Montgomery County Illinois History

Panama Illinois Memorial - Photo provided by Donna Thacker A Memorial Celebration

By: Donna Thacker

Memorial Weekend is a time for remembering our lost loved ones. In the small town of Panama Il, population 323, the residents remember and honor a special breed of men and women - the coal mining families of yesteryear. The strong and the brave, that gave Panama it's start in a wild untamed land.

In the Beginning...

The year was 1905 and the initial process of transforming a veritable wilderness into a village, called Panama, was beginning to take shape. It began as a mining encampment full of tents and log cabins, after a large vein of coal, seven feet eight inches thick, and at a depth of 370 feet, had been found in a prospect hole that had been sunk in the bed of Bear Creek, about a quarter mile north of the Bond and Montgomery county line. The first shaft was sunk by the Shoal Creek Company, out of Chicago, with promises of more to come in the future, in surrounding areas.

Some say that the layout of the small village began to look like a "crazy quilt" with all the hills and hollers that were being built upon. A group of carpenters, C.C. Terry of Girard, Colvin & White, and J.J. Frey from Hillsboro, were working feverishly to supply housing that would be necessary for the many families that the coal mine would provide much needed work for. The prospect of jobs and a better life had the locals from nearby areas in a frenzy of excitement and anticipation.

By midsummer,1906, the mine employed nearly 87 people and was producing18,077 tons of coal. This success came with a huge price - loss of life for some - and many more casualties and disfigurements to the other men that went into the shafts in search of a better life. Reportedly, the first casualty was in March of 1906. Elisha Bean, a local Bond County resident from Sorento, was killed from a premature shot while working in the mine. But, the years progressed, as did the success of the mine. The small village of Panama grew by leaps and bounds, thanks to the dedication of this special breed of men. Businesses sprang up, along with hotels, banks, and a grand theater. The small village virtually bustled with activity, as the population kept ever increasing.

Immigrants, predominately Italian, poured into the growing community, by way of New York, searching for a better life. The call of the coal mine lured many men, some to fame and fortune, some to an untimely death. Old newspaper clippings site the many ups and downs that the coal mining community of Panama faced through the years. Coal mining was a hard, brutal job, with many risks, but these brave, proud men continued to struggle and sacrifice, all in the name of a better life. And the families that stood behind them deserve a special place as well. The fears of wives and family members as unexpected accidents took yet another life was enormous. Still, the mining families of yesteryear remained and struggled to improve the village and make it a home.

Many men of prestige arouse from the depths of the mine and went on to be village leaders and more. One such man was John L. Lewis, a young coal miner born in Iowa. Lewis's father Tom was a coal miner from Wales, and young Lewis, like his father before him, started in the mines at the age of 16. Lewis and his young wife, Myrta, eventually settled in the small village of Panama, and along with most of the population, he went to work in the mines. His fellow miners soon elected him Secretary Treasurer of District 12 of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis was a diligent advocate of union rights and went on to become President of the UMWA Local 1475, where he fought for the miners rights in everything from, wages and health benefits, to making safer working conditions. Lewis's determination and dedication is unsurpassed by many and he is admired by coal miners far and near. His many years as a union rights leader has been documented by many.

In 1915, the Panama coal mine suffered a severe explosion. The damage was massive, as was the loss of lives, and injuries. Over 400 men entered the mine to start work that fateful morning, and nearly a dozen perished in the explosion. Many of the men who died in the mine over the years had no family or no money for a burial. The mining company gave a section of land to the union to be used as burial plots for union workers. If you were a member of the union you could be buried in this area free of charge. As the years have past the exact location of the individual burials has been lost or forgotten, but assuredly they are there and the citizens of Panama honor these unknown heroes on an almost daily basis. The present village president, Joe McCario, has vowed before all the citizens, that he will personally dedicate himself to the preservation of the Union Cemetery and to honor these lost coal miners, who in essence, Panama Illinois owes it's very existence to.

The dedication of the community...

Several years ago, McCario was taking a walk in Union Cemetery and struck up a conversation with visitors about the miner's that were buried within the Cemetery gates. The ladies remarked that it was such a shame that there wasn't a monument or a memorial stone to pay tribute to the fallen heroes. With that thought in mind, McCario began to research the state archives, and a monumental plan began to form. The "Union Cemetery Coal Miners Memorial Committee" was formed, with McCario acting as Chairman. In the past several years nearly a dozen or more fund raisers were organized by the committee. An overwhelming amount of support and interest was shown by Panama residents, and surrounding areas as well. The plan was to erect a huge monument inside the entrance of the Cemetery, as a tribute to all coal miners past and present. The cost of the project was overwhelming, but the small village showed a determination as diligent as that of the past ancestors of the community. Fund raisers included Pancake Breakfast's, recipe book sales, yard sales, flea markets, and the generosity of friends and neighbors. Bricks that would be placed in front of the monument were offered for sale in advance. People could "purchase" a brick and have their name or a loved ones name engraved on it. This too had an overwhelming response.

And with the true spirit of the coal miners before them, their determination paid off. The community's act of love and pride came to full surface as the huge Monument was unveiled to the public on Memorial Weekend, 2003. As had been the fund raisers in the past, the ceremony was well organized and well attended, as members of the village board, the monument committee, and special guest speakers took their place on the band stand. A moving invocation was given by Pastor Dave Trover.

Distinguished guest included, The Ladies Auxiliary VFW Post 6628, who led the Pledge of Allegiance, Montgomery County Clerk, Sandy Leitheiser, who sang the National Anthem, Martha (McCario) Schumacher, who read two original poems she had written for the dedication,

Bill Hoback, from the Department of Coal Development, Gary Butler, Executive Board member of District 12, and Francis Henke, who sang "God Bless the USA." UMWA Rep, Bill Brumfield was scheduled to attend, but had to cancel due to a family illness.

As the ceremony progressed, the tarp was dropped by Eugene McCario, Bob Everett and Kenny Phillips, and the monument revealed for all to see. Several tears were shed as the village members realized that their three year dream and struggle had come true. The monument stands in all it's beauty and glory at the entrance of a beautiful Cemetery that honors the past, presence and very existence of the village.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, a very emotional Joe McCario, gave his thanks and gratitude to all who had helped and contributed in any way, and offered a special Thank You to Danny Adams, and the Pana Monument Company, for all their hard work in helping the village realize their dream. As a special Thank you, McCario asked that everyone join the village board and the Cemetery Committee at the Community Center where a free lunch was being provided. The Cherished Times Museum, that's housed in the community center, and boasts an amazing collection of area photos and memorabilia was also open for viewing.

A small community took on an overwhelming project, yet through the love and caring of the whole community, it was accomplished with amazing success! Hats off to the residents off Panama, for proving that dreams and goals are assuredly attainable!

Update: Every year, since the unveiling of the monument, a ceremony is held at the cemetery. New memorial bricks are dedicated, and a breakfast or lunch is served at the community center. This year's ceremony is scheduled for May 25th, 2008, at Union Cemetery, in Panama Illinois.

Reprint: Courtesy of The Greenville Advocate, Greenville, Illinois - For more information about the Memorial Bricks, contact this writer.

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