Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Company Store

At the beginning of this series I'd posted a link to Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "Sixteen Tons", a song which laments the life of a coal miner.  A mainstay in the song are the lyrics "I owe my soul to the company store".   This refers to the lifestyle differences between the mere coal mine workers and the "esteemed" coal mine honchos. 

Back in the heyday of coal mining, the mine owners didn't just own the mines, they owned the towns in which they were located.  The miners lived in company owned homes, shopped at the company owned store, and, in many ways, were kept hostage by the company itself.  Often the miners' pay went straight to the company to pay the rent and heating.  Credits were given at the store, which took payment directly from the miners' wages. 

Eckley Miner's Village is a prime example of a coal mining town, complete with the company store and a doctor's office. You can take a virtual tour of this popular Pennsylvania "attraction" on the website (the links to the videos were not working for me tonight, but I have seen them before so if a link doesn't work for you, try again later).  Eckley is one of my "must-see" spots in PA if I ever make it there for my genealogy trip: My paternal grandmother and her family lived there after they'd returned to PA from Kansas in around 1915.

As we learned last week, miners' pay was generally dependent upon the amount of quality coal they brought in.  If there was too much slate in the coal car of a miner, that miner's pay was docked. Given this and the practice of the coal company taking certain deductions from the miners' pay to cover their rent and food, it was really tough for someone to move up and move on; putting money aside was just not an easy thing to do even outside of the low wages to begin with.

But you better believe that if a miner wasn't pulling his weight, it was easy for the boss to get rid of him!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why I Love the Internet

My ancestors in the United States, at least those born prior to 1930, were relatively easy to find (sorry for the unintended pun).  That is because until the 1930's or so, family members grew up to live near family members, thus limiting the number of different locations in which to look.  After the 1930's, however, people started to stretch across the country.  First we had relatives move from Luzerne County, PA to the Chicago area. Others migrated to Niagara County, NY. Over time the distances between relatives grew to Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, and then to Houston and Virginia.  With the time that has passed and the distance that has grown, keeping up with my immediate family was rather tough, let alone keeping up with cousins I'd known or meeting cousins I hadn't. This was a big country, after all.

Until the Internet came along.  The Internet gives a whole new meaning to the song "It's a Small World After All".  Since beginning my genealogical journey I have been able to reconnect with old friends and cousins. Through my Internet adventures here on my blogs, at, at, and through Facebook, I have gained family connections that I hope make my ancestors proud, as second cousins and third cousins three times removed have managed to "meet" and become friends. 

This evening I went to the post office to check my PO Box, which I took out after a recent move.  As I was walking to my box I was suddenly struck with a blast of sadness as something there ... I don't even know what ... made me think of dad.  I had to brush away a tear and I didn't quite know what set it off.  But alas, it was short lived.  I checked the box and found a key to one of the "package" bins.  Inside the bin was a box from a second cousin in Pittston, PA, who found me through her and her son's research several years ago.  She'd been reading my blog for quite some time (and I suspect often disappointed in the gaps between posts over the past year or two) and sent me an email about my recent series on the History of Anthracite Coal Mining in NE Pennsylvania.  I keep meaning to respond but time seems to escape me. 

Anyway, the item in the box that I found inside my the P.O. bin made my tear fade and my face and stomach roar with laughter:

Straigt from the culm bank in Hughestown, PA.  Thanks, Joyce.  You really made my day. And sorry I've been so negligent lately.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How the Earth was Won in the Coal Region

The demand for clean coal in the 19th and early 20th centuries was great, and, as learned last week, the coal industry of Northeastern Pennsylvania reached far beyond the reaches of our shores to those of the U.K., Ireland, and Eastern Europe.  Immigrants from these regions and more flocked to Pennsylvania to land a job in what is still today one of the more dangerous professions.

Coal mining is dangerous for many reasons.  The bulk of the work was done underground in cold, dark, and dank conditions.  It was not work for the claustrophobic.  The use of explosives brought dangers of its own, plus the added dangers of the earth caving in, water flooding in, and trouble getting out for those caught inside at the time of the incident. 

Coal mining was also not always a guarantee of pay.  If you were one of the laborers in the mines, setting off explosives and loosening the coal, your pay was dependent upon the amount of coal you brought in, and penalties were steep if the quality was less than what the mine bosses wanted.
Technology wasn't always so complex, but it always made life a little bit easier, a little bit safer, and/or a little more profitable in the long run.  The coal mining industry of the late 1800's and early 1900's benefitted from techonology in a way we would scoff at today, but miners underground credited with saving their lives.
Over time, alternate fuel sources diminished the need for coal, and thus coal miners. But the field of coal mining is not dead, as we've been so tragically reminded these past few months and even years.  Coal remains a valuable resource; thus there continues to be a need for miners willing to lay it on the line below the earth on which we trod.
Next up:  The company store!