Right in the midst of central Illinois is the history of a firebrand woman that changed the history of labor. Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was a Scottish immigrant that came to Canada with her family during a famine. Born in 1830, she died 100 years later and was buried in Miners Cemetery, the only cemetery in Illinois owned by a Union. She wanted to be buried beside the martyrs of the Virden Massacre that occurred not far from where I live.
After coming to the US to work as a teacher and dress maker, she met her husband, an iron worker named George Jones. They married, then when the Yellow Fever epidemic swept through the city, she lost them all.
Years ago, I remember traveling with my mom and touring a cottage in Memphis and learning about the Yellow Fever epidemic. For Mother Jones, the angst was that the wealthy could leave the city, everyone else was stuck and suffered sickness and loss. She moved on to Chicago, then her dress shop was lost in the Chicago Fire. My friend, Janna Seiz and I went on the Mother Jones trail to find out more about her and after learning this, we could understand how she was able to stand up to police guns, prison and mine bosses without flinching. She had already lost everything, now standing firm, she moved men, women and children to fight for fairer labor laws.
There are three places to see, at the south bound I-55 Coalfield Rest Stop, there is a new marker and small exhibit inside that came about as of this past December. There is also the Miner Cemetery where the Mother Jones Monument and grave are. The marble monument with two miners flanking the sides is quite moving. There was something about her marker surrounded by ice and snow that got to me.
In Mt. Olive is the new Mother Jones museum that while small shares history of this woman that in her mature years defied against all odds the powers that be. She was called at one point, “The Worlds Most Dangerous Woman” by a prosecutor and their is a documentary of that same name that shows parts of her story and the violence that strikers faced in the late 1900’s and early part of the century.
Read my article in an upcoming issue of Illinois Times for more details about Mother Jones. This visit made me realize how much her efforts affect me personally. As a retired state employee with a pension, I may not have the benefits I have today without the foundation she and the other workers placed years ago. Check out the Mother Jones Foundation.org for more information.