Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
It Was Part of the Promise
You can still see the ugly remains of the strip-mining operation north of Douds near the junction of Highway 16 and County Road 98. It was not supposed to be that way.
The earliest pioneers discovered coal in abundance in the Iowa Region. Albert M. Lea noted the presence of coal in his reports made in 1835. The first known coal mining operation was in Jefferson County. Long before the railroad came through, Fairfield Coal transported their mined product by wagon to many towns along the Mississippi River. As early as 1840, mines opened near Farmington and Portland in Van Buren County.
Before the advent of the railroad, most coal production was limited to the demands of local trade. Since coal was abundant, most people used it for fuel during the cold, harsh winters. As soon as the supply near the surface was exhausted, mines were abandoned and new ones began. Most were drift mines with a few shallow shafts and strip pits.
According to the Annals of Iowa, the peak year for coal production in Iowa was in 1917 when 9,049,806 tons were produced. During World War II, coal production fell sharply due to a shortage of labor. However, coal production declined further during the decade of the 1950s because of increasing use of natural gas, oil and water power.
One of the chores of Ratcliff children was to gather coal from the pasture and from along the creek beds. They filled containers and brought it into the house, which was used by the family for fuel for several decades. Although the women had protested and pleaded with Aaron and his boys, the mines were opened in the 1890s and the beautiful meadows and fields were overturned for the black product.
Aaron Ratcliff founded the company with his sons Roy, Howard and Harley. In later years, Roy passed along the family business to his sons Dale and Gerald. One of the promises that Aaron made his wife was that when the mining operation was abandoned, the fields would be returned to their original condition.
When the mining ceased during the 1950s, Aaron was not around to see that his promise was kept, nor were his daughters Mary and Hattie who had vowed to ensure that their motherís wishes were honored. Unfortunately, it is a very rare thing for strip miners to return the earth to its original state at the conclusion of their ventures.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick