Anthracite Tales, Part 1

Jean Croll, one of Chorus pro Musica’s altos, and her family come from Pottsville—the heart of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. This town of 14,000, known today mostly for the Yuengling craft brewery, was once a center of American industry. Its mining history began as early as 1790 and continued until the demise of the coal industry after WWII. This blog series, “Anthracite Tales,” gives snapshots of life in the anthracite region, drawn largely from Jean’s family history. Individual posts will focus on stories from Jean’s family, life in her close-knit community, and the environmental impact of coal mining on the region—and more broadly. We also look forward to reports from a member who will visit the anthracite region in the coming weeks. Editorial assistance is provided by CpM bass John Lemly.

Like other German farmers, one grandfather, Oliver Franklin Croll, drove teams of horses to drag carts of coal out of the mines until trucks came into use after WWI. Although not a miner himself, this teamster still got black lung disease from all the coal dust. Jean: “My Dad remembers his father coughing so hard, doubled over by the kitchen stove, that he had a stroke and fell unconscious and did not remove his hands from the stove although he was burning them; he died a few days later (12/30/1923).” Impoverished, his widow and six children survived on her earnings as a housekeeper and on charity from the Loyal Order of Moose, a fraternal organization that provided a social safety net a century ago. Later Jean’s father Harry “was allowed to graduate high school after 10th grade so he could work in the brickyards to help support the family.”

John L. Lewis and the 1943 coal miners’ strike. S.J. Ray, K.C. Star.

Life was hard, work in the mines was dangerous, often deadly, grinding up “flesh and bones in this industrial machine that we call modern America,” to quote John L. Lewis’ 1947 speech to Congress on “protection for miners.” Jean’s brother David recalls seeing the Schuylkill River in the 1950s running black from the coal dust and miners with missing fingers, scars and “coal tattoos” on their faces and hands, and lots of chewing tobacco. “Why chewing tobacco instead of cigarettes? Because you couldn’t smoke in the mines, so most miners chewed instead.”

It was a polyglot community, immigrants of all sorts—German, Irish, Italian, Czech, Polish, Ukranian. Everyone drank Pottsville’s local beer, Yeungling (near beer during Prohibition), and when they partied, feasted on sausage and sauerkraut and soda bread and galumpkis. Even the more prosperous families were not shielded from the price this industry exacted from human beings and nature itself. Jean’s great aunt Marguerite Spannuth, “a prim and proper spinster,” living in the fanciest part of town, daily enjoyed respect from the poorer sort, but could never be oblivious to their hardship.

Breaker Boys photography by Lewis Hine, c. 1911.

As merchants and tradesmen, Jean’s mom’s family were rather well off, but some of her cousins did work in the breakers, boys sorting out impurities. Her mother Eleanor tells about asking an uncle for a piece of candy, and “he fished one out of his pocket for her, covered in coal dust!” Every night before they could go to bed, men home from the mines soaked in big corrugated tubs which the women had filled with hot soapy water to scrub off the coal dust. Thanks to their “clean coal” New York socialite Phoebe Snow, darling of a railroad ad campaign, could boast that on a trip to Buffalo, “My gown stays white/From morn to night/Upon the Road of Anthracite.” The men brought home the paycheck; the woman’s job was to take care of the breadwinner – cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and miners! And in their spare time, most grew lush cottage gardens of “magnolias, chrysanthemums, poppies, rhododendrons, forsythia, heather, forget-me-not,” as one of Julia Wolfe’s interviewees recalled. Flowers blooming in anthracite fields.