Thursday, May 23, 2013

Treasure Chest Thursday: A Miner's Christmas

While back east visiting Mom I took some time to go visit Aunt Betty. Aunt Betty is really my Mom's cousin but somehow all who know her have come to call her Aunt Betty. I just love my time with her and we do go on about family and local history in Western Maryland around the little town of Frostburg.

This time I asked her when she thought Welsh stopped being spoken locally in the churches and at home. We have no real data but figure that most likely by 1900 no Welsh families in Western Maryland were speaking Welsh anymore. By then, in the coal mining families around Frostburg who came from Wales, everyone had learned English and was speaking it. Our guess is that the original immigrants from Wales didn't teach it to their kids, as immigrants often didn't in that time. It was all part of the assimilation process.

Aunt Betty chatted about how it was growing up in a coal mining community where just about everyone worked for the mines. Her best friend was from what we might now consider a "poor" family. The daughter, then maybe 9 years old as I remember Aunt Betty saying, had it as her summer chore to pick coal from the slag heaps (waste coal) and bring it back home for storage until it was used for the fires of winter. Aunt Betty went along and helped her friend just for fun.

While in Main Street Books, the Frostburg bookstore and one of my favorite haunts when visiting Mom, I noticed a book by James Rada, Saving Shallmar. Here's the Amazon write up, below.

In fall turned to winter in 1949, the residents of Shallmar, Maryland, were starving. The town's only business, the Wolf Den Coal Corp. had closed down, unemployment benefits had ended and few coal miners had cars to drive to other jobs. When children started fainting in school, Principal J. Paul Andrick realized the dire situation the town was in and set out to help. He worked to get the story of the town's troubles out and get help for the town's residents and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams just in time for Christmas.

As I read the book, based on fact and using real names, on the flight back to San Diego, I picked up a bunch of information about life in a typical coal town in Western Maryland. I found that picking coal for heat in the winter, as Aunt Betty had done with her friend, was entirely common. There are plenty of details of everyday life to keep the casual reader happily turning pages!

The thing that stayed with me and was found throughout the book is how the coal mining companies entrapped the miners and their families. Shallmar, an actual coal town in Garrett County, Maryland, was pretty much typical of what was going on elsewhere. The coal companies, or operators as they are sometimes called, would offer high paying jobs to lure the best miners with their families. Miners with families were hard-working and stable and wouldn't move when they were needed during boom years.

The coal company often provided small houses and a company store close by for convenient shopping. They paid miners in script that could only be used to pay rent or buy goods from the company store. It became a trap when the script was only good to buy high-priced items at the store or exchangeable at a great discount for real currency. Shallmar was too far away from any real town where a miner might shop without driving a car to it, and besides, very few of the miners here had cars.

Shallmar at the start was a bit different in that the homes were quite lovely by comparison to other such homes offered by coal companies. They were wood frame and two story by contrast to the typical and tiny stone one-story miner's homes in Eckhart Mines, Maryland, where I have other ancestors. Shallmar in the beginning was pretty and roses grew over a trellis at many doors, a real model community. The power plant for the mine also supplied free electricity for homes. Sure residents only had power during the day, but at least they had it.

But as the time passed, the mine got played out with the best and easiest coal taken. Then after WWII, the price of coal dropped so miners got laid off and those left were paid less. Some lucky few did move out of Shallmar and on to other opportunities. But about 600 individuals remained at Shallmar even after the mine closed and there was no more work to be had and unemployment benefits and union payments ran out. Without a car to take them elsewhere, they were pretty much stuck in Shallmar.

I've driven all over this territory in Western Maryland, and seen the old coal shacks still in use. It's sad and desolate. I'll confess to naively thinking, "Why don't they just move?" Reading about Shallmar I got an education in the social and economic dynamics of coal country poverty.

But wait! Don't pass up this book because you think you'll be too sad when reading it. Nope, there are good people around and they do make a difference, and it's worth reading about. And yes, it's a Christmas story! So if you have any coal miners on your tree and you want a book that gives a lot in the telling, get this one.

Eckhart Mines coal camp houses.
(Photos below courtesy of and Chris DellaMea. Thanks you Chris for the wonderful web site on coal mining communities, especially those in Western Maryland where my peeps worked.)

Shallmar coal miners houses.
(Also from the same source as above... thank you Chris!)

Two story version of the miner's houses.

Smaller one story version at Shallmar.

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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating ! I love reading about your research into the miner's lives in Shallmar and Frostburg . The pictures are great too. Like you, when I drive past these old tiny houses , I always wonder how they did it.