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| History of Freeland,
The coal mines
What's on this page:
Here's an 1884 geological map of Luzerne County from the 2nd Geological Survey of Pennsylvania. The fact that it shows Woodside but not Freeland suggests that it might label mining locations rather than towns. On the right is a cropped section of the map highlighting our area of the county.
Billy Kuklis shares this Miner's Certificate for Anthony Kuklis, 1910, showing that Mr. Kuklis passed his mining examination.
Memories of a coal country past, from Diane Unangst
I was reading your "Memories of a coal country past" and your recollections sound very familiar to me based on what I've heard from my family.
I remember making toast at my grandmothers by putting a piece of bread on a long skewer and putting it through a small door in her coal stove. She didn't have a toaster.
I asked my Dad about the ashes. He said they had two garbage cans, one for the garbage and one for the ashes. So everyone did take out their ashes when they took the garbage out. He said the town kept the ashes at the dump.
My Dad said they heated their two story house with the coal furnace in the basement and the one heating duct on the first floor, as well as the coal stove in the kitchen.
My Dad said they used to eat the dinner leftovers for breakfast the next day, and that when he was very young they used to move every time his Dad (the insurance salesman and WW1 vet) found a cheaper place to rent.
My great grandfather Louis Feissner (who lived on Adams St.) worked a steam shovel at the mine near Jeddo. In the early 1900's he had one of his eyes blown out in an explosion there at the mine. I don't know the details but there's another example of how unsafe the working conditions were at the mines.
Memories of a coal country past, from Patricia Bzdil Paul
My Bzdil grandmother had a coal stove in our Hemlock St. house and my mother did the kitchen over in the early 50’s and had an electric stove installed. We still had the coal furnace and I remember coal being dumped into the coal bin - which was a room in the front of the basement facing the street, and it was very tempting to climb up that coal mountain.
It also brought to mind that I was told my Petrichko grandfather got his shoulder (maybe clavicle?) broken when a beam fell on him while he was working in the mines. He had to walk home with that broken shoulder - 9 miles - have the doctor come to the house to set the bone and pay the doc. Then stay out of work with no pay for 6 weeks. (I think they must have brought the guys to work in a company bus or something and they weren’t going out of their way to help him in the middle of the day.)
Anyway, my grandmother then made the kids go out picking huckleberries to sell while my grandfather was out of work so they could eat. And she also made them pick coal off the highway. They lived on South street right near the old Rialto and near what later became the roller rink. (was that a brewery at one time?) There was a bar/restaurant on the corner - Ravina's? The coal trucks would drop coal as they went. My mother said she was mortified doing that - pulling a wagon and picking up coal for the coal stove.
And that coal stove was the only heat in the house. With an outhouse in the back. My mom said she was scared to death to go out there in the middle of the night. Makes you wonder what life was like in Slovakia to make them come here for that?
There was an attempt of doing a strip mine in the field below my house that we played in a lot. When I was little it was just a big hole and we used to catch tadpoles there and climb in and around it. It's totally flat now and I guess has been for years. You might remember it? I think they probably gave up on it, maybe because it was so close to houses? My grandmother worked cooking for priests in a rectory in Hungary and then worked for a wealthy jewish family in NY before moving to Freeland. A lot of the food is the same. I don’t know the story of her meeting my grandfather and them deciding coal mining was a good idea. She was able to make pastries like in Austria but my mother said it looked like too much work, getting the pastry dough thin by pulling it not rolling it, so never bothered to learn. But she did learn to make bread and my aunt would pay her a quarter to make it on my aunt’s days. You had to get up early to get it going, evidently. My grandmother made her own noodles too. And she made beautiful shirts for her sons. And everyone had a vegetable garden in the back. Remember those?
I know that my grandparents got a cow when my father was a baby so he could have milk. He was sickly as a baby and my aunt told me he had ‘waste-away’ - which I am pretty sure is TB. The cow was kept in the garage in the back that we played in and that my dad kept his dogs in and rabbits at one time and pigeons too. I wonder if they ate the cow? My dad had a pet groundhog, too. I have a photo of that. Oh and a photo of him on a pony - someone came around with a pony and a camera and took your kid’s picture. I think everyone has one like that.
Memories of a coal country past, from Chuck Tancin
Even though I didn't grow up in a mining household, our family was in Freeland because of our miners, and of course we used coal in our house, and so I'm taking this opportunity to share a few stories. When I was a little kid in the early 1950s we had a coal stove in our kitchen, where we lived in an apartment owned by my grandfather next door to his garage and above his auto supply store. My grandfather, my uncle Georgie, my aunt Helen (briefly, before she got married), my uncle Johnny and aunt Aggie, and my family all lived in this complex of 3 apartments in a building that my grandfather had bought from George B. Hudack, who had bought it from Peter Timony. My grandmother had died a few years before, after which the family moved from Upper Lehigh to Freeland. My grandfather had gotten out of the mines in the 1920s and began what became a series of several garage businesses. My dad and my uncles Johnny and Georgie worked for my grandfather. My uncle Joe had married and moved to Hazleton. So most of my dad's immediate family was concentrated in that one area at the corner of Carbon and Center streets.
Here are two early incidents. We had this coal stove in
the kitchen, as was still common for many families then.
My mom had been born and raised in Newark, N.J. and had
never seen a coal stove before. (She'd never seen
outhouses either, and only agreed to marry my dad on
condition that they live somewhere with indoor plumbing,
which ruled out the family home in Upper Lehigh.) One day
she decided to please my dad by cleaning the stove. She
was very thorough, and hoped he'd be proud of her
industriousness. He came in for dinner that night and she
was in tears because she couldn't get the stove to light.
He peered inside the stove and, puzzled, asked her what
happened to all the bricks. Wailing, she said that she
cleaned out the stove and pulled them all out so they
could be thrown away. (City girls, eh?) Fortunately the
bricks were still around and he managed to put them back
in place so that dinner could get back on track. Lesson
learned. On another occasion, I was about 2 years old,
playing in the kitchen. Next to the stove sat a coal
bucket and small coal shovel. All of a sudden I was
choking -- apparently I'd put a piece of this beautiful,
gleaming coal into my mouth -- and by the time my dad got
to me I was turning blue. He managed to expel the coal and
save my life. Sometime not long after that they replaced
the coal stove with a gas model, but the furnace for the
three apartments would remain a coal furnace for all the
years that our extended family lived there, which is to
say until very recently.
This was not uncommon -- many local families heated and
cooked with coal. We were in anthracite coal country, and
Freeland and the surrounding communities owed their
existence to the local mines. Although Freeland wasn't a
company town, its early success and substantial growth
over its first 50 years largely owed to the mining
concerns that surrounded it. Here's another little
diversion that gets back on track by the end of the
paragraph. My grandfather, John Tancin, grew up in
northeast Slovakia and by 1908 was a teenager and an
orphan, at which time he and his twin brother Andrew took
a ship to the U.S. to join their older brother Mike and
sister Anna (whose first husband Andrew Krak had died from
a mining-related illness in Slovakia). John and Andrew
came in through Ellis Island and stopped in Yonkers first
to see Anna, who as it turned out would remain in Yonkers
with her young son, eventually remarrying, and so we have
a branch of the family there to this day. But Mike had
gone on to Upper Lehigh to work in the mines, and so my
grandfather and his twin brother ended up there, too. A
friend of my grandfather's from Slovakia, George Gmiter,
would come over the next year, another link in a chain
immigration that brought many people from this region of
Slovakia to work in the mines in our area. The twin Tancin
brothers married Berta sisters, both families raising
their children in Upper Lehigh. Andrew's legs were crushed
in a fatal mine accident in 1924; my dad told us his
memories of being a little kid and seeing his uncle
Andrew's body laid out on the kitchen table, and seeing
the candle wax dripping onto the dead man's hands. On an
earlier occasion, some years before his death, Andrew was
walking home from the Upper Lehigh mine with my
grandmother's brother George Berta, both men carrying
their lunch pails, and they were almost home when a ball
of lightning struck as they were walking along the train
tracks; the lightning knocked Andrew over and killed
George; my grandmother Mary Berta Tancin was watching out
the window and saw it happen. That one wasn't actually a
mining accident, but there were other mine-related
accidents and fatalities in our extended Tancin/Berta
family, and sadly this was not uncommon among mining
families. The various strikes that took place over the
years were not just for better hours and pay, but also for
safer working conditions. Those mines were damned
I was struck by this on a recent visit to the old St.
Casimir's cemetery and the former
St. John's Nepomucene Church, where in both places
there are large chunks of coal sitting near outdoor
crucifixes, starkly underlining the sacrifices made by our
area miners and the importance of coal and mining in the
lives of the parishioners.
Just to finish this up, though, let me go back to
memories from my own life, and many readers will recognize
this in their own experience. Even when we moved to a new
house in 1960 that had a fancy electric kitchen stove, it
also had a brand new coal furnace, which was in use until
shortly after my dad's death in 1991, when it was replaced
with something that didn't require daily filling of the
hopper and frequent removal of the ashes. I asked my
brother Steve to share his memories with me regarding the
coal furnace, as division of labor in our house was such
that he ended up being the one who often tended the
furnace. He said that the furnace in the new house was an
automatic furnace, and much easier to take care of than
our previous one. You didn't have to feed it or stoke it
the same way; you just filled the hopper nightly with
coal, and emptied the ash can every few days. When the
furnace would kick on the grates would shift, knocking
most of the ashes down into the ash can, while new coal
would come down from the hopper onto the grates. The fan
would turn on, lighting the coal from the remaining
embers, and those burning coals would heat water that
would then flow into our baseboard heating throughout the
house. Our furnace was in a small room sectioned off from
the rest of the basement. We called it the coal bin, and
there was a ground level window in it where Jack
Breznitsky would deliver coal twice a year by backing up
his truck and lowering a chute into the open window so
that the coal could run down into the coal bin. We had a
huge pile of coal in that coal bin.
I also asked Steve to remind me about using ashes to make
the streets less slippery in winter. I remember that
people would haul their ash cans out to the street and
spread the ashes (the way we salt roads now) so that the
cinders would enable tires to get some traction. What I
couldn't remember, but Steve did, was that the borough and
township also had trucks that would go out and ash the
streets and roads. We're trying to remember where they
would get enough ashes to do that. Might people have put
out their ash cans along with their trash so that the
ashes could be picked up and stockpiled? I'm hoping that
someone reading this can help me out with that detail.
Steve also recalls, and now that he's reminded me I do
too, that in the springtime street sweepers would sweep
the streets and then shovel the winter's ashes out of the
ditches into trucks to take them away. I can see in my
mind's eye one of the men who did this job when I was in
grade school and perhaps high school, but can't bring his
name to mind at present. I'll post it when I can.
One last thing that flashed through my mind as I was
writing this is the coal jewelry that used to be sold at
Bertha's Shoppe in the 1950s and 1960s. Bertha's was
located directly across the street from the Refowich.
Bertha and George sold fabric, including drapery and
upholstery fabric, and also jewelry of various kinds. I
think they did upholstery work there, too. There was
always a lot of interesting stuff on display in the front
windows, usually including jewelry of various kinds and
often including earrings, pendant necklaces and brooches
set with stones of highly polished anthracite coal, as
well as desk sets -- matching pencil and pen holders --
made of coal.
And yet another last thing, a grade school coal memory
surfaces: rock crystal gardens made with coal and fabric
bluing. We did this in class at St. Mary's, painting
bluing onto pieces of coal and seeing brightly colored
crystals grow on them in the course of a week or two.
There is actually a company that still sells this stuff: Mrs.
Stewart's Concentrated Liquid Bluing. You can find
instructions there so that you, too, can grow a rock
crystal garden on some pieces of coal.
These memories will resonate with some readers from their
own experience, while others reading this with no such
experience will perhaps find them interesting. For the
most part my comments here don't reflect the seriousness
of what life was like for our area miners, how hard they
worked and how difficult their lives were and how much we
all owe them. Fortunately we have many other resources
that capture and convey some of that reality, including
Bob Falatko's A history
of Foster Township and much of what has been and
is being done by the museum staff and volunteers at Eckley
Miner's Village. The August 2013 commemorative coverage of
the 1964 Sheppton mine disaster by the Standard Speaker
recently provided a stark reminder of the life and death
realities faced daily by miners. My rambling memories here
are just a way to show some of the ways that coal touches
our experience in tangible and intangible ways.
Meanwhile, I'd be grateful for additional information,
photos or stories that anyone would like to share about
this or other parts of our collective coal experience.