Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.
By Bob Wyss
The Hotel Belleville fed baked beans and ham to more than 200 coal miners and operators in Southern Illinois and the audience served up a bellyful of outrage about St. Louis.
Coal operators on that Friday in early May 1940 vowed to boycott St. Louis goods in retaliation for the city’s refusal to buy the coal they produced. At this gathering, however, many said they preferred the term “trade reciprocity” to boycott. It meant pretty much the same thing – Southern Illinois residents would buy St. Louis products when St. Louis bought Illinois coal.
For months St. Louis officials had been urging its neighbors to the east to cooperate rather than fight the city’s new strict ordinance banning the burning of high sulfur coal. Virtually all of that coal came from Illinois.
The reciprocity resolution was one of several passed that night in what reporters described was an often raucous gathering.
“Frequent applause greeted speakers who talked of trade reciprocity,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Some of the numerous speakers said they would have threatened boycott but didn’t want to use the term.”
Instead they likened the St. Louis action to the nation’s ill-fated prohibition of alcohol and speakers talked about how to reclaim the market.
Clarence V. Beck, a self-described St. Louis coal man, said there was no evidence that the coal smoke each winter in the city was the cause of rising respiratory illnesses.
Richard F. Wood, executive director of the Solid Fuel Institute of St. Louis, which represented coal interests, said the city seemed desperate, it had changed its ordinances on coal three times in the last five years.
Another ordinance that was proposed at the meeting called on the city to abolish the new ordinance. Both that proposal and the reciprocity measure were approved.
The bean dinner was financed by Bituminous Casualty Safety Council, which represented coal companies.
By August the coal companies working with union representatives said that they had organized six towns, which vowed to boycott St. Louis goods.
“This time it is not an idle rumor or threat,” said Clarence G. Stiehl, president of the St. Clair-Madison Coal Operators’ Association.
The six towns were outside of Belleville, Ill. and they had a combined population of about 10,000.
Stiehl said the residents were 100 percent in favor of the boycott, because most were miners who had been organized by the Progressive Miners Union.
The boycott would intensify when the mines reopened in the early Fall, said Stiehl. He said those backing the ban would be especially motivated if the 80 members of the coal operators association were unable to find buyers for their product.
The only other solution for Illinois was to build processing plants to convert the soft, high sulfur coal into smokeless fuels. While the state of Illinois indicated it was willing to make that investment, it could take years for the plants to be completed.
But not everyone in Illinois was backing the boycott.
The Old Ben Coal Corp. in West Frankfort, Ill. announced during the summer that it had enough low sulfur coal to double its production and delivery to St. Louis. In addition, the company was rushing to complete a plant that would convert higher sulfur coal into smokeless briquette that would also comply with the new St. Louis regulations.
In addition, the Illinois Municipal League rejected a boycott referendum and instead authorized it leadership to meet with St. Louis officials.
“We won’t get anywhere unless we all go together,” said Mayor Lester Hileman of Christopher, Ill. “If we don’t take care of our interests down here, we won’t have any.”
Hileman was described by a reporter as “an abrupt, gnarled man who discharges his mayoral duties in time taken from his refrigeration business.” Hileman likened St. Louis to a “fellow who pats you on the back and gives you a nice smile as long as you carry our money to him.”
While some Illinois newspapers supported the boycott the majority urged restraint.
The Illinois State Register in Springfield counseled coal operators “to give careful consideration of the danger of losing one of their best cash customers – St. Louis.”
Added E.R. Jones, the editor of the Marion Evening Post: “We have never seen any good accomplished trying to force something upon a community it does not want.”
In mid-August the Post-Dispatch was asking both officials and business people if the boycott was developing. Few were seeing any signs of it.
A Marissa, Ill. businessman said he had heard people talk about the boycott but he was not seeing any difference in sales.
“The boycott must be somewhere else,” said another unnamed merchant in New Athens, Ill. “I haven’t seen anything of it here.”
St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann said any boycott would not deter his city.
“We intend to go along just as we are until the problem of smoke has been resolved,” he said. “We’re not trying to ruin their business, we’re trying to help it. As I said years ago, we want their commodity but we don’t want their dirt.”