Early coal history of Sipsey
by Ruth Baker
Jun 19, 2011 | 3236 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ruth Baker
Ruth Baker
Coal deposits form a great part of the history of Walker County. Even greater is the story of the wealthy men who poured into the Warrior Coal Basin in search of the “black gold.” They bought up large acres of land with rich seams of coal and brought engineers, builders, and laborers into these areas.

Ethel Armes wrote in her book, THE STORY OF COAL AND IRON IN ALABAMA: “Captain Henry Fairchild DeBardeleben had a liking for the wild forest, a free life, and the big surge of the far away hills. ‘The Indian’s life as it use to be, — that is the only life worth living. I’d rather be out in the woods on the back of a fox-trotting mule, with a great seam of coal at my feet than to be president of the United States. I never get lonely in the woods, for I picture as I go along, and the rocks and the forests are the only books I read.’” (p.240)

It was the DeBardeleben family that owned the coal seams that brought Dr. Milton H. Fies and his lovely wife, Rose, to Sipsey in 1912. The Fies family had bought into the coal land holdings and as an engineer; Dr. Fies came to help develop the underground mines to market the rich deposits of coal.

Milton H. Fies was a “people person.” He wrote one of the finest small books, THE MAN WITH A LIGHT ON HIS CAP, to portray life as it was in those early, developing days of coal mining in Walker County. His respect for the families of Sipsey and his in-depth writing about them makes his book a very important part of our history.

Dr. Fies quoted Abraham Lincoln who said, in essence, “History is something we cannot escape. It is the interpretation of the exploits of men, and the implication of events in any given period….” Fies often remarked that he had been affected, animated, and inspired by the men and women of Walker County whose lives he had touched daily.

he greatest praise that can be given to Milton F. Fies begins with his taking the position of Vice President of the Maryland Coal and Coke Company (later named DeBardeleben Coal Co., Inc.) This title put him in charge of the construction of the mine and railroad, and after these were completed, he operated the properties.

He says the most difficult task was to determine whether the Methodist or Baptists should use the one church the company had built, and to decide on which Sunday each would have it. He finally devised a plan to rotate the Sundays between these two churches and it worked fine until they had a fifth Sunday. What to do?

Since this affected the Sunday school and the children, his wife, Rose, organized a Sunday school for all children on that Sunday. Her feelings were that they all studied the same Bible and there was no reason to make the children suffer. It worked! It was said to be the first in Walker County to combine the Sunday school.

Following this, the schools were the next construction. The one in use at the time was a one-room, run-down structure. The company built one of the finest schools at the time and staffed it with the best teachers they could locate. The company supplemented their salary and they were able to have nine months of school. At the same time the school for the Black population was built and was the finest in the county except the Corona Industrial School.

The company store was the next building project. Company policy was to keep the mark-up of profit to 10 percent so the prices would benefit the families.

The company installed an ice machine for the use of the people. They established a dairy with 30 cows to supply fresh milk. The company nurse strongly recommended that the dairy be provided and Rose Fies supported her in this to aide the health of the children.

The village physician, Dr. E. L. McCalip, added another depth of care for the employees of the company. In no records have we found any better care given to the employees of a coal company as was provided in Sipsey.

My first cousin, Lattues Greer Bishop, was General Manager of the DeBardeleben Coal Company and lived there with his wife, Velma West Bishop, and his children. Lattues was Mayor of Sipsey at his death on 10-09-1968.