Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Wearing a straw boater, he rode in the passenger seat of the Cadillac, and forlornly surveyed the pick­eting miners who blocked the lane leading into the village of St. Benedict in Cambria County. He sig­naled his manservant – serving now as bodyguard and chauffeur as well – to proceed through the human blockade. Angry strikers taunted them, shouting obscenities, as they drove up the hill to the guard station at the edge of the com­pany town, where two uniformed offi­cers waved them through. How, in 1927, had it all come to this? After decades of friendly cooperation he felt alone, isolat­ed from the very people with whom he had worked hand in hand. He was at a loss as to what he could do or say to resolve the troubled situation.

Rembrandt Peale (1858-1934), coal baron, impressed all whom he met. A newspaper reporter once described him as having a “splendidly shaped head of white hair, a face that would do for an artist’s study of a Roman senator, bril­liant black eyes, a tall athletic body and the unmistakable atmosphere of a man of large affairs.” It was his charisma, however, that distinguished him and his sense of fairness that garnered admira­tion and respect.

He was known to be singularly affa­ble, approachable, and respectful, not only with business associates and gov­ernment dignitaries, but with company employees and servants as well. He genuinely enjoyed children and often conversed with them on the roads of his mining towns, near his coal mines, and at his summer camp.

Peale was born in Lock Haven, Clinton County; the son of Samuel (known widely as S. R.) and Harriet Peale. After earning a degree at Lehigh University in 1883, he began studying law at the University of Pennsylvania. However, after a year of law school he left to pursue his growing interest in his father’s coal enterprise. S. R. Peale, a lawyer and state senator, had acquired large tracts of Centre County coal lands in the 1880s and had induced the New York Central Railroad to build a line up the Allegheny Mountain front range so that the bituminous coal industry might be developed. In 1887, when Rembrandt first became secretary of his father’s Bloomington Coal Company, it operated only two mines in Glen Richey, Clear­field County. He assumed control of his father’s interests in 1890, and later orga­nized Peale, Peacock, and Kerr, a holding company which he headed until 1933.

Peale, Peacock, and Kerr controlled a number of diverse enterprises, including a dozen or more mining operations, a land and mineral-holding company for erecting rental houses and brokering sales of mineral rights, a merchandising concern for company stores, and a coal brokering firm in New York. The coal companies included Grassflat, Bald Hill, Carrolltown, Cherry Tree, Russell, Springfield, Dunhem, Portage, Bloom­ington, and Glen Richey. Among the mining towns Peale and the company built were Bloomington, Glen Richey, Rembrandt, Arcadia, St. Benedict, and Emeigh. Peale also owned mines and miner’s housing in Portage, Nanty Glo, Clymer, Dixonville, Clearfield, Winburne, Spangler, and Buck Run. By 1913, his operations were producing nearly three million tons of coal a year, second only to the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company among independent operators.

Peale served as a director on the boards of both the New York Central Railroad and its subsidiary, the Clear­field Bituminous Coal Company. These associations allowed for convenient transfers of mineral rights between the two companies and for the development of virgin coal lands by the extension of the New York Central Railroad’s lines. This symbiotic relationship also guaran­teed the railroad substantial supplies of coal in the event of tight markets, while protecting its subsidiary from losses during market gluts.

Recognizing that the bituminous industry would be shifting to the untapped fields of Indiana and Cambria Counties, Peale bought coal lands and rights in these areas in the late nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries. He sought locations for a mining town, headquarters for mining operations, a showplace, and a family summer retreat. In 1900 he acquired the Boyle Tract, nestled among the farms of Catholic German-Americans, as a site for all of these.

Peale named his mining community St. Benedict in honor of his friendships with several priests of the Benedictine order who lived in a monastery in near­by Carrolltown. Outside the town he built what he called “Camp Benedict,” a one hundred-acre wooded parcel replete with log cabins, rustic cottages, barns, coops, and stables. At Camp Benedict he could contact his New York office via a short-wave radio and entertain digni­taries, prospective customers, and hold­ers of mineral rights. The Peales spent summers at the camp, bringing a tutor from New York to teach their sons John, Richard, Vanhorn, and Rembrandt Jr. (known as Remmie). The family left for New York with the onset of autumn, but returned to spend the Christmas holi­days at their rustic haven.

Although he could be empathetic to the needs of the workers, Peale never suggested the elimination of class dis­tinctions. He wore expensive clothes, employed servants, and lived in opu­lence, yet he appeared to understand his laborers and appreciate their needs. Perhaps his marriage to Eudora Batchelor best embodies th.is dichotomy. The aristocratic Peale related very well to Eudora, who came from a working class family, yet after their marriage asked her to attend a finishing school in order to prepare her to associate with his influen­tial business colleagues and members of his social set. Simply put, he wanted­ – and needed – his wife to feel comfortable as a member of the upper class. Although he respected the qualities of the working class, he saw himself as more aristocratic in his tastes, needs, and responsibilities.

In the absence of government social programs Peale took responsibility for looking after the families of miners who had been seriously injured or killed at work. He provided free housing for the widows of his workers. He gave survi­vors jobs at his mines, company offices and stores, and summer homes. He believed every family should be given the opportunity to gain respect by pro­viding for itself. Office and store workers not represented by unions felt free to speak directly with him about griev­ances. He offered workers positions at new mines as old workings were closed, and he hired interpreters for immigrants so they could communi­cate problems or con­cerns to their supervi­sors and foremen.

Peale’s benevolence extended to civic­-minded actions such as supplying free coal to churches, schools, and to the households of injured miners; provid­ing turkeys to widows, destitute families, and churches in his mining towns at holidays; lend­ing his personal auto­mobiles for funeral ser­vices; sending a compa­ny truck to transport children to Sunday school picnics; and pro­viding Christmas treats for miners’ children. He was also active in charitable and community organizations, including the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts.

Peale’s treatment of his household and estate employees was fundamentally paternalistic – he saw workers and their children as members of an extended family. His relationships often crossed class boundaries, most notably his rela­tionship with the family of his grounds­keeper, Mike Smith. When Peale’s son Van.horn died of pneumonia in France during World War I, he asked Smith and his wife Mary to name their newborn son in memory of Vanhorn as a consola­tion to Peale’s grieving wife. The Smiths felt honored and carried out his wish.

Peale’s respect for labor unions and his devotion to the progressivism of the Democratic Party also influenced his management style. He was a proponent of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), seeing the union as a stabilizing force in an industry where wages fluctuated drastically and where labor transiency unsettled both miners’ families and coal opera­tors. Unlike other independent coal operators – among them Abram Weaver, T. H. Watkins, and the Berwind family – he interacted easily with union officials, treating them as fellow businessmen.

In the political arena, the Democrats made their strongest appeal to unions during the 1916 campaign when President Woodrow Wilson courted labor to ensure reelection. Peale served the wartime Wilson administration as one of the earliest members of the Fuel Administration and by organizing the Tidewater Coal Exchange in 1917. As commissioner of the Exchange, he coor­dinated coal sales for the New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Hampton Roads harbors, which increased the effi­ciency of coal distribution for the World War I effort.

Peale’s own initiatives to engender a cooperative climate between coal opera­tors and miners included his recommen­dation of Charles O’Neill, a union administrator, for secretary of the Central Pennsylvania Coal Producers’ Association in 1918. And labor respected his justness. In fall 1919, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis suggested that Peale serve as a negotiator for a strike at the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company’s Coral Mines. John Brophy, president of the Central Pennsylvania UMWA District Number 2 and a left-wing opponent of Lewis, agreed that Peale’s help was need­ed. By November 1919, the coal strike had spread nationwide, and President Wilson sought a tripartite approach to solving the dispute (see “To Organize the Unorganized” by Eileen Mountjoy Cooper in the winter 1989 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage). He called on Peale to represent the coal producers on a three-member committee, with John P. White representing labor and Henry M. Robinson the public. The commission hoped to fun y articulate the needs of all three parties to serve as a basis for the settlement of future coal labor disputes.

Impressed by Peale’s integrity and reputation for fairness, miners wrote more letters to him during the negotia­tions than to White, their own UMWA representative. Peale possessed a knack for expressing optimism, even in the darkest of circumstances. Noting that the war had brought an aftermath of confu­sion, he believed the nation would do the “common sense thing in restoring balance” because it was like a “great business founded and run on princi­ples that were fundamentally sound and progressive.” He likened American citizens to company stock­holders keen on dividends. In the end, the coal commission suggested a wage increase for miners of twenty­-seven percent for those paid by the ton of coal loaded and twenty percent for those who were paid a daily rate.

The Democrats Lost the 1920 election, however, and the coal industry suffered a postwar slump in the absence of gov­ernment support for arbitration. Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover aban­doned the tripartite approach to solving labor problems and encouraged competi­tion between the union and non-union coalfields, an action which threatened the survival of coal operations in the union fields. President Harding demon­strated his disposition toward the unions by failing to intercede in state court deci­sions that would effectively outlaw unionism. In the meantime, idealists among the coal operators were being dis­placed by a new breed of entrepreneurs, many of whom were considered arrogant and aggressive.

Whether the abuses directed towards labor would have surfaced under a more progressive Democratic administration, or were inherent in the economic diffi­culties of a postwar economy is hard to say. From 1920 to 1930 the overall value of bituminous coal production fell by sixty percent-from two billion dollars to less than eight hundred million.

In this climate the UMWA and opera­tors of the CentraJ Pennsylvania Coal District clashed in two major strikes – in 1922 and in 1927 – as operators tried to cut their losses by reducing wages. The first strike prevented the unionizing of non-union mines, and the latter saw the association of coal operators disempower the union (see “That Magnificent Fight for Unionism: The Somerset County Strike of 1922” by Eileen Mountjoy Cooper in the fall 1991 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage).

During the mid-1920s economic decline, ethnic and religious tensions escalated as employment opportunities decreased. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was especially active, using an aggressive anti-Catholic stance .in an attempt to intimidate ethnic workers. Tactics includ­ed marches of hooded Klansmen and cross-burnings on hillsides above mining towns. The movement was pervasive throughout the central Pennsylvania coalfields. It reached a disastrous level with a KKK-provoked riot in the nearby town of Lilly in 1924 when three people were killed and nine were wounded. Upon hearing of cross-burnings on the ball field above St Benedict, Peale moved quickly to find the perpetrators, putting a quick end to the hostile activi­ties.

With the threat of strike by the UMWA in 1927, the Central Pennsylvania Coal Producers’ Association sought a peaceful resolution with the union. Although the association rejected the union’s demand for a renewal of the so-called Jackson­ville Agreement’s pay scale, it sought a continuation of collective bargaining and negotiating. This approach bears a remarkable resemblance to Peale’s approach during the 1919 and 1920 wage negotiations.

Peale urged his min­ers to work at the reduced wage scale pending a negotiated settlement. But most of them refused to work any length of time at reduced wages, and in 1927 they went on strike, picketing his mines along with other union mines in the dis­trict. His efforts to encourage negotiation were thwarted by the National Coal Producers Association, which was bent on breaking the union, and by a union that refused to accept any decrease in wages for any length of time.

The 1927 strike was unsettling to Peale in several respects. The mines at Glen Richey were closed, but at his operations in Clymer, Dixonville, Spangler, Emeigh, St. Benedict, and Nanty Glo non-union labor was recruited to replace the strik­ing miners. As an independent operator, Peale competed with other independents for customers; a complete shutdown could well have put Peale, Peacock, and Kerr out of business. He made the diffi­cult decision to bring in replacement workers after he had gone from house to house in St. Benedict in a futile attempt to get the men to go back to work.

Tensions grew taut and tempers flared. Emotionally charged picketers vilified those who worked, including Peale’s manservant. In time, Peale evict­ed strikers from company housing and hired special deputies and coal and iron police to guard the town. He feared for his family’s safety to such an extent that he assigned a guard to patrol Camp Benedict through the night. Conditions worsened in town. Since most replace­ment workers were single men who would work only temporarily, community life suffered. Civic pride plummeted – even the houses deteriorated.

About a year later, while the strike continued, fire destroyed the company store’s slaughterhouse in Emeigh. The next week, a barn burned at Camp Benedict, and a ball cap was found on the grounds suggesting foul play. Increasingly fearful for their safety, Peale moved his family permanently to a house built in St. Benedict for his son Richard. Peale’s spirited optimism, according to those close to him, seemed to have permanently faded after these events.

He did live to see progressivism return in 1932 with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with it encour­agement to reorganize the UMWA in central Pennsylvania. By 1933 he had turned over his coal enterprise to his sons, Remmie and Dick. In a rousing let­ter to Remmie, written on the eve of the transfer, Peale stressed the values of hard work, steadfastness, reliability, courage, calmness, prudence, and generosity.

Many mine workers maintained their respect for Peale during the dark times when they had no union; some even expressed empathy with his position as a member of the coal producers associa­tion. Ever a gracious man, he had won unswerving loyalty from many. Upon Peale’s death in November 1934, the Clymer local of the UMWA dispatched a telegram to his family in which the muon members, conveying their “feel­ings of deep and personal loss,” mourn­ed the demise of their “co-laborer in the mining industry.”

Here was a man who knew the value of hard work, appreciated the sacrifices of others, and understood the hardships of many. This was Rembrandt Peale, a coal baron, whose noblesse oblige matched his business acumen.


For Further Reading

Beik, Mildred Allen. The Miners of Windber: The Struggles of New Immigrants for Unionization, 1890s-1930s. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

____. The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Brophy, John. A Miner’s Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

Fox, Maier B. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America, 1890-1990. Washington, D. C.: United Mine Workers of America, 1990.

Michrina, Barry P. Pennsylvania Mining Families: The Search for Dignity in the Coalfields. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Williams, Bruce T., and Michael D. Yates. Upward Struggle: A Bicentennial Tribute to Labor in Cambria and Somerset Counties. Johnstown: Johnstown Regional Central Labor Council, 1976.


Barry P. Michrina is an associate professor at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. He received his bachelor of science degree in chemistry from St. Francis College, his master of science in chemistry from Colorado State University, a doctor­ate in agronomy from The Pennsylvania State Univ­ersity, and a doctorate in anthropology from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is the author of Pennsylvania Mining Families: The Search for Dignity in the Coalfields (1993). His arti­cles have appeared in Pittsburgh History, Plant and Soil, and Photographic Science and Engineering. He has presented papers at conferences conducted by the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, the American Anthropological Association, and the Industrial Relations Research Association.