A successful businessman with a keen sense of responsibility for his employees, his community, and his world, William Edward “Bill” Mullins, Jr. demonstrated that economic prosperity and environmental concern were not mutually exclusive.
Bill Mullins was born in 1905 in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the second of three children born to W.E. Mullins, Sr. and Effie Laudry Mullins. Bill and his siblings, Gladys and Richard, were all exceptionally bright, and his parents valued their children’s educations highly. After Bill’s graduation from Westport High School, the entire Mullins family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where all three Mullins children attended the University of Kansas. Bill excelled at the university; he earned high marks in his engineering studies, served in student leadership, and lettered in football. Later in his life, he made an effort to ease students’ financial burdens by establishing the William Mullins Student Loan Fund, which helped engineering students at KU make ends meet.
Bill completed his master’s degree in civil engineering in 1929, and he was quickly recruited by an uncle, T.C. “Captain” Mullins, who worked in the coal mining industry. After working for a year with his uncle’s mining company in Boonville, Indiana, Bill was offered a unique opportunity by Allen and Garcia, an engineering firm based in Chicago. They were assembling a team of American engineers to travel to the Soviet Union, where they would work to help develop coal mines in frigid Siberia. He accepted the offer and headed east.
Bill’s time in Siberia changed him. The techniques that Soviet mining engineers used were dangerous for the landscape and the miners who worked in it. After Bill’s death, his widow, Maria, told a reporter about the significant impact that the experience had on her late husband: “The two years [he] spent in the wastes of Siberia … convinced him of two things,” she explained. “First, that he would never put anyone to work in an underground mine. The Soviets, unwilling to use scarce wood to frame and support the mine entrances, expected the miners and young Mullins to crawl up two miles on their bellies through a narrow mine shaft to reach the active operation. And second, he would never lay waste to the land that gave him its riches.”
The experience in Siberia made Bill keenly aware of his responsibilities as an employer and as a steward of land, and it guided his decisions when he returned to work in America. He began putting his new philosophy – protect the miner and preserve the land – to work in one of his uncle’s mines in Henry County, Illinois. While working in Atkinson, he met his future wife, Maria Everett. They married in 1936, and had a daughter, Mary. Maria Mullins explained that her husband’s concerns about workers and the environment were evident from the very beginning: “In 1931, about four decades before any state or federal law required Mullins to do so, he was finding ways to utilize ‘spoil’ banks, rather than leave them as unproductive scars on the land.”
Southern Illinois became a beneficiary of Bill’s hard-working, innovative business practices when the Mullins family arrived to open a new mine in Randolph County in 1936. Bill became the founder and president of the Southwestern Illinois Coal Corporation, which opened the Streamline mine near Percy in 1936. As Bill began work with the new mine, he moved with his family to Steeleville. A few years later, the family bought a home in Chester, where Bill lived for the rest of his life. In 1964, the company expanded their local operations to include the Captain mine. Located near Cutler in Perry County, the Captain mine was a massive undertaking; it was the largest surface mine east of the Mississippi River. The mine was named after Bill’s uncle, “Captain” Mullins, who had given him his start in the industry.
Bill put in long hours at Southwestern Illinois Coal, searching continuously for better, more innovative ways to enhance the techniques and equipment used in his mines. When mining technology didn’t work, he helped to design replacements. When companies failed to provide adequate resources for the mines, he formed new ones. According to a profile in the Southern Illinoisan, he “engineered and built the first cross pit bucket wheel excavator in the Southern Illinois coal fields.” In 1965, the corporation commissioned a new electric shovel from Marion Power Shovel Co. for the Captain mine. At the time of its construction, the shovel was the largest mining shovel in the world – and the largest mobile land machine ever built. It weighed 28 million pounds and stood 21 stories tall, and it was able to strip two seams of coal simultaneously. Like the mine itself, the shovel was simply named “the Captain” as another tribute to T.C. Mullins. It was destroyed in a fire in 1991.
As the company’s technology improved, Bill also looked for ways to use the land they mined more efficiently and respectfully. A later profile of Bill observed that he “regarded his work as a sacred trust,” adding, “As a landowner, he felt himself tied to the land, and did not believe in destroying one resource to gain another.” Clover that he seeded on reclaimed land in the 1940s led to the production of an award-winning honey crop in the 1980s. He helped to develop “double-cropping” technology to harvest seed grain from recently mined land. He also sought advice from faculty at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for experiments in reforesting land that had been strip mined. In 1961, Bill directed the establishment of Galum Creek Farms, the company’s farm management subsidiary. On 24,000 acres of reclaimed mine land, the company raised thousands of heads of free-range cattle and hundreds of hogs. Bill used the farm subsidiary to demonstrate that recently-reclaimed land could produce crops, growing corn, wheat, hay, and soybeans on the property.
Land reclamation became a major focus of Bill’s work in Randolph and Perry counties. A former employee of Southwestern Illinois Coal remarked, “I think [Bill] regarded the reclaimed land the same as his yard.” His passion for reclamation reached its highest point with the dedication of the W.E. Mullins Recreation Area, better known to many local residents as Southwestern Lakes, near Percy. Maria Mullins explained that Bill’s “sense of responsibility stretched to the people who depended on the coal company for a livelihood, and he wanted to give something back to the people living in surrounding communities.” The thousand-acre site was the result of this desire to contribute to the community. Developed on reclaimed mine land, it included 350 acres of lakes and ponds for fishing and boating, camping grounds, a shooting range, and a golf course. Maria urged Bill to include a restaurant on the grounds; the result was the Scuttle Inn, which took its name from the collection of antique coal scuttles that Maria donated to decorate the building.
Bill retired as president of Southwestern Illinois Coal in 1973, just after the company was purchased by Arch Mineral Corporation of St. Louis. He died of a sudden illness just five years later. Unfortunately, after Bill’s death, Arch chose to close much of the recreation area that had been such an important symbol of Mullins’s legacy. But others continued to recognize the remarkable efforts that Bill made to be a good employer, community member, and land steward. In October 1981, Maria Mullins accepted the first Albert Fund Conservation Award on behalf of her late husband. The fund, established by the actor and activist Eddie Albert, subsequently created the W.E. Mullins Conservation Award in Bill’s honor.
An immensely private man, Bill chose to express his love for his community and the land through his actions rather than words. However, in the nearly four decades since his death, many have offered words in tribute to Bill’s accomplishments and contributions, hailing his “foresight and imagination” and praising him as a “pioneer” and “a truly concerned citizen.”
Bill Mullins was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2017.