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.

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