The man who ultimately stabilized the coal industry—to the extent that anyone stabilized it—was neither an operator nor a government official but a working man, and only peripherally a miner. Just as Henry Clay Frick and General John Imboden were not so much coal men as opportunists, John Llewellyn Lewis was by nature a striver who just happened to see his opportunity in the organization of coal unions. Like Moses, like Joan of Arc, like Napoleon, Lewis was essentially an outsider who assumed the leadership of his suffering people without actually having suffered all that much alongside them. His strength lay not in his mining experience but in the passion, perspective, and eloquence he developed outside the mines. If he was not strictly speaking a miner, he was something better: a charismatic figure marinated from birth in the miners’ world but barely infected by their pessimism and fatalism.
Lewis was born in 1880 in Cleveland, Iowa, one of several harsh south-west Iowa coal-mining towns where he and his five younger siblings grew up. His father, Thomas Lewis, worked irregularly as a miner, a farmhand, and a policeman—forced to keep on the move, John later claimed (although without any factual support), by his involvement in coal strikes. Like most coal wives, John’s sweet-tempered mother, Ann Louisa, lost the bloom of her young womanhood quickly in a monotonous life of cooking, sewing, mothering, and cleaning—a losing battle in the sooty shadow of the mines. Her domain was a succession of cheap company houses, hammered together from raw lumber and covered with tarpaper, where two bedrooms, a kitchen, and an outdoor privy were expected to suffice for a family of eight.