"She'll call me up and say, 'I just ran out another bastard,' " says Sheriff Denney Schilthuis of nearby Durango, who has been called upon by the feds to arrest her for such things as verbal abuse, assault and battery. (Violet admits she once grabbed a process server "by the collar and choked him 'til his eyes bugged out.") "One time I arrested her by phone," the sheriff says as he scuffs the floor with his boots. "Because there are federal agents involved, I usually just claim she's out of my jurisdiction. Shoot, what can I say, I love her. Her coal keeps my family warm."
Nearly everyone in Durango (pop. 12,000) feels the same way about Violet and her six-year fight against the federal bureaucracy, which she says is bent on closing down small mines. There has not been a serious accident in her mine's 34-year history. The Colorado Division of Mines has given Violet and her husband, Irvin, 73, the small-operator safety award, and last year Violet was invited to Kentucky to deliver a lecture on mine safety. Nonetheless, the U.S. demands the Smiths hire men they say are not needed and install machinery they contend is too expensive and sophisticated for their tiny operation.
What has endeared Violet to the people around Durango even more than her stubbornness is the price she charges for her coal—$12 a ton compared to $30 by her competitors. She grosses about $80,000 a year—all on a cash-and-carry basis. Customers patiently wait in Violet's kitchen while her seven nonunion miners dig enough coal to make a load. "She's got compassion for people," says Durango city councilman John Murphy. "She doesn't gouge them."
Over at the Catchpole Beauty Salon, where that famous lady of the evening, Diamond Tooth Lil, had her hair curled in the 1920s, the doughty proprietor, Ruth Starr, sizes up the situation this way: "We don't want to be like the Communists, dictated to by the government. We need the coal and we need her. We've got our guns ready."
Violet ("I don't drink, I don't smoke, but kiddo, can I cuss") has not built up such loyalty overnight. Born in Kerrville, Tex., Violet showed her independence at 14 when she ran away from home and signed up as a barber at a military hospital at Fort Bayard, N. Mex. At 17 she met her husband, Irvin, in Globe, Ariz. "We met on a Friday and married the next Saturday—I wasn't even sure of his name." They bounced around California before settling down in Durango, where he went to work for King Coal Mine and Violet ran a grocery store. Local inhabitants recall that no one who knew Violet went hungry. "But she had no patience with men who drank up their paychecks," says Avis Harris, the county clerk.
When she and Irvin began operating the mine in the 1940s, Violet gave up the grocery to begin working with her husband. Frequently she would take along the children—they have five of their own, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren—who would nap in the rail cars used to haul coal. Until recently, Violet drove a three-ton truck along treacherous Rocky Mountain roads to make deliveries to outlying families who couldn't get to the mine. In her spare time Violet single-handedly built a house for her family (including the wiring and plumbing), made her children's clothes, embroidered, crocheted and even won prizes for her quilting.
When the government asked to take a look at Violet's records, which she keeps in stenographer's notebooks, she obliged. But because she didn't have a duplicating machine, she made a hand-written copy for the investigators. Now government officials say that there are irregularities in these crude books. They say that Violet owes them a royalty on coal mined from land leased from the U.S., including a highly flammable residue from coal known as "bug dust." The government claims the bug dust is marketable, but Violet says shipping the dust to power plants is far too expensive for her. The feds now want to take a closer look at her books.
"They better beware," says beautician Starr. "One time she beat up the town bully, Sam Green, because he had been out drinking with her husband Irvin. That man Green was so ashamed, he left town."
"Let me tell you kiddo," says Violet Smith, "it's a great life if you don't weaken—and who wants to be weak?" Certainly not the fiery 69-year-old Mrs. Smith, who runs the King Coal Mine near Hesperus, Colo. which federal agents claim does not meet all of the government's safety regulations. Whenever inspectors come calling, Mrs. Smith is pleasant enough—she treats them to a cup of coffee in the warm kitchen of her home which also serves as her office. When they ask for a tour of the mine, however, her answer is always no. And if the agents become pushy, she has been known to chase them off with a two-by-four.