981, an explosion in the No. 21 Mine in Whitwell, Tennessee killed 13 men from Grundy and Marion counties. For Kelsey Arbuckle (C’19) and Alexa Fults (C’21), this story from their backyards, and even their family trees, was unknown to them for many years. Now, they’re working to share this history through a documentary, Mine 21, which will premiere at the Monteagle Elementary School, then play at the Sewanee Union Theatre at 5 p.m. on October 28.
According to Fults, the explosion at the No. 21 Mine caused strains in the community. The foreman on duty at the time had allowed the men to go into the mine despite methane gas being present that morning, Fults explained, and when one of the miners lit a cigarette in the mine and ignited the gas, he and 12 other miners died.
“This double-edged sword scenario has caused many a controversy in the community over who is to blame for the tragedy,” Fults explained.
When Arbuckle was growing up, she had never heard this history or how it involved her own family; her grandfather, Charlie Myers, was one of the miners who passed away in the explosion.
“Kelsey’s mother, who was 12 when her father was killed, faced years of taunting over the incident. Children of the dead miners often blamed each other’s fathers, or taunted the children of the company administration’s workers for killing their fathers,” Fults commented.
Despite the tensions in the community over the incident, Arbuckle and Fults grew up knowing nothing about the explosion. According to Fults, only one monument, a tombstone in front of the church center, commemorates the lives on the miners in Grundy County, and one monument is dedicated to miners in general in Marion County. The Whitwell Coal Miner’s Museum, created by a fellow miner during the time, also commemorates the lives of miners, especially those who died that day.
On the 35th anniversary of the explosion in 2016, Arbuckle read an article in The Grundy County Herald about the explosion and was shocked to see her grandfather’s name listed among the miners killed.
“She confronted her family, who was very reluctant to talk about it because they were so scarred from the years of rumors. [Her grandmother] told Kelsey the truth,” Fults explained.
Arbuckle also found an online blog written by classics professor Chris McDonough about the explosion. She connected with him, and they began planning on how they could share the mine’s story. Arbuckle asked Fults to join the project because of her family ties and her research on coal mining. Fults’s ancestor Thomas Wooten discovered coal in Tracy City in 1852, and many other of her relatives worked in the mines.
The group began working with a former student of McDonough’s, professional filmmaker Stephen Garrett (C’01), to start making the documentary.
“We want to make it clear that this is a community project about Grundy and Marion counties, not a University project. It wouldn’t have ever been possible without the help of the University, but the story remains one of the lower income communities outside of Sewanee,” Fults said.
The documentary explores the explosion at the No. 21 Mine, how it affected the community, and how Arbuckle’s family sought to change mining regulations to make sure such tragedies could never happen again.
“Kelsey’s grandmother, Barbara Myers, who now works in Clurg making all our desserts, sued the federal government for negligence in the mines. She was called to testify before the Senate committee and answered directly to Ted Kennedy, who chaired the committee,” Fults explained.
The documentary that Fults and Arbuckle created about the explosion shows CNN footage of the hearing. “We want everyone to know that the lady making our pies and cookies sued the federal government and won,” Fults stressed, her pride evident.
According to Fults, Myers was instrumental in leading to enforcement of safety regulations across the country and shutting down mines that weren’t following regulations.
The mining industry declined in years following due to a lack of demand as people clamored for more electrical power, and explosions and labor strikes increased this decline. Grundy County was harshly affected by the loss of the mining industry.
“The sad thing is, though [Myers] saved lives, the shut down of the mines in Grundy County left many homeless and starving without any income or any means of moving on. The entire county’s income was based on the mines, and now that steady flow of income suddenly vanished,” Fults said.
She continued, “People stopped dying from black lung and started dying from starvation, or lived off food stamps if they were lucky. Things were slightly better in Marion County [because of] interstate commerce. Grundy County has yet to find a way to move on economically.”
In the documentary, Fults and Arbuckle hope to tell the story without a political angle.
“Yes, the miners had great lives and great incomes. Yes, the explosion was caused both by the company’s negligence and by the boy who lit the cigarette in the mines. Yes, people blamed [Myers] for their misfortunes, but she also saved lives too,” Fults commented.
“Filming Mine 21 was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had at Sewanee,” Arbuckle said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I met Chris McDonough my sophomore year. I didn’t know if we would ever actually get it done, so I was kind of shocked when he asked if we wanted to do this thing.”
She added, “It’s been really great to watch all of these new people see my Nana the way I always have, and that’s definitely been my favorite part.” Arbuckle said that working with Fults was “amazing” because “she’s one of three Grundy students here…we’ve just gotten even closer throughout this process, which I’m really grateful for.”
The documentary will be shown first at Monteagle Elementary School, a point between Grundy and Marion counties, “to maintain the integrity of the project and pay homage to Kelsey’s family,” according to Fults. The University can view the film at the SUT at 5 p.m. on October 28.