“I owe my soul to the company store.” That is one line from the song, “Sixteen Tons,” written by Merle Travis and made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 1940s. While the song was written about conditions surrounding the Kentucky coal mines of that era, the same could be said about the conditions in Western Arkansas mining.
The Central Coal and Coke Company began operating in Sebastian County, beginning in Huntington actually, in 1883. One thousand acres of land in Huntington was purchased from the Kansas-Texas Coal Company for the sum of $850,000 in the 1880s. While the headquarters was located in Kansas City, Missouri, it also operated in the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Idaho and Wyoming. The company had seventy-five million tons of coal leased from South Sebastian County and they also had somewhere around forty-seven oil and gas wells.
The Central Coal & Coke Company in Sebastian County was the largest producer of semi-anthracite coal. It was much cheaper to mine, and just as good, as the more expensive Pennsylvania coal. Most of the county was under laid with it. Huntington, Hartford and Bonanza were known far and wide where there was a demand for coal for generating steam or for various office heating and domestic needs. In 1902, the company had in operation seven mines, one of which was located in Hartford on the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad; three at Huntington, on the Mansfield branch of the Frisco, and three at Bonanza on the Missouri & Louisiana road. They had a combined capacity of about 2,300 tons daily.
Each one of these towns had a well-equipped commissary. The store at Huntington was one of the finest owned by the company. The native rock building stood on the southwest corner of Highway 71 and Broadway. It was a large, airy building, the stock is kept bright and fresh and the store and meat market present an up-to-date appearance “that would do credit to a town of three times the population of Huntington.” T. R. Bennett was manager of the company’s store at Huntington. A. E. Hickerson, the agent, had an office in the store building, but the other officers of the company are located in a separate, two-story building farther up the street, which became the Huntington City Hall for decades.
Like all other mining companies during the heyday of American coal mining, the corporation provided housing for its workers and their families. Central built many houses for their workers in Huntington and Hartford. Almost all of the houses were shed construction with one-inch thick boards running vertically floor to ceiling with square nails being used. Most of the lumber used came from its own lumber mills in Tennessee and South Texas. The houses ranged from three to seven rooms with rent set usually at $2.00 per room per month.
Each house was built near the mines to accommodate the workers and on hills to help with drainage. Miners and their families made a garden to help feed the family but what couldn’t be grown or bartered for, came from the company store commissary. It was here where the workers gathered to get their pay, visit with other citizens and hash out the news of the day.
Central Coal & Coke closed the stores in 1934 as shaft-mining wasn’t cost effective and the mines began closing down. The strong old company store in Huntington stood strong against time for some fifty more years until the area governments feared it would collapse. Many argued for it to be left alone but lost the battle in the end. The ‘rotten’ beams had to be cut with chainsaws and the ‘weak’ walls were barely able to be removed, even with modern bulldozers. And, as progress always seems to happen, it was replaced with a modern steel-beam and brick building with little if any architectural beauty and certainly, no history.
(Texas Transportation Archive. https://www.ttarchive.com/Library/Articles/Central-Coal-Coke_1902_American-Lumberman.html#ARCoals. “A History of the Mansfield School District Area.” Date unknown)