Sunday, December 13, 2009

A New Baby and a Dear Sister

Life was not often pleasant for the miners and their families. The work was back-breaking, dirty and depressing for the men; women’s lives were endless cycles of washing and mending miners’ clothing. Grandpap came home filthy from each shift--even his face was as black as the coal he dug. Electricity was not yet supplied in the company houses so Baba heated hot water on the stove to fill a large tub on the kitchen floor.*  Grandpap leaned over the tub to wash off as much of the black as he could. Then the water was changed so he could wash a second time to feel clean. Every few days Grandpap wore a hole in the knee of his pants while kneeling to chip out coal with his pick. Those pants were patched and repatched repeatedly.

On June 21, 1913, one month short of their first anniversary, Baba gave birth to their daughter, Mary in a house near Crescent Mine #2 in Snowden. The baby was not moving, a ‘blue-baby’, and as Baba describes it, “She was all black-like.” When it had appeared doubtful the baby could survive the difficult birth, Michael Maczko had gone to Clairton to bring back the priest to baptize the newborn at the house. In the meantime a neighbor woman came in and proceeded to wrap Mary up in layers of blankets which Baba was afraid would smother the baby, but instead warmed and brought life to her. After the baptism she was all right except for being very colicky for many months after. Baba moved the baby’s cradle around the house as she did her daily chores and cooking, trying to keep it rocking to soothe the baby. Less than three years later, on March 27, 1916, son John was born in a company house in Snowden.

There was little to look forward to in a mining community except dancing and drinking after hours and during religious festivals when immigrants with a common cultural background could occasionally forget the daily drudgery and have some fun. One joy in Baba's life was that when Mary was an infant Baba’s sister, Anna Kovacs, brought her little family to live in the Bubnash's company house in Snowden until they found their own dwelling nearby. Daily life seemed a little less bleak for both women as they were able to share in caring for each other's children and cook and clean together. Both of their husbands worked 6 days a week in the Crescent coal mines near Snowden and later back at the steel mill in Clairton. Job security was non-existent as the mining companies laid off workers without warning the instant a mine became unprofitable or from the steel mill if there were mechanical problems or a shortage of raw materials. A laborer and his family moved often to be close to wherever his current job was located as they usually had no transportation to work besides walking. The Bubnash and Kovac families did their share of moving in the mid 19-teens, sometimes moving only a mile away which was then one mile less the men had to walk to work.

*Many collieries were equipped with a bath house for the coal miners; Crescent Mine may not have been set up this way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An Arranged Marriage

One of the five boarders living with Baba's brother was a man named John Bubnash, who would become my Grandpap. He was born on September 11, 1891 in the Carpatho-Rusyn village of Valaskovce on the north slope of Vihorlat, the highest peak in the Carpathian Mountains of the old Hungarian Empire in what is now Slovakia. His people were shepherds and his father Paul died before his son's birth.  Grandpap's mother, Mary Szorokacs, then moved her young family six miles south to Poruba, a larger village at the foot of the Carpathians.  Thus my Grandparents both grew up in Poruba but because they were 5 years apart in age, were not particular friends.

At some point Grandpap quit school and returned to his home village of Valaskovce to work for his Uncle George and other farmers. The only future for himself in the old country was working for landowners as a low-paid  farm laborer. Thousands of Zemplen County natives, the majority being younger single men, were heading for new opportunity in the United States, so Grandpap immigrated to America on the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, passing through Ellis Island on October 29, 1910.   Though most of Grandpap's Bubnash relatives eventually settled in Stockett, Montana, Grandpap headed for Snowden, perhaps because some Poruba aquaintances lived in the area.

Michael Maczko was not pleased to have continued responsibility for his youngest sister Suzanna. He was already supporting his wife, Mary Gnorik and three young daughters, Anna, Mary and Veronica.  So when John Bubnash expressed an interest in Baba, Michael not only encouraged him, but eventually arranged that she marry him despite her objections, namely her youth and the fact that they were not well acquainted.  In Poruba marriages were commonly arranged by the family of the bride and groom and though it was natural to continue to exercise the custom upon immigration to America, even in the old country brides were usually around 18 at the time of marriage and the grooms around 21.  At their marriage Baba was a month past 16; Grandpap was 20.

On July 20, 1912, at Ascension Byzantine Catholic Church in Clairton, Suzanna Maczko was married to John Bubnash. The ceremony was conducted by Father Irenaeus Matyaczko and witnessed by George Gibka and George Molcsan. She wore a trainless white dress and homemade veil, while John wore an ordinary Sunday suit. The couple traveled to the church in a horse-drawn buggy. There was no money for a wedding photograph, but there was a celebration after the ceremony that included plenty of dancing and drinking. About $50 cash was donated as wedding gifts and that is all this couple had to begin their new life in Clairton. With the money they purchased a few essentials such as a stove, bed, table, chairs and dishes. For a short period of time they lived in Clairton while Grandpap worked in the steel mill. Their first home was on the hill near where the Jewish couple lived (Baba’s previous employer), but the house was full of rats and roaches so they soon found better living quarters. However, their time in Clairton was short-lived as Grandpap discovered mine work was more palatable. He almost enjoyed loading coal into carts where he could work without anyone telling him what to do whereas in the mill, the boss was always too close behind him. So they moved back to Snowden.

As mentioned, they did not have a wedding photograph taken.  Below is a wedding-day photo of Grandpap's cousin, Mary Ella Szorokacs and her husband Michael Zetts.  They married in 1920 in Bradford, Pennsylvania and their ages at marriage were the same as my Grandparents.  I think my Grandparents looked about like this on their wedding day.

photo courtesy of Judy Whisler Zetts

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Bleak Existence

Accommodations were bleak in Snowden and hundreds of other hamlets in the hilly coal mining country of western Pennsylvania. The mining companies such as H.C. Frick, Jamison Coal and Coke and others built company houses by the scores in each settlement, called a patch. Most of the houses were duplexes, each side with its own front door and each side meant to house one family, although often several families crowded into one side of the house. In each half of the house there was usually a living room in front, a kitchen in back, and then on the second floor, one or two bedrooms plus an extra sleeping area at the back of the bedroom which we might call a loft.

A company patch at Library, Pennsylvania, near Snowden

Those who boarded unattached men could earn more money by renting the same bed to two men.  If two men worked opposite shifts in the mine, one could be sleeping in the bed while the other was away, then they would trade.  A little more money for the housefrau to help make ends meet!

Amenities were few. Coal stoves provided heat for warmth and cooking, and light came from kerosene lamps in the early days. Electric light bulbs in the ceiling came later. There was no indoor plumbing and men called honey-dippers regularly emptied the outhouses. Roads were paved with red dog which is slate that comes out of the mine with the coal and is burned in the slate dump until it is semi-pulverized. Landscaping was non-existent, leaving surrounding yards dirt mixed with cinders.  When the wind blew the cinders stung and got caught in the eye. There was no attempt by the coal companies to create a comfortable homey atmosphere in their company houses since any extra expenditure on their part cut into profits.

Employee's families were "encouraged" to shop at the company store; prices were high there compared to retail prices in town, but with careful record-keeping the company tracked who shopped there and who did not. Those who did not patronize the company store found themselves without a job in a time when there was no unemployment benefit or welfare to fill in the gap between jobs.  Rent for a company house was deducted from his paycheck before a miner ever saw it.

After three weeks in the country, Baba was able to find a job housekeeping for a Jewish storekeeper/butcher in Clairton who lived on the hill above the Monongahela River. She could reach Clairton by walking the most direct route --along the railroad tracks (3 miles), but most of the time she boarded with them, earning $8 per month in addition to room and board. This family treated her kindly and she remained friendly with them for many years after quitting this position. Baba now went by the surname Maczko. Her brother informed her that Csernej was only the family nickname in the old country. Maczko was her true surname.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Coming Home

I have a copy of Baba's passenger immigration record, found at  Searching there for names of Eastern European immigrants is not easy for two reasons: first, those vowel-deficient names could be spelled umpteen different ways and second, because the handwriting is difficult to read, the indexing is not perfect (I know this first-hand as I worked as an indexer).  If Baba had not told me that she entered the US as Suzanna Csarney, I might not have found her on the list, but would have searched for her under every spelling of Maczko and variations of Csornej.  Either click on the following link or copy and paste it to see the passenger immigration record (line 20) showing Baba.  The second page of her record can be found by clicking "previous."  Use the magnifer.  Her traveling companions are on lines 19 and 21.

You will see that both Baba and her sister-in-law, Mary Szemjan, were heading for Mary's brother Mike's house in Pittsburgh; Baba told me he lived over in the Oakland section of the city as per the Ellis Island record (but another time said he lived south of Pittsburgh).  They were not met by him at the train station.  The two women had little money and spoke no English.  They eventually found a Slovak-speaking man with a wagon who was willing, for a $5 charge, to transport them and their luggage to where Mike boarded.

The girls knew the address of the house but when the driver knocked on the door the man who answered claimed never to have heard the name Szemjan. The driver went all over that part of town looking for the right house, not finding it until asking a schoolboy heading home for the day, who then directed them back to the first house they had approached. There was no language barrier on this street as nearly every resident was an immigrant from Eastern Europe come to work the coal mines. The man who without explanation led them astray in the first place was a Szemjan, a cousin of Mike Szemjan!

The immigrant girls had brought little luggage with them so Mike gave Baba $15 for clothing which her brother repaid when he arrived three days later to take her home.  Home for Michael Csornej-Maczko and now Baba was a tiny coal hamlet called Snowden, located in the hills west of the great steel city of Clairton.  He worked in the mines while his wife, Mary Gnorik, did what many women did: she ran a boarding house for miners who were either single, or in America without their families.  The extra income was essential to the poor immigrants who lived on the edge, subject to mine closures, evictions, and the heavy-handed management of the mine owners.

Boarding house work was as tough as mine work in some ways.  Women were up at 4 a.m. to begin food preparation--breakfast and lunch pails for all the men; then they did loads of laundry for the group and also her own family, plus daily patching of miner's work clothes, then cleaning, which in a filthy mining settlement never ended.  Shopping for food, preparing dinner, cleaning up, then doing other odd tasks might take until late into evening.  Even children chipped in to lighten the load where they could, if they were not already working as slate pickers in the coal breakers.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ellis Island

After three weeks at sea Baba was still seasick in steerage and did not know that her ship glided quietly past New York harbor's Statue of Liberty. It seems a sort of hopeful, welcome tribute, that Lazurus's words inscribed on the tablet set at the base of the monument--tired, poor, huddled masses--exactly described Baba and her two traveling companions:

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Landing at Ellis Island, courtesy of Norway-Heritage

Thousands of European immigrants were processed through 27-acre Ellis Island so officials efficiently limited the time that each spent there. Sanitary facilities and food were stretched thin. In 1911 an average of 5000 immigrants per day passed through. Each immigrant was tagged before leaving the ship with a card that stated their name, origin and destination. Baba presented her documents to the immigration officials and although only 15 years of age, she claimed to be 17 years old for fear a child of 15 traveling without an adult would be sent back to Europe.

Dining Hall at Ellis Island, courtesy of Norway-Heritage

A brief medical exam was administered. The main concern of immigration officials was that no immigrant have serious contagious diseases, especially trachoma (an eye disease), or any other physical condition which might interfere with the ability to be self-supporting. Other than that, if a newcomer appeared in good health, he or she was allowed to stay in the US. Baba described her fear at this part of the immigrations process. The worst thing that could happen would be to be sent back home. The eye exam, though quick, was particularly objectionable because a buttonhook-like tool was inserted under the eyelid so it could be inspected for disease.

Once officials determined everything was in order, Baba and Mary Szemjan boarded the train for Pittsburgh which departed from Ellis Island very late that night, December 14, 1911. Mary Szorokacs took a separate train, her destination being to relatives in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Immigrants Waiting to Depart Ellis Island, courtesy of Norway-Heritage

Leaving Home

SS President Lincoln, courtesy of Norway Heritage

Emigration became a definite possibility for Baba when part of her parents' farm was sold, and according to a provision in their will, she received nearly $300 as her share of the inheritance.*  Agents from American coal and industrial companies visited European villages encouraging people to emigrate and fill the jobs available in America. An emigrant could purchase a ticket in his home village from one of these agents which would take him the entire route to his destination. Baba spent about $260* for one of these tickets. It provided for train passage to Hamburg, steerage passage across the Atlantic to New York’s Ellis Island, and train passage from New York to Pittsburgh.

She left her home village in November of 1911 in a wagon bound for the nearest train station, likely located in Michalovce, the largest city in the far eastern end of Slovakia. Baba knew this was probably the last view she would ever have of her homeland.   The railroad route took Baba and her companions (her sister-in-law Mary Szemjan and Grandpap's cousin Mary Szorokacs) north through the Carpathian Mountains to Krakow (then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), then northwest through Prussia, to the port of Hamburg, Germany. They arrived there on November 16, 1911. They waited five days until their ship, the SS President Lincoln, left Hamburg for America on November 22.

Even though laws had been passed in many countries in the 19th century to improve steerage conditions aboard ships carrying immigrants, the quarters were far from being pleasant or comfortable, and food was always scarce. Seasickness struck, and was worse for those in steerage who were forced to spend most of their time below deck in their berths breathing foul air and being tossed about with every lunge of the ship. Some steerage passengers had apparently not brought enough of their own food supply to supplement the meager servings provided by the ship's cooks, so there was frequent stealing of food from the kitchen during the night. When prepared food was brought to those below there were sometimes fights over the portions, as naturally each desperate passenger was looking out for himself.

Between Decks Feeding Time courtesy of Norway Heritage

This voyage of the President Lincoln was far longer than the usual 7-10 day trip common in 1911.  It took  22 days at sea, and though Baba mentioned the length she never said why.  It's possible that ice-pack delayed the ship.  It was only 4 months later that an iceberg sunk the Titanic.  The SS President Lincoln's arrival in New York on December 14, 1911 hardly came soon enough for its passengers.

*NOTE: These dollar amounts are what Baba gave me, but I am now convinced that she was converting the amounts into 1980 dollars.  I cannot say what the cost of land would have been then, but every bit of information I've uncovered in regards to the cost of immigration in 1911 names amounts less than 10% of this number.

For a description of the President Lincoln and details from one of its dramatic harrowing voyages, see


At age 11 Baba had completed fifth grade and decided to quit school to help full time on the farms for the next several years. She had obtained a good foundation in reading and writing but has always struggled in math. At age 13 she went out on her own by becoming a full-time housekeeper and boarder in the village cantor's home, for which she was paid $1 per week, or $50 per year, plus room and board. A cantor is the leader of congregational singing in a Byzantine Catholic church who doubled as the school master in Carpatho-Rusyn villages, and this cantor happened to be a native of Michalovce. She felt more wanted and needed here as she took care of the house and became close friends with the cantor's wife, who became like a mother to Baba. When the family went away, she was trusted enough to remain behind to milk the cow and feed the animals.

By age 15 Baba was concerned about her future, particularly her ability to eventually independently support herself. Villagers, usually men, occasionally returned to Poruba after earning enough cash in America to buy land in their native village. They encouraged immigration by telling tales about the easier living and good money to be made there. The idea of immigration was attractive to young, unattached men and women who had nothing to lose by making a new life in America. The story-tellers left out the parts about the extreme prejudice Eastern Europeans faced in American cities. They were called names such as “greenhorn” or were victims of stone-throwing and even pummeling fists. Naturally, the most menial jobs were offered to these newcomers: coal mining, steel mill work, and slaughter-house work for men, and housekeeping for women.

Baba had an obvious destination in America. Her brother Michael had lived most of his adult life in America, and in 1911 resided in Snowden, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Mary Gnorik. He had originally immigrated to America around 1893 at age 18. He returned to Poruba in 1902 to marry. He remained briefly, then leaving his wife in Poruba, went back to America to work. In 1906 Michael again returned to Poruba to bring his wife and three-year-old daughter, Anna, who had been born in his absence, to live in Snowden.