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By Sam Perry
The men had gathered twigs and kindled a small fire in a copse of Virginia pines that sheltered them from a wind that never seemed to cease. Shivering in the winter twilight, they pulled crumpled fedoras over creased brows and huddled before the fire, warming hands reddened by the cold. Their clothing was tattered and threadbare and reeked of coal smoke, body odor, and perspiration. They sat quietly before the flickering embers, absorbed in their thoughts, and waited for the lady with the beans.
These were desperate men and part of an army of such men who roamed the countryside looking for work, following the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Although capable of acts of violence, they were, essentially, docile men who were willing to work for pennies, or even a simple meal. With no money with which to purchase bus tickets or passage on a Pullman car, they traveled as stowaways on the numerous railroad trains that moved about the nation. Some people called them hoboes, some said they were tramps, but most referred to them, simply, as bums.
To Laura Belle, however, they were not bums. To Laura Belle, they were just unfortunate human beings who had fallen upon hard times and who were trying to survive in a world that had, seemingly, forgotten about them. Laura Belle looked through their bloodshot eyes, their wind-burned flesh, and their uncombed hair and saw men who had left families behind to search for sources of employment, who had given up warm feather beds and the comfort of home in return for the hard ground of hobo jungles and a life on the road. And, she was moved with pity and compassion.
Born into an affluent family in 1885, Laura Belle was a child of privilege. She had never known hunger or want. Her mother had dressed her in the fashions of the urban elite. Her dinner plate had always overflowed and she had been feted at parties thrown by her parents for members of proper Victorian society. She had been tutored in etiquette appropriate for a young lady of her social status. Young men who carried ivory-tipped canes and wore celluloid collars and derby hats competed for her attention and flattered her with courtly overtures. Yet, despite these assurances of remaining in a social caste that matched her upbringing, Laura Belle was no typical Victorian woman. Laura Belle had a mind of her own. Laura Belle would chart her own path through life. Consequently, when it became apparent that Laura Belle was with child, her parents became distraught.
A frantic search ensued for someone willing to turn Laura Belle into something other than an embarrassment to the family. Within weeks, a hasty marriage had been arranged. Some would argue that it had been done in too much haste, for the groom chosen would not carry a cane, or wear a derby hat, or speak refined English or read the Wall Street Journal. Instead, the man selected for Laura Belle would carry a miner’s pick and wear a soft cap to which was attached a carbide lamp. He would neither read nor write and he would spend his days in the depths of the earth, chipping at the seams of coal that powered the nation’s industrial machine. Three months after the wedding, Laura Belle gave birth to her first child.
In a dramatic reversal of fortune, Laura Belle exchanged the walnut panels of her father’s study for the white-washed walls of a farmhouse. Lenox china gave way to chipped enamelware, coarse brogans replaced her patent leather slippers, and she put away her parasol and picked up a broom. This reversal did not come easily for Laura Belle, but it altered the way she looked at the world, and at life.
As her role as a coal miner’s wife came into focus, she came to understand that family cannot, necessarily, be defined by blood relationship alone. The miner’s wives who assisted her in her maternity attested to that each time she asked for help. They sat with her on the back porch of her home and showed her how to string green beans on cotton thread for drying. They peeled apples with her and stirred them as they slowly cooked over an open fire to become the treasured delicacy that garnished hot biscuits in the wintertime. They hovered over a quilting frame with her and created gorgeous works of art. They invited her to church and she joined them in hymns of praise and rejoiced with them at creek baptisms and in the salvation of souls. And, Laura Belle responded in a way no one, knowing her past, could have imagined.
In an age before the advent of funeral homes, preparing the dead for burial was an essential, but necessary task that, customarily, was done by women. Even the hardiest of miner’s wives tended to avoid that job, if possible, but not Laura Belle. Conversely, she embraced the opportunity to serve in that capacity with vigor and enthusiasm. Unfailingly, she was there when called upon by relatives of a deceased loved one. She was usually alone. When the deceased had been properly prepared for burial, Laura Belle remained to comfort the grieving survivors.
Laura Belle was forty-five when the world was plunged into the Great Depression. She was also ill with a chronic kidney disease that would eventually take her life. On one of her infrequent trips to visit her parents, the car in which she was riding paused at the railroad crossing at Marshes Siding, where the trains slowed before they arrived at the Whitley City station. She looked about while the tracks cleared and into the faces of men who seemed to have lost everything valuable in their lives and who appeared not to have eaten in days. When she learned who the men were, a transformation of Biblical proportion took place and Laura Belle became, not just another coal miner’s wife, but a legend among the fraternity of hoboes that stole rides on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. To them, Laura Belle became the Lady with the Beans.
Pinto beans, jokingly referred to as “miners’ strawberries,” were nutritious, filling, and inexpensive. Combined with cornbread, they were the staff of life for most families in southern Appalachia. Until nephritis and congestive heart failure made her too weak to walk, Laura Bell, aided by her daughters, brought buckets of them and pones of cornbread to the hobo camp at Marshes Siding. Obeying the Biblical command to feed the hungry, she ladled the beans into tin cans provided by the hungry men and distributed the cornbread until every morsel had been consumed. Then, she returned home, cooked another batch and did it again. This simple act of charity was repeated as often as her weakening body permitted. When she exhausted her supply of beans, she went begging for more from family and neighbors. She was seldom refused and her crusade continued to flourish until she was, eventually, confined to her bed.
On March 27, 1939, Laura Belle Spradlin Slaven, worn out by the command to feed the hungry, passed away at the age of fifty-four. She was laid to rest in Holloway Cemetery beside her parents and numerous siblings who died in infancy. Her obituary noted that “she was a true Christian woman and had lived a good life.” Laura Belle, the Lady with the Beans, was that, and more, and she must be included in the pantheon of unsung heroes who have trod the hills and hollers of McCreary County.