Landmarks are what put small towns on the map. In Wenona, which straddles Marshall and LaSalle counties, that landmark is the old coal mine.
Wenona is the type of place where everyone knows your name and treasures like the sweet shop and one-room schoolhouse have been around almost as long as the town itself. Another one of those places is the old coal mine and the town is now working to restore its charm.
“You come around the curve in Wenona and you see the coal mine and you know you’re home.” Sheila Healy says.
“It was just every memory is surrounded by this.” Amy Breyne says.
Talk to anyone in Wenona and they’ll tell you a story about the coal mine.
“Some aunt of uncle would just walk you up here and you always had a good time.” Breyne says.
“We were always up there in school, we always came to science classes and looked for fossils, had a lot of picnics up there with my parents.” Healy says.
“The mines are a part of our history.” Charles Lohr explains.
It’s a part of the town’s identity and you can’t miss it.
“No matter where you are in town you can see it. You’re passing, you wouldn’t even know this is Wenona, but you can see the coal mine from the interstate, you see it from the roads when you’re here, you can see past and 50 miles out, it’s just an amazing thing.” Breyne says.
“You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” Lohr says.
The Wenona Coal Company opened in 1883 and soon after, immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe settled in Wenona looking for work in the mine.
“They would be recruited by the mine owners, someone to come in to work in the mines.” Lohr explains.
“The mine shafts were only 3 to 4 foot deep so a lot of time, they were on their hands and knees working.” Matt Zulz says.
At its peak in 1910, the mine employed 450 men, working in complete darkness deep down in the 576 foot mine.
“There’s 2 mansions, they were built but the folks that owned the mines and they built those mansions on the backs of these immigrants,” Lohr says. “So it wasn’t all, you see a picture of some mines, coming out of a mine there were smiles on their faces. No, there wasn’t, it was just a terrible, horrible job.”
The sound of a whistle let the workers know to report to work, 8 hour shifts, 6 days a week. 5 people lost their lives on the Wenona Coal Mine. It closed in 1925, later becoming an Army Radar Station during the Cold War.
“You want to bring back, preserve what it is.” Breyne says.
That’s exactly why these descendants of the old mining town are working to keep the stories of where they came from alive.
“We start having these awesome artifacts that are showing up from the families.” Healy says.
The Wenona Historical Society is building a coal cart replica and at the top of the hill, a mural will be painted, paying tribute to those who lost their lives so many years ago. It’s a look back at where the town came from and where it’s headed.
“One thing about a small town, you know you don’t have people knocking on the door to move into town, so you gotta kind of sell your town, so we’re kind of selling it with a little bit of history.” Zulz says.
“These small towns are kind of shrinking and dying so in Wenona we don’t want that to happen, we want our little town to survive because we have something we can sell that is invaluable.” Lohr says.
They hope to finish the project in time for the Wenona Days festival later this summer.