WEST FRANKFORT — It’s time again for West Frankfort to light the flame and dust off the crown — Old King Coal is around the corner.
What has been an almost yearly tradition since 1976 — though it began in 1941 — the Old King Coal Festival has been a way for residents of Franklin County, and the entire region, to honor one of its biggest benefactors — coal.
“We are really recognizing the whole region, the impact that coal has had on this region since the early 1900s,” Marcia Raubach, a member of the Old King Coal Committee, said. She said coal has had an indelible impact on the region, citing the many workers that flooded into the region during coal’s big boom early last century. She said it really helped build Southern Illinois.
“The whole population of this area was impacted, since the early 1900s, by the fact that this area was rich in coal. So we like to continue recognizing that impact,” she said.
When the festival began, the crowning of Old King Coal and Princess Flame — so named for the flame of coal — has always been a big part of the festivities. Originally, Raubach said nominations were made and votes were cast by the thousands of coal miners working in the ground in Southern Illinois. However, since the slowdown of coal mines, the tradition has since been up to a committee.
This year’s Old King Coal is 80-year-old retired coal miner Charles Bartoni Jr., of West Frankfort. It will be his duty to reign over the festival from May 11 to 14. He will officially be crowned April 22 alongside Princess Flame.
According to a news release, Bartoni’s father, Charles Bartoni Sr., worked 10 years at the Old Ben No. 8 mine before taking a job at the Orient No. 2 mine in 1950. The next year, Bartoni Sr. was one of the 119 men killed in the No. 2 mine explosion. Still, despite his mother’s protest, the release said Bartoni Jr. began working for the mines 25 years later.
He started working above ground as a mechanic, but within two years found himself down in the ground for Freeman Coal Company. He later retired from the mines in 1995.
Along with the pageant and annual parade, this year Raubach said they are also honoring coal miners by adding 27 new bricks to the Coal Miners Memorial Park walkway, started originally with 119 bricks commemorating those who died in the No. 2 coal mine explosion in 1951. This puts them well on their way to meeting their goal of adding 50 new bricks in 2017.
Amidst this year’s celebration, there is a sense of hope. Raubach said with the Trump administration favoring rollbacks of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that slowed coal production nationally, there is anticipation that coal may again reign king in Southern Illinois.
“We feel like that coal will come back,” Raubach said. “We are hoping for that.”