Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Preservation of coal mining heritage has become a growing concern of oral historians in Pennsylvania. As inter­view projects have grown, however, several gaps in the collections have been identified by the Coal Miners Research Association, a national organization whose function is to coordinate research efforts into the subject. One phase of die mini11g experience which needs to be documented more thoroughly is home life and recreation.

Mining life in the pre-mechanical era at the beginning of the century was often primitive, unpleasant and extreme­ly difficult and dangerous. Within this demanding environment, what did miners and their families do for enjoyment at home and in the community? What forms of recreation, entertainment and relaxation did they have? What special occasions prompted them to have a good time? What special customs were part of the festivities? Which occasions were the biggest reasons for miners to celebrate. and how did they prepare for and do their celebrating? This article will attempt to answer these questions with reference to the lives of the bituminous coal miners from the Connellsville coal and coke region of south western Pennsylvania, an area about sixty miles southeast of Pittsburgh which includes all of Faye lie along with parts of Greene and Westmoreland counties.

Accounts from a variety of old-time miners and their relatives will be used to reconstruct, on a partial basis, what adults did for recreation and enjoyment. Some of the activities described were common to most southwestern Penn­sylvania patches, but others were peculiar to one coal town only. What follows is a sampling of occasions and festivi­ties that were primary sources of entertainment for the miners.

 

When one thinks of good times in the patch, weddings quickly come to mind. To celebrate a marriage, people in the patches went “all out.” As Merle Olson describes it, the event was a week-long party:

A wedding, if it started on a Saturday, lasted till the next Saturday. As long as you had food, and you had drinks there, the wedding lasted. The entire town would turn out for it. The reason it lasted so long was that it was a form of recreation. When a wedding started in a mining camp, you had these old gypsy bands come around, they would play, and they would have three shifts of them, they would play daylight and night time. A wedding would constant­ly go on. You helped yourself to food and drink and dancing – and that kept going on till the food ran out and the drinks ran out. and the gypsy bands went home. Then you went back to work – the party was over. But then you waited for the next one.

Although some weddings did not last a week. most continued for more than one day and were community affairs characterized by dancing and abundant feasting and drinking. John Hustosky remembers how the families “would barbecue a whole beef, and a whole hog on an open fire out in the yard,” and how “they had all kinds of booze, especially wine,” because “most of the foreign people made their own wine, they were permitted to, and hardly a family didn’t have a cellar half full of wine barrels.” In addition to wine, beer was plentiful, costing only one dollar a keg. Accord­ing to John J. Coll, no one worried about “keeping the beer cool in the kegs” because “it didn’t stay in long enough.”

A popular location for a wedding reception was in the bride’s or groom’s backyard. There, after the church service, dinner and drinks would be served, musicians would play and guests would dance into the night. But in one patch, because of the gener­osity of the superintendent, empty company homes were used for the festivities after church. Tekla Skomra recalls:

When they had weddings at York Run, and if there would be an empty com­pany home, one side it would be, the superintendent would loan this to the family and this is where they could go dance, and this is where they had their tables spread out to eat, and it would go on for two or three days that way.

Associated with the wedding cele­brations was a variety of special cus­toms and traditions peculiar to a patch or ethnic group. For example, in Ralph, “the kids would gather outside the newlyweds’ house” on the night of the wedding reception. Then, according to Melvin Nicklow, “the kids would beat on tin cans, copper boilers or anything they could find. They would continue doing this until the bride and groom would come outside and throw money and candy to them.” In Edenborn patch. Mary Malesky’s relatives and neighbors would take to a wedding “a big old tub and old dishes from the cupboard, and they would break the dishes in the tub so they could dance with the bride.”

For weddings at Lambert, it was customary, say Ann Gamon and Mary Shuman, for a musical quartet to be present as the bride left the house to go to church. The instruments played were an accordion, bass fiddle, saxo­phone and fiddle. The bass fiddle was the favorite because anyone requesting a song usually threw money into it. Before the married couple returned to the bride’s home, the entrance way into the yard was decorated with crepe paper and flowers to form an arch. Suspended from the top of the arch were two dolls, one male and the other female. The new husband would cut down the dolls, give the girl doll to his wife and keep the boy doll. Such a ritual expressed the hope that the mar­riage would be blessed with at least one son and one daughter. After the dolls were removed, each member of the wedding party broke through the arch and received a shot of whiskey. Although this wedding arch custom in Lambert originated with Polish miners, it became popular with people of other ethnic backgrounds as well.

Christenings, like weddings, were forms of recreation that included nu­merous relatives and neighbors and occasionally lasted several days and sometimes a week. The criteria for a successful christening, in Joseph and Eleanor Rerko’s neighborhood, were “a lot of food,” such as “chicken, pork and ham,” and “a lot of booze, homemade booze.” But in the Rerko’s experience, before the celebration would begin, an important custom was followed. When the family returned from the baptism at church:

They used to put the baby under the table to see if it had a father and mother to pick it up. When the god­mother and godfather brought the baby in the house, they’d put it under the table, and the real mother and father would have to go and pick it up to show that they were the rightful parents.

Other occasions for enjoyment were holidays. Two of the most festive were Christmas, a winter celebration, and the Fourth of July, a summer celebration.

For Tekla Skomra, Christmas was “the happiest time.” During this holi­day, the company store at York Run was transformed into a community hall where the people would gather to sing Christmas carols and meet Santa Claus. After the singing was finished, adults and children would stand in line, present a ticket to Santa and receive a pound of scarce candy from the Union Supply Store.

Christmas was also a “really big holiday” for mining families in the coal town of Ralph. Melvin Nicklow remembers:

I would come home from school and find that the house had been cleaned from top to bottom. It was a different type of cleaning from the normal everyday cleaning. The lace curtains would be on the stretchers after being washed. A couple of the rooms would have new wall paper on them. The furniture would be rearranged to make room for the Christmas tree. It seemed as though the air would be charged with excitement. It would be that way until the holidays were over.

About a week before Christmas, they used to have community dances in the community hall. And the day before Christmas. the coal company sent a horse-drawn wagon around. They would have a treat for each child in a paper bag. The treat consisted of a popcorn ball, an orange, an apple and a pound of hardtack candy.

When Christmas did come, that was a big day in itself Neighbors would visit one another sharing the tradition­al glass of wine and whiskey and Christmas treats of candy, pastries and nuts. The children would also visit one another to see what Santa Claus had brought them. It was a big tradition for the miners to teach their children about Santa Claus.

During the Christmas season, the center of attention and enjoyment in patch homes was the Christmas tree. Because the woods were usually close by, a tree was easily accessible at no cost. The goal of most families was to cut down the biggest tree they could find and fit into their homes. Elizabeth Oravets describes one such tree with its typical trimmings:

We always had a big tree with candles on it, little ones that would snap onto the branches, and pretty glass orna­ments and beads, silver and gold tinsel, popcorn that we would string, and little dolls and stars and Santos made out of cookie dough with pictures pasted on with icing, and a big star on top of the tree.

Christmas presents for children were not as numerous or extravagant as they are today. For example, in Mrs. Oravets’ youth, the children’s stockings were filled not with com­puter games but with fruit, nuts, pop­corn, new shoes or other clothing that was needed. Joseph and Eleanor Rerko report that they would get “one little toy like a mouth organ, or a little horn for a dime,” or a “babydoll.” To acquire the babydoll, the mother would save bread wrappers. When she accumulated about twenty wrappers, she would take them to the company store and redeem them for a babydoll – and this would be a Christmas pres­ent. Although children did not get much at Christmas, what they did re­ceive was usually appreciated and en­joyed because they knew the sacrifices that had to be made to purchase the gifts.

A popular summer holiday for the miners was the Fourth of July. It was an occasion for dances in the outdoor pavilions near the ballfields or in the community halls. It was also an occa­sion for the arrival of “the man with the big truck,” who was the bearer of infrequent, eagerly awaited treats. Mary Malesky recalls how “the man” would “come from the Union Supply Store at 5:00 A.M. in the morning and put a half gallon of ice cream on the miners’ porch and a big watermelon on the kitchen porch.”

In the opinion of some, like John A. “Jack” McMullen, the Fourth of July was “the biggest celebration” of the year:

At Lambert, my father and Mr. Rex, the superintendent, put on a Fourth of July celebration that was almost un­believable. They had a double-header baseball game, and they had boxing matches, and they had races, and the ladies would have contests to see who could throw a rolling pin the farthest, and they would have a tug-of-war and, of course, they had a bar; prohibition or not, they always had a bar. Every­thing was free. If you worked there, you had a check number and you got your booze or your beer free and your pop free. Of course, everybody brought their own food. And they would have a fireworks display; to this day, maybe it was because I was young, but I’ve never seen the equal to these.

Also in the summer, during July and August, some coal companies sponsored yearly community festivals. In Tekla Skomra’s community of York Run, these festivals would last “several days, beginning on Wednesday and continuing through Sunday.” For the children’s special enjoyment, the com­pany had “a ferris wheel and a merry­-go-round.” For everyone’s delight, specialty foods provided by the com­pany and homemade goods baked by the townswomen were available for a very small price.

To play music at the main event, which was a dance, “a band of about twenty people would be formed.” Almost all townspeople turned out for the merriment. The dance occurred “near the company store on a plat­form especially built for the occasion.” Lights were strung from the store to the platform where residents danced the fox trot and the polka.

An additional highlight of the festival was the baking of “a beautiful, three-layer, wedding-like cake that was offered as a prize during the cake walk.” Sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 in the evening, the cake walk began. Marching to music on the dance platform, couples paraded two by two before the onlooking crowd. When the music stopped, the couple closest to a predetermined spot on the platform was the winner of the cake.

For regular summertime recreation, very little could surpass a baseball game. When asked about the dominant recreational activity in a patch, most miners cite baseball. Both the partici­pants and the spectators derived satis­faction from the sport.

According to Stanley Machinsky, “watching the game was the highlight of the week and the people walked for miles, sometimes up to eight miles one way. to see their team.” Bill Burke, an all-around player and manager for the Lambert team, remembers that “base­ball was it,” the main activity in the town. As a player, he sometimes played “six to eight games a week.”

Fan support was intense. John Hustosky and his neighbors “supported the teams 100 percent. It was a big deal having a winning baseball team in the patch.” The community involve­ment. the heated rivalries and the ulti­mate respect for one another are re­counted by Mike Sokol:

There was always a big crowd at the game. When we played ball, it was al­ways a community event. Everybody was there watching. People from both patches would come to watch their teams. You knew there would always be a few skirmishes because the beer was flowing and you could not help but to get riled up at times. But there was never any lasting hard feelings, we were all brothers, and we knew it. We all had that respect for each other.

Preferential treatment of miners who had baseball talent was common:

If you could play baseball and was really good at it, you had it made. Back in my [Sokol’s] days, the mine companies went out and recruited ball players …. The people of these mines would hire anyone on the spot if they showed signs of being any kind of a ball player. They couldn’t care less if you could work or not. In fact, on days you played ball, you got paid your day’s wages as long as you re­ported. You didn’t have to go down inside the mine …. The company owners used baseball as a means of promoting their mines. Really, what was an easier way to promote your mine than winning the championship all the time?

Alex Whoolery, a Fayette County Hall of Famer, concurs with Sokol: “A good ballplayer did not have a difficult time getting a job.” In fact, some com­panies tried to steal good players from other companies by offering them better jobs and more money.

Although a ballgame by itself was a source of community enjoyment, it was also a stimulus for other recrea­tional activities. Alex Whoolery re­members how “patch festivals and dances were planned around an impor­tant home game.” Before the game, the patch band would parade through the streets to arouse interest, and then lead everyone to the game. After play­ing at the game, the band would march players and fans to the festival area and pavilion, where a dance would normally end the festivities.

Although Mather, like Ralph, had a community hall for recreational events, it also had a meeting spot in the center of town called “The Liar’s Den.” It was here that the miners would engage in a major form of recreation – talking. They would sit and relax for hours while exchanging stories on every sub­ject imaginable. In addition to the working miners, the elderly of the patch and the school children found “The Liar’s Den” to be a pleasant place for passing the time.

The area, according to Julia Lo­bozzo, was a pavilion type cement structure “made into an octagon shape” with “a roof overhead.” Other features of the pavilion were “the guard rails – great big, heavy, enor­mous pieces of tube steel – like a ban­ister type of thing, and two pairs of steps, one coming up from each side.” Lobozzo offers one reason why the meeting place acquired the name of “Liar’s Den”:

We called it Liar’s Den because it was where all the miners met coming to and from work. They used to sit under the roof … and stick their legs down through the railing and hold themselves up on the railing and tell all kinds of jokes and tall stories. And I mean they knew about everything! Politics, what was happening around the country and everything. But a lot of times there were many lies, and Dad used to bring these lies home. We’d say, “Ah, Dad, I don’t believe that. No, that’s going too far. Don’t listen to those guys down there.”

For the older folks in the patch, playing pinochle and listening to the radio were favorite pastimes. In Joseph Rerko’s day, “the older men always sat together some place on an old empty house porch where some old bachelor used to live, and they’d play pinochle.” He used to hear “those guys arguing over that pinochle and they’d play the cards till the faces wore off the cards.” Although there weren’t too many people who owned radios in the patch, the Rerko family was fortunate to have an old one which “sat on the porch for the men to listen to.” Mostly “the older folks would come and gather to listen to Amos and Andy, and Lowell Thomas at quarter of seven every night.” They considered Lowell Thomas to be “the greatest man in the world,” and “Amos and Andy were next.” During these programs, while the men sat around and listened, “you couldn’t even cough. Lowell Thomas was every­thing; he was a second God.”

To enjoy themselves, women of the community often participated in a quilting bee. “One woman,” recalls Johanna Swetz, “would start a quilt and all the other interested women would gather at her house to work on the quilt. They would work on it day after day until it was finished. Then they’d move on to someone else’s quilt.” In this way, the women used their working time as a time to social­ize and to exchange the latest news.

Like a quilting bee, community rug-making provided pleasure and re­laxation for the miners’ wives. To break their daily, solitary work rou­tines, several women would get to­gether in someone’s home to make rugs during the day and to enjoy one another’s company and conversation. Such projects, observes Eleanor Rerko, would continue for a week or two. While they worked, the women would share their different colored threads and rags from old dresses and other materials.

Both the literature and the news­paper accounts written about the early coal miners usually emphasize the un­happy side of the mining experience: strikes, disasters, primitive living and working conditions, health hazards, low wages and conflicts with the bosses and mine owners. Consequent­ly, many have not come to know well enough the festive spirit of the coal miner as it survived during the pre­mechanical era. That a distinct zest for life did survive in southwestern Penn­sylvania emerges from the accounts of retired miners and relatives when they reminisce about the various forms of recreation and entertainment that helped them to celebrate life.

 

The author wishes to thank the interviewers who helped to make the article possible and Bobby Salitrik for her photographic assistance.

 

Dennis F. Brestensky, coauthor of the book Patch/Work Voices: The Culture and Lore of a Mining People, holds an Ed.D. in English education and is an associate professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University, Fayette Campus. Since 1976, he has also co­-directed an oral history project on the mining heritage of southwestern Penn­sylvania at that institution.