By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
CAPALDO, Kan. —
Eva Richard Gartner, 91, did a bit of time traveling Friday morning on a Southeast Kansas country road.
Dressed in a long skirt and bonnet, she portrayed her mother, Blanche Pomier Richard, carrying 10-month-old baby Eva in a march on area mines that drew national attention.
The original march, referred to by national media sources including The New York Times as an “army of Amazons,” took place on three cold days in December 1921. Thousands of women participated but were pushed back by state militia with rifles.
“She had me wrapped in a blanket because it was so cold,” Gartner said.
The women were protesting the work of “scabs,” or replacement miners brought in to work the mines after their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers went on strike.
Historians say the women’s actions in 1921 echoed feelings of solidarity with male members of the mining community, and linked the miners’ struggle to American ideals of justice and equality. This, they say, ultimately led to national social reform.
Friday’s re-created march was markedly different: The temperatures climbed toward 90 with high humidity. Telephone wires were overhead and cars whizzed by on the nearby highway.
In contrast to the thousands in the original march, only about 30 or so women participated, and they used cellphones to check email and send texts. Vonnie Corsini showed up with a Starbucks grande nonfat latte in hand.
But they were no less dedicated to the cause, several said.
“They live; the story lives on,” said Linda Knoll, a Pittsburg historian and teacher who helped coordinate and direct the event. It was being filmed by Jim Kelly, a producer with the Public Broadcasting Service show Sunflower Journeys, based in Topeka.
Knoll’s grandmother, Maggie O’Nelio, marched in the original Amazon Army as a 17-year-old, and prompted Knoll to research the event and then write an original historic drama, “The Army of Amazons.”
Modern-day marcher Marianne O’Nelio, a granddaughter-in-law, wore her wool jacket in tribute. Others wore whatever they could find that looked old-timey: bonnets, aprons, long skirts, shawls.
One, Cherri Hudson, Pittsburg, works at Pittsburg Middle School with Knoll and had helped her class with National History Day projects about the Amazon Army.
“I never dreamed I’d one day be doing it myself,” Hudson said as she and the other area women prepared for the filming.
Linda Foxwell, of rural Girard, led the charge as Mary Skubitz.
The real Skubitz, one of the leaders at the meetings leading up to the march, was born in 1887 and came to America from Slovenia with her coal miner father and her mother. After the march, she was among those arrested and held on $750 bond instead of the standard $200. Skubitz kept a journal of the events surrounding the march, from which Knoll drew inspiration.
“There was absolutely no fear in these women’s hearts. Like the lion, they would face and fight anything bare-handed — no weapon of any kind — they would face the militia. Their only thought was something must be done so that their little ones would have food — something to wear in the cold, even though they might meet death at the hands of the militia,” Skubitz wrote in December 1921.
Foxwell’s daughter, Lydia Rohner, of Pittsburg, and granddaughter, Adela Rohner, 5, also participated in the re-created march, as did her great-niece and nephew, Isabella Walsh, 5, and Elijah Walsh, 3.
“They are representative of the children the women brought with them on the march, really because they had to,” Foxwell said. “There was no one else to look after them.”
It wasn’t the first time Adela Rohner had portrayed a part in a production about the Amazon Army; as a baby, she was part of the original performance of Knoll’s “Army of Amazons” in the nearby immigrant mining town of Franklin, Kan.
Other regulars from Knoll’s play made appearances Friday, including Hugh Campbell, a longtime Pittsburg actor who portrayed an angry sheriff warning the women to disperse, to no avail. And showing up on a country road during the march was J.T. Knoll, Linda’s husband and also a historian, writer and performer, who portrayed a supporter advising the women that the militia was on its way.
Louis Casaletto, also a local historian with ties to coal mining, brought his antique Model T to the small community of Capaldo just north of Pittsburg to lend an air of authenticity.
After several film takes of a rally, a march on a dusty country road and across a field to a would-be nearby mine, and interactions among march opponents and supporters, Kelly called it a wrap.
For the next few months, Kelly will work in Topeka on editing the footage with what he captured Thursday at the Miners Hall Museum and on stage at Pittsburg High School. The anticipated air date for the show is mid-September or later.
“I’m glad this is happening,” said Gartner, whose dad, Jules Richard, was a coal miner, and her grandfather a Belgian immigrant.
“No one talked about it much when I was growing up,” she said. “It’s good for people to know about it now. I sure would never have guessed I would be doing this 91 years later.”
The Amazons were a nation of all-female warriors in Greek mythology. Amazonian raiders were often depicted in battle with Greek warriors in classical art, and their name has become a term for woman warriors in general. Some historians believe that early Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana named the Amazon River after a tribe of warlike women he claimed having encountered fighting alongside men. The New York Times referred to the thousands of women who marched in support of the Southeast Kansas mine strike, and ultimately stood up to the state militia, as “Amazons.”