As Americans shout their way through the 2016 presidential campaign, Gale Largey, the Mansfield University sociology professor emeritus, couldn’t have picked a better time to release his tenth documentary of regional Pennsylvania history. The film, William B. Wilson: A Life’s Journey, examines the life of one of the most famous personages from northern Pennsylvania, progressive William B. Wilson of Arnot and Blossburg, the Secretary of Labor under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921, and a giant of the American labor movement during an even more fractious age than our own—the bloody, strike-littered Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
The two-hour film has double-perfect timing. It will debut at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 2 at the Victoria Theatre in Blossburg, during the second night of the annual Blossburg State Coal Festival, June 1-4, honoring the borough’s generations of coal miners, of whom Wilson was the most famous. The price is perfect, too: the film is free, or a donation for a local community group. It was in 1870 that William Bauchop Wilson, an impoverished coal miner’s son from Scotland, immigrated to America, and at nine years old began loading coal in the Arnot mines adjoining Blossburg.
Library of Congress
To create the “Billy” Wilson story, Largey enlisted the help of Wellsboro filmmaker Ken Vansant to edit his production, and a number of local voices. “All the voices are descendants of miners,” Largey said, including Wellsboro lawyer William Hebe as the voice of William B. Wilson; Daniel Usavage as labor giant Samuel Gompers; Scott Gitchell, president of the Tioga County Historical Society; and two descendants of Billy Wilson himself—Clair Caldwell of Ridgway, Pennsylvania, and Dave Jones of Blossburg. “The film is presented in first person as if Wilson is telling about the experiences of his life,” Largey said.
In 1874, Billy Wilson was only twelve years old “when he organized other boys working in the mines to resist a pay cut by the mine owner,” said Largey. “In response, his boss flogged him and sent him back to work. The incident intensified Billy’s sense of the injustice.”
“Conditions create agitators,” Wilson later said. “Agitators do not create conditions.” Later, as a U.S. Congressman, Wilson introduced legislation to outlaw flogging.
By 1880, mining companies blacklisted Wilson for his organizing efforts, so he worked as a woodsman, bark peeler, and a printer for a local newspaper, then a reman on the Illinois-Railroad before a near head-on collision with another train inspired him to return to Arnot and agitate to improve railroad safety.
“At age twenty-one, he married, and eventually he and his wife had eleven children, two of whom died in infancy,” Largey said. “Then, with the support of his wife, he became a labor organizer for the Knights of Labor.” In the 1890s he became a leader of the United Mine Workers, a close friend of UMW President John Mitchell and of Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones), and helped negotiate an eight-hour workday for Pennsylvania miners before it became a national issue.
Wilson led the 1899 coal miner’s strike at Arnot with the help of Mother Jones, and, in gratitude, “for many years afterward the community of Arnot celebrated “Wilson Day,” Largey said. He later served in Congress as “a strong advocate of the rights of laborers and worker safety,” Largey said, before he joined President Wilson’s cabinet and mobilized labor during World War I.
“Billy” Wilson died in 1934 on a train in Georgia. He was buried in Arbon Cemetery in Blossburg, and his funeral was attended by over 500 people, including many dignitaries of labor and government. “He was hailed as the beloved miner of Arnot-Blossburg,” Largey said. In 2007, Wilson was inducted into the U.S. Labor Department’s Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony led by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, for “distinctive contributions to the eld of labor” that “enhanced the quality of life of millions yesterday, today, and for generations to come.” Largey traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview Cecil Roberts for his lm, during research that included interviews with descendants, more than 1,300 news articles at the Library of Congress, the Arnot Historical Museum, and a visit to the American Legion in Blossburg.
On your way to the lm is also the perfect time to drop in on the American Legion building on South Williamson Road for a visit or a meal; you’ll be standing in William B. Wilson’s former home.