Let Us Remember Our Heritage
Thomas F. O'Neill
I grew up in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania and I always enjoyed listening to the Mining legends and the stories of the Miners. I heard the stories mostly from my grandparents and from the miner’s widow’s. They told me about the various mining communities that once made up the coal region. The mining communities of yesteryear is what gave the region its rich character and history.
I graduated from Shenandoah Valley High School in 1981 and I moved away from the area after College. I lived in various places over the years mostly out of state and I always ran into people who had relatives that were from the coal region or they were good friends of someone from the area.
When I drive around my home town I can remember the fun I had in my youth and how much different the town was back in the 1970’s. I can also remember West Coal Street where my grandmother once lived and the old Italians sitting on their porch’s watching over the children while the children played on the street. I have noticed that many of the homes in Shenandoah have been boarded up. There are also more vacant lots in town then there were when I was a teenager. I was shocked to see the dilapidated condition of my old High School (J. W. Cooper building). The buildings windows are smashed out and there are large holes in the outer walls. The old Library building that was next door has been torn down along with part of the town’s history. The Wilson building across the street from the old library building has also been torn down. I was also shocked to see the horrendous condition of my old grade school (Jefferson building) only half the building is standing. My old Junior high school (Roosevelt building) is now an apartment building.
I can remember when I worked as a life guard at Sandy Beach. Sandy Beach was a dam near Shenandoah where in the summer months a lot of the teenagers liked to go and swim. In the evenings it was also a great place to park your cars and hang out. Sandy Beach is no longer open it was closed in the early 1990’s but during the summer months when I was in high school I worked there as a life guard.
One day in the summer of 1980 when I was coming home from work I noticed this little old lady pushing an ACME cart full of groceries. Something compelled me to give her a hand so I stopped and told her that I could help her out. There was something familiar about her and she was a little shocked when I began to push her cart. I asked her where she lived and she told me South Jardin Street.
“That is pretty far” I said to her.
“If it is too much for you” she said “I could take it the rest of the way.”
“It is pretty far for you to be pushing the cart.” I said to her laughing.
“I have been pushing groceries for many, many years.” She said while looking at me with a smile on her face.
She told me then that she was 89 years old and that she lived in town her whole life. We struck up a conversation and she began to reminisce about the town. She pointed to a home on South Jardin Street and she said, “You see that house? That was the first house on this block to get a telephone. Years ago people could not just go out and buy a phone they had to lease it from the phone company.” She said, “everyone on the block including myself put our money together and leased one phone which everyone shared. The women in that house left her door unlocked all day and all night so that people could take turns using the phone. When the phone rang the people in that home took messages and would deliver the messages to the people living on the block. There was a tablet next to the phone and we would mark our name, the date and time, and who we called so that when the phone bill came we could pay for the call.”
She pointed to another house on South Jardin Street and she said, “You see that house? That was the first house on the block that had a television. Every night people would bring food to that house and everyone would share food and watch television. They would watch 15 minutes of news because that was how long the news was on back then. We would get updates on the Korean War. That family’s son and my son fought in the Korean War. My son was given a purple heart because he almost died after getting wounded by the Chinese who were helping the North Koreans fight the Americans. After the news we would share food and home made wine. We would then watch "Milton Berl," or the "I love Lucy show," or the "Sid Caesar show," or the "Honeymooners," every night we were there.” She laughed and said, “We would sit and watch a blank screen and wait for the News to come on. The family who owned the television never had to cook because so many people brought food to share with everyone else.”
The old woman’s home was beautiful and she had old fashioned furniture and I noticed an old Radio that was probably used back in the 1920’s. I asked her if her radio still works and she said “it sure does.” She had one of those old fashioned Cast-iron sinks in the Kitchen. Everything in her home seemed to be from a different era but you felt comfortable because you felt as if you were seeing a house preserved as a piece of history. She sat me down at her kitchen table and poured me a tall glass of orange juice and she put her groceries away. I got up and started looking at old photographs on the walls. She pointed to an old photograph and told me that the people in the picture were her parents. She told me that her home was in her family since the 1870’s and that her parents came from Poland. She said that she was the youngest of four, the baby in the family, and the only girl. She told me that her father and three brothers once worked in the coal mines. The photographs reminded her of how hard her parents worked to provide for her and her brothers. She told me a story of how when she was a little girl she couldn’t speak English and her teachers thought that, “I was so dumb in school,” she said.
She reminisced and told me how hard her Father and three brothers worked in the coal mines. She told me how her mother worked in a factory, cooked and sold food, baked and sold bread, along with making and selling homemade wine to get by and earn extra money so that, “Me and my three brothers could have a better life,” she said. She showed me an old photograph from a photo album of her stomping grapes for the homemade wine in a large barrel. The photograph was taken when she was seven years old and we laughed at the picture.
She told me how her Father was killed in the mines when she was nine years old and how the miners came to her home to tell her mother about the terrible mining accident. She told me how her mother collapsed to the floor upon hearing the news and the miners with tears in their eyes helping her mother as she wept and sobbed uncontrollably. Her father was laid out in the living room and she explained to me how the miners dressed in their Sunday suits came to pay their last respects. Her father only had one suit that he wore every Sunday to Mass at Saint Georges Church and that was the suit he was buried in and she remembered clinging to her mothers arm at the cemetery the day her Father was buried.
Her earliest memory was her father reading a book to her every night that was written in Polish. Her father brought that book with him to America and she remembered her father telling her that his Mother asked him why he was bringing that book to America and he told her in Polish, "for the Children, Momma."
She quickly began to tell me about the book and I was glued to her every word. I sat and listened to her at her kitchen table and I continued to drink her orange juice. She said that the book was about a baker that baked bread for orphans at an orphanage in Poland. The baker in the story placed small loafs of bread next to the orphans’ beds at night and in the morning he would tell them that an angel placed them there because the angel is watching over them and making sure they never go hungry. In the same story the baker told the children that the angel is with them because they have a special mission in life and that they only have to believe in their angel and everything will be alright. The baker also told the children the story of a donkey that complained about how hard his life is and that no one cares about how hard he works. He complained the whole time he carried this woman who was pregnant on his back along with her husband. At the time the donkey didn’t know how important his mission in life was until he witnessed the birth of the baby Jesus.
She said that she searched for the book after her father’s death and cried when she could not find it and she remembers her mother searching for it as well. Her mother with tears in her eyes told her in Polish when she was a little girl, “it will show up you will see.” The old women told me that years later and a few days after her Mother died the Book mysteriously showed up in a drawer in her old bedroom. She told me that her Mother for years after her father’s death could hear her Father hanging up his mining equipment each evening except for Sunday’s. She said that her Mother heard him hanging up his mining equipment as if he was getting ready to wash up for a hot meal. Her Mother also told her family years after his death that she can still feel his presence in the house and him lying down next to her at night.
She told me how her parents came to America and that during their voyage from Poland they were not allowed to mingle with the second or first class passengers and they had to remain in the bottom section of the ship for the entire voyage. Her Mother was pregnant at the time with her first child and she prayed that her child be born in America so that he or she could have a better life and future as an American.
In New York City they were at the mercy of kind families from Poland that took them in and taught them the ways of large city life. The simple things that we take for granted were difficult for them such as getting on a bus, riding a trolley, and purchasing food. Her Mother would become confused with the American currency and at times was taken advantage of with purchases.
They lived in New York City for a short period of time and having little educational skills and not knowing the English language made finding employment virtually impossible. Her Father heard about the coal mines of Pennsylvania and so he and his wife and new born son traveled to Shenandoah where he obtained employment as a coal miner. He would rise in the morning six days a week before the sun would rise and enter the Coal mine and in the evening after the sun set he would leave the mine and ride the trolley for a single penny from the Maple Hill colliery to Shenandoah. He would hop off the trolley and wash the coal dust down with a cold mug of ice cold beer at one of the numerous bars in Shenandoah. There were three or four bars on every block and every ethnic community in the coal region had their own bars and Taverns. Many of the bars had old pianos and the Miners sang the songs they learned in their native countries prior to immigrating to America. She told me that on occasion her Father would play an accordion for the patrons in the bars that he frequented. He would entertain them covered in Cole dust and still wearing his mining equipment that was leased to him from the mining company. She told me that her Mother would not start cooking until her Father arrived home and washed up and the entire family out of respect ate with him.
She said that her parents had it tough financially because after the mining company made their deductions from his pay for the leasing of his equipment and for the other items such as the blasting powder that he had to purchase from the company store. He was lucky if he cleared 50 cents a week. The Mining companies owned many of the Miners homes and charged the Miners rent. If a Miner was killed in the Mine and his widow was unable to pay the rent the Mining Company would evict her and her family. Many families took in boarders and washed the boarder’s clothes and fed them. In every ethnic community throughout the coal region a lot of the miner’s wives turned their Kitchens into little restaurants. People came into their homes and paid the miners wives to cook a meal for them. The Miners families did this so that they could keep up with the rent and to help make ends meet.
She said that her Family looked forward to Sunday’s because they attended Saint Georges Church in Shenandoah and after the Mass the Miners and their families would gather at various homes where they shared food, played music, sang songs, played various games and told mining stories to their children and what their lives were like in the old country prior to immigrating to America.
Being a miner was a dangerous occupation and the miners quickly learned that the mules in the mines were more valuable to the mining companies then the miners. The Mining companies saw the Miners as expendable labor. The Miners dealt with cave-ins, gas explosions, mine flooding and many miners died and suffered physical ailments from breathing in the coal dust. She told me that her three brothers died from black lung and other complications from breathing in the coal dust.
I also learned that she was married twice and that her first husband died from Influenza and that he was an Italian. She said that she can remember when the Italians built Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Shenandoah in 1914. She said that on Sunday’s the Italian Miners and their families would gather at the Glovers Hill Park on Coal Street which at that time was called the little Italy of Shenandoah. It was there on Sunday afternoons during the summer months that the families shared food, played music, sang songs, played various games and told mining stories to their children and what their lives were like in the old country prior to immigrating to America. She said that she can remember the first Italian festival in Shenandoah which has become a tradition. Every July since 1914 the Italians carry a statue of the blessed mother through the streets of Shenandoah and the Italians pin money on it for good luck.
She told me that she used to work in the old Shenandoah library that was built in 1874 by civil war veterans. She explained to me that she was working there during WW 1 and that is where she meet her second husband. Her future husband would write letters home from the War to his Polish Mother. His Mother could not read or write and only understood Polish. Her future husbands Mother would bring the letters that were written to her in English to the Library.
She said, “My mother could talk in Polish and English and I would read the letters to her and she would explain what the letters said in Polish to my then future husband’s Mother. It was from reading his letters that made me fall in love with him. He looked forward to reading my letters back to him. I couldn’t wait to receive his letters. When the War ended he walked into the Library in his uniform and I took one look at him in that uniform. We got married three weeks later. He worked for the Yuengling brewing company after the war and we had four children.”
She told me with tears in her eyes that her husband died in 1961 and that she outlived two of her daughters and three brothers. Her two sons are working and living in New Jersey as High School teachers. I told her that I am sure they are great teachers for having her as a Mother.
I simply left her home after receiving a hug from her and I returned the ACME cart to the grocery store. I never learned her name or when she passed away but the memory of my experience with her will never fade. Her home is now boarded up like many other homes in the coal region. I wonder what happened to all those great antiques that filled her home. Perhaps her son’s or grandchildren have them in safe keeping.
She reinforced in me just how many hardships the miners and their families faced. I also realize that they did not immigrate to our country to become coal miners. They became coal miners and made the sacrifice so that their families could have a better future. They made their living in life and what they gave to their families and their communities made their life worth living. They also made little financial gains in life and the less they made was less that they were able to save. The Miners families however implicitly understood that you can save anything in life but life itself and they determined their life’s worth by what they gave to others. Their highest reward in life did not come in material wealth but rather their highest reward was achieved by how well they developed in life. They did not strive like fools for the possessions they did not have but they wisely developed what they already possessed within themselves.
The miners and their families understood that it takes a village to raise a child and they brought a part of their villages from their native countries to Shenandoah and to the Pennsylvania coal region as a whole. It was also their ethnic values in the mining communities that were instilled in the children within those communities and they in turn instilled those values in their children and their neighbor’s children. Those values are in the root of our family tree and those same values are the nourishment that must continue to strengthen our family for future generations.
The miners and their families worked under immense pressures and just as diamonds are made under pressure so to have the pressures of the coal region strengthened their family bonds and made the individual characters within the mining communities shine like diamonds. You cannot judge a persons character under times of comfort and convenience. You can only see the true character of an individual under times of challenge and controversy. You can also gage the true character of a person by how well they reach out to help those of the least influence. The miners helped those in need in their communities without the expectation of receiving anything in return because it was simply the right thing to do.
I learned such a valuable lesson from that woman in the summer of 1980. I learned that not all history is learned from the history books. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to children are stories that can instill in them a greater appreciation of their heritage and their family history. They in turn will keep the coal miner’s history alive when they tell their children the same stories. The stories of how the miners immigrated to America, settled down in the Pennsylvania coal region so that their children, grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children can have a better life as Americans.
The miner’s greatest achievements in life were all the subtle altruistic acts of kindness that they bestowed on the people within their communities. Their greatest gift’s were not of gems and flowers but of loving thoughts because the love they had for their families and community were the enlightening words of the soul more precious then the diamonds and gold of the world.
© 2005 Thomas F. O’Neill
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