By Lily Beauvilliers
June 19th, 2009
I am a twenty-first century student. So when it came time for me to take what I had learned from the Susquehanna Writers Institute and use it to intelligently interview residents of the Ashton region, the first tool I reached for was my laptop. Although college certainly has taught me the value of consulting books and other people, in this particular case, I was lucky enough to stumble upon reality while consulting the Web. But more on that in the portfolio.
As a student journalist, I have spent four years learning how to shirk shyness and just talk to people. As a freshman, my articles were populated largely by quotes from my hallmates, but by senior year, I could approach a student (or anyone else) at a concert or a club meeting and feel comfortable in my “student reporter” role. I have long since dropped my pseudo-newsboy hat, a prop which felt to me like an official badge, but really served more as a baby blanket. Approaching people in Ashton and the surrounding area, however, felt completely different from my journalistic exploits.
During one of our group excursions, a woman gave us a tour of Sunbury. Velcroed onto her shirt were the words “I'm from here.” I may as well have had the opposite tattooed on my face, for all the comfort I felt in Ashland. I am, very distinctly, “not from here,” having spent most of my life close to Philadelphia. The Bucknell Bubble was a place I knew. Ashland wasn't. So it was back to the props, in this case, a Canon Rebel film camera, and a brand-new digital audio recorder.
Lucky for me, the first two people I interviewed, Mike and Brunina Reilly, were incredibly personable and interested in sharing their story. They introduced me to Jim Klock, who could rattle off information like he had a teleprompter. Mike and Brunina I found through Mike's Web sites, the safe and twenty-first century way. But I spoke with them in their home, and, as with Jim, I spoke with them about their lives as much as I could, treading into the realm of the private.
What resulted was an interesting mix of the personal and the historical. Mike and Jim are interested both in the history they lived, and the history which came before. And Brunina provided me with a particularly interesting woman's perspective. This mix of information has prompted me to develop a general thesis, tying together ideas of landscape and memory. In the following short essays, I will develop these ideas. However, I enjoyed my time with these people so much, I wanted to preserve the experience intact for others. So I've also included the (practically) complete transcripts of my conversations with the Reillys and Jim. I hope that through perusing them, you can also see why these conversations have sparked a new interest for me – to learn more about small towns. They also sparked a new desire – to step away from my twenty-first century methods of communication, and learn to talk to people again.
Ashland: The place lingers, the memories fade
When he told me the high school had shut down years ago, I stared in disbelief. “Where do the kids go to school?” I asked. And he explained – the surrounding towns shared a high school, middle schools, elementary schools. None were located in Ashland.
I have never lived anywhere other than Pennsylvania. I was born here, and I chose to stay here for college. And yet, the anthracite coal region of my state feels more foreign to me than my semester in France. Coming from a small but thriving town close to Philadelphia, I grew up thinking that “home” was where your school, your shops, your hospital, your carnivals were. “Home” meant a sense of history, and a grocery store every couple blocks. I tentatively asked Jim Klock, lifetime resident of Ashland and treasurer of the Ashland Area Historic Preservation Society, “Is this home?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he replied.
There was something here I didn't quite understand.
Ashland has a rich history. Although it began in as a coal town in 1820, some of its residents turned to manufacturing, making the town unusually wealthy. This wealth eventually faded, both because of the decline of the coal industry, and the creation of malls. “People just didn't shop downtown anymore,” Jim told me.
The older the history, it seems, the happier Jim is to talk about it. When it comes to his own memories and ties to Ashland, his answers become shorter, and quickly delve back into historical detail. During our interview, I wondered the cause of this reticence. Is he just a shy person? Does he think I'm not interested? No, I think the cause lays somewhat deeper.
Jim loves Ashland. He is happy to tell me about the Ashland Boys Association (ABA), the rise of the town and its businesses, and all the wealthy families who lived there. He seems proud of the parks and the monuments they built (particularly the mothers monument, featuring a statue of James McNeill Whistler's famous painting). But much of this was either before his time, or during his childhood. Ashland now is a fading place.
Nothing exemplifies this like the Labor Day parade. The parade began in 1901 when coal miners, out of jobs in Ashland, went to Philadelphia. These miners came home every year on Labor Day, and so many came from Philadelphia, they ran a special train. This reunion turned into a club (the ABA), and eventually a city-wide event, including mummers and bands. Jim learned the banjo at the age of 40 just to play in it. It drew people and culture from Philadelphia to Ashland. Commemorative coins, steins and booklets were produced and sold celebrating the celebration. But this year is the first year Ashland will not host its parade.
I expected Jim to tell me that the reason was money. This is not a good economy for a parade anywhere, let alone in an already economically depressed area. He confirmed this belief, to a point – fewer people live in Ashland now than ever, so there are fewer people to donate. But a bigger resource is lacking these days: interest.
“People just don't come out like they used to,” Jim said. Interest in forming a community is dwindling, as people from larger cities move here for cheaper housing. On top of that, people have fewer and fewer parties of their own. Jim blames this on an influx of police. “They set up a DUI trap at the end of town,” he said. “Nobody wants their friends to get in trouble.” But I wonder if there isn't something more fundamentally human changing in Ashland.
Jim loves Ashland because he remembers something many people don't. He remembers its heyday. He remembers a time when kids played on the hills instead of in their living rooms. He remembers the wealth and the shops. He remembers the importance, not so much of coal mining, but of coal miners, those men who, even as they left, always called Ashland home. But for a new generation of people, these memories of Ashland are fading. People move into the area and don't learn the history. What does someone from Philadelphia care about the Ashland Boys Association? And kids spend more time indoors, watching television and playing video games. Without time playing outside, they do not develop a connection with the land around them.
As lack of interest in town history dwindles, so does town pride. What identity can keep Ashland together, without even so much as a town football team? Jim is writing a book detailing the history of most of the houses down the main drag, Centre Street. These memories are becoming the only substance keeping the houses alive. Money left the area, now the youth are going. As the town physically lingers, memory barely survives.
Byrnesville: The “place” is now just a memory-scape
Driving up to Mount Carmel from Lewisburg, as a Bucknell student would, the road presents you with an unusual sight – an elaborate shrine made from cinder blocks, flanked by two white, porcelain bathtubs arranged to look like arches. It's easy to dismiss, with its plastic Virgin Mary statue, well-kept lawn and flowers. Probably just put there by some zealot.
Once you meet Mike and Brunina Reilly, you realize that shrine is something more. It stands now as a monument to a town literally razed. The fifty-year-old shrine gives Mike and his brother Jim a reason to go back to their hometown every week, and tend at least one plot of the grass that used to be home.
Mike and Brunina live in Elysburg now, but they hold the memories of Byrnesville dear. Through a series of Web pages, Mike is trying to keep his hometown, and the place he and his wife raised their children, alive in people's memories.
After the Centralia mine fire in 1962, Mike explained, problems started in Byrnesville, just west of Centralia. Nothing too major – some smoke and fumes were drifting from the underground fire to the town, and their waterline collapsed and had to be repaired. Mike stipulates that it was still very livable. However, the situation divided the town.
“Some people didn't want to move, other people thought, you know what, I'll get them to buy my house, and I'll go get something better,” he said. He and his wife wanted to stay, but when the fumes began, they decided to move for the sake of their kids. Once everyone was out, the town was bulldozed, leaving nothing but the shrine, and two other monuments.
Across the road from the shrine, another road branches and turns left. This branch used to be a major part of Byrnesville. Mike can point to the exact spot he was born and raised, and Brunina knows the plot of land where their children spent their childhoods. They even continue to own land in the area, keeping a trailer full of their extra junk nearby. Aided by a postcard which shows this same fork, Mike showed me where, on the grass- and brush-covered land before me, all his neighbors used to live. As I walked down the street, I found a red fire hydrant, paint chipping, but still bright. Vines grew up it.
The other monument is even more personal. Behind the shrine, in the brush and the forest, a surprising vision emerges from the green. An old-fashioned, brown, rusted car hides back there, and behind it, the ruins of what looks like an old shack. At its feet, a pile of black glitter – ground anthracite. I imagine myself hiking through the woods and coming across this. “Probably some ruined old house,” I would think. I wonder how many hikers, picnickers, partiers have left their garbage here, climbed through the beams, or simply walked by without a second glance, when this place used to be an important stop for many miners and their families.
I am lucky enough to have an informant. “My brother built it,” Mike explains. “It's a coal-crusher. Ran off the car.” Families would use it to crush any coal they found on their own, outside of the company mines, and break it into pieces small enough to use in their homes. Mike finds a larger chunk and hands it to me.
Normally, I would toss a rock aside, even a shiny, black one – but not this time. This rock has a particular meaning, now. This rock was crushed by the Byrnesville coal crusher, although that machine is nothing more than a pile of rust among trees.
After Brunina raised her children, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “You get to that point in your life where you start to think, you know, what do I want to do with the rest of my life, if there is any,” she said. So she went to college and got her degree in art, working at Knoebel's amusement park in the summer to get the genuine college experience. When death seemed likely, Brunina chose to live most fully.
I wonder if a similar attitude towards transience helps prompt Mike's work on his Web sites. Although the buildings, streets, and parks that made Byrnesville the place he remembers are completely gone, he has not discarded the memories. Instead, he has built a memory-scape, layering the stories of his childhood over top the encroaching forest. Byrnesville, the location, has been gone for twenty-one years. Byrnesville, the place, exists in a web of remembered stories, woven thickly into solid reality at his father's shrine.
Centralia: When is it time to let the landscape crumble?
I was not fortunate enough to talk with someone from Centralia. I visited it with the Susquehanna Valley Writers Institute, but we did not see the town – just some broken, graffitied highway and garbage-strewn vents blowing heat through leaves and stems. So the impression I have received of Centralia comes entirely from Mike, Brunina and Jim's thoughts, and what I remember from the documentary The Town That Was, which Jim kindly showed me.
The film focused largely on John Lokitis, who, when the documentary was made in 2007, was the youngest person still living in Centralia (aged around 40). Although the town's population had dwindled from over 1,500 to less than a dozen people, he continued to put up Christmas lights, mow several lawns and, poignantly, unlock the cemetery every morning.
Whether or not John still lives in his grandparents' house in a zip code the U.S. postal service no longer recognizes, I do not know. But I imagine that, even living elsewhere, the force of his passion for Centralia continues. John loves the place because it is his place, clothed in his memory-scape. He ties his childhood to the land around him, and his memories of family, too. Objects in his grandfather's house remain where he placed them before his death. Although for outsiders, it may seem that John is living entirely in the past, he and other Centralia residents do have a vision for the future – they wish to be laid to rest in the St. Ignatius cemetery, with their families.
Throughout the documentary, John expresses the hope that Centralia will be populated and rebuilt once more. However, another commentator brings up an interesting point – when and how should we let go of cities. Although a town, its buildings, streets, hills and woods, may retain incredibly high emotional value for people, is there a point where the relative poverty of a town makes it unlivable? Should towns such as Ashland and Centralia, home to so many empty houses, go the way of Byrnesville and be evacuated and bulldozed?
I cannot answer these questions, but I can see a larger context to place them within. The truth of the matter is, all human towns are ephemeral, and not solely in a physical sense. A disaster can empty a town, buildings can crumble, trees and brush reclaim the land. But even if a town remains, time inevitably does incredible damage. Ashland still exists, but the Ashland of today is not the Ashland that Jim remembers. Byrnesville is preserved in Mike's mind because it was taken out of time, destroyed before it changed more radically. All human settlements, from Philadelphia to Ashland, are scars within a natural landscape which will overtake the buildings if we cease to care for them. To preserve the memory of a town requires a connection to the human landscape and the natural landscape, created through experience and memory, but to preserve a town itself requires more than just memory. It takes an extra amount of work and effort.
The small towns which I visited were interesting places, home to people with fascinating and also inspiring stories. I think we need to seriously consider how best to preserve these places. Should we save only the memories, or the human-built structures they are tied to, as well?
Conclusion – A suggestion for the future:
If I've taken away one practical nugget of information from this experience, it's the importance of knowing the physical and historical landscape around you. Communities are built through a connection to both landscapes. The environment around you, the rivers, fields, and forests, are a space to explore and play in. When we form connections to these places, we also begin to want to protect them. In terms of the environmental movement, it makes sense to encourage people to go outside and play.
The historical landscape is slightly more complex. First of all, the town around us is home to personal memories, particularly of family but also of friends. However, a deeper understanding of a town's history can help form a real sense of community. For example, people moving into Ashland do not know much about the Ashland Boys Association, so the Labor Day parade is not understood, does not have enough popular support, and has been canceled. And in addition to these very local currents, many places are united. For example, I found myself growing more interested in Ashland when I realized that, through the Schuylkill Canal, it is tied to my hometown, Phoenixville.
I believe this concept of community-building should be used to create courses both at the high school and the college level, to help engage students with the area around them. Whether or not I am native to an area, when I move there, I become part of its community. So on the high school level, a course which teaches some local history could help encourage residents from a young age to see the connections between the cultural events and day-to-day experiences they have, and a broader history. Knowing that the Labor Day parade, for example, isn't just any parade, but is a tradition which has historically drawn coal miners and many other people from Philadelphia to Ashland, could help foster a sense of pride and ownership in the event, and encourage more people to participate. Such a course could also talk about local trails, parks, and waterways, particularly in the context of any history in the area (such as the story behind the name of Weiser forest), and also the conservation efforts occurring in the location. Through outings into the land, students would engage with their area in a physical way, making the environmental problems discussed in news media and the classroom more personal. And, hopeful, students would find themselves returning to these places on their own time, pulling them away from television and video games.
This sort of class could be particularly important in a college setting. At Bucknell, for example, there is a widespread belief that students remain on campus, never leaving the “Bucknell Bubble.” In addition, popular lore attributes the high amount of underage drinking to a lack of “things to do” around Lewisburg. Perhaps part of the problem is that students simply don't know what's around them. Every student is required to take a class which explains the rules surrounding drinking at Bucknell. Maybe a class that focused on informing students about the interesting history in the area (such as the Underground Railroad, the Mennonite community, and the Moravians), annual town events (such as the farmers market, the Victorian parade, and the arts festival) and parks and trails could help shift the focus away from drinking, and towards another kind of fun. Such a course might also draw students towards the downtown area, engaging them in the local economy and maybe the general community as well. I certainly wish I had learned more about the area before my graduation, and hope other students can benefit from this summer's experience.
Mike and Brunina Reilly, in Elysburg, Pennsylvania
Introduction: I discovered Mike Reilly through his Web site containing old pictures of Ashland. I found a few more pages he had created, focusing largely on Byrnesville, where he grew up. The town was demolished after the mine fire in Centralia made the location undesirable, so Mike and his wife moved to Elysburg from Byrnesville in 1987. Brunina was born in Mount Carmel.
I e-mailed Mike on Thursday afternoon, asking if he would mind talking to me. The next day, he gave me his cell and home phone numbers, and on Saturday I drove to Elysburg to meet him and his wife in their home, where they offered me coffee about fifteen times, eventually giving me water without my asking. Their hospitality continued throughout the morning, during which time Brunina offered me slices of her fresh-baked bread, I toured their home, and toured the old site of Byrnesville with them. Mike also set up a meeting between myself and Jim Klock, from the Ashland Historical Society, later that afternoon.
At first, my interest in Mike and Brunina focused on the coal region, and the evaporated down of Byrnesville in particular, but I soon discovered that they are both remarkable people with interesting stories to tell. But rather tell you all the good bits now, I have typed the complete transcript of our conversation (or at least, the bits I recorded) below.
My journey began by driving to Byrnesville, using a mix of Google directions, GPS as a security blanket, at Mike and Brunina's phone directions. (Mike having told me things like, turn right at Quary Road, and Brunina saying, turn right at the top of the hill before you reach the cemetery.) They live off of the main road, in a spacious house with a beautiful view of the hill and a good distance between themselves and their neighbors. Their large back yard tumbles below my eyes. Brunina is sitting outside and welcomes me in. “I was hoping you'd be later,” she says. “I haven't finished making bread. We have a party at one.”
I am sitting at the kitchen table in Mike and Brunina Reilly's dining room in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. The room is attached to an open kitchen, from which yeasty bread smells waft. Sliding glass doors lead to a porch, which overlooks a steeply sloping back yard, and in the distance, mountains. Mike looks to be about in his sixties, although he's ten years older. He is white-haired and talkative, happy to answer questions and spin his own tangents. Brunina is shyer, and tends to stick towards the kitchen, unless explicitly asked to speak (or if Mike gets something wrong). She looks younger, her surprisingly smooth, unmarked skin framed by thick white hair in a pixie cut. Both are dressed simply, Bruno in a plaid shirt and khaki pants, Brunina in a brown T-shirt and khaki shorts.
Me: I guess I'll tell you a little bit more about what I'm doing. I'm part of this program for two weeks at Bucknell University called the Susquehanna Writers, uh, the Susquehanna Valley Writers Institute. So, we're just supposed to be producing writing about this area, something about the Susquehanna Valley. We went on a tour around all the different towns and I saw Ashland, and I guess I saw the mom memorial and just thought, “This is a cool place, I want to learn more about it. So basically, I'm going to be interviewing people, well hopefully, and then writing all of that up and maybe producing some fictional work from it, but also putting a transcript of what we talked about. So, yeah anything you can tell me ... Byrnesville, too, is really interesting to me, so ...
Mike: Byrnesville is located, is a small village located between Ashland and Centralia. And you've heard about Centralia.
Mike: And, being a small town, we had a grocery store, actually our family had a grocery store, but other than that, there wasn't much to the village, so most of the stuff you had to get, you had to go to Ashland or Centralia. Ashland had theaters. When I was growing up, they had one, which was the Roxy theater. That was a popular place to go. They also had playgrounds, which had swings and all that kind of stuff. And they had, well they had a couple of them. And, course they had all their stores. They had, one time right in Ashland they had two supermarkets, A&P and the Acme, which they don't have anymore. They have one at the bottom of the hill. But then, like I said, they had all kinds of stores, like in all these towns, they had clothing stores, shoe stores, which don't exist anymore. But uh, when we were younger, we thought nothing of leaving the village and walking down, which was like about a mile and a half or two, down a steep hill, and usually walking back up. But, it was an interesting place to go. Uh, I don't know what else to ...
Me: [Laughs.] Well I have questions prepared. I guess I'll go through some of the basic questions about both towns, basically what the demographic was, were people European, if so, of what decent, what religion was predominant, that kind of thing.
Mike: In which town.
Me: Uh, we can start with ... Byrnesville.
Mike: Byrnesville, I believe, was about 99% Irish.
Brunina: Except for me!
Mike: And then, I imported an Italian. Actually, we imported a couple of them, Cathy and [laughs]. Actually, it's only in later years. Mining was the big industry, THE industry one might say. [Coughs.] [To wife:] She works in a doctor's office, I might get some free medical advice. [To me:] I just got over a bad cold, now I have a dry cough and now I have the hives, and I don't know whether it's the medicine I bought, and last night I didn't get much sleep, so I might fall asleep on you. [Laughs.]
Me: I'll try to keep you awake with questions.
Mike: Yeah. But, Ashland I think, there's a lot of Germans in Ashland. Centralia, I have to say that was a pretty good blend up there, a lot of Slovak ...
Brunina: Irish, and Polish mostly.
Mike: Irish and Polish, a lot of Slovak.
Brunina: Your name sounds French. How do you say your last name?
Me: It's BOW-vee-ay? Said the English way. Yeah, my great-grandparents were Canadian French, so ...
Mike: It's not a name we've heard someplace, is it?
Mike: No? Okay.
Brunina: Maybe when I tried to say it yesterday.
Mike: Yeah, that was it. You said it right.
Me: So why was Byrnesville 99% Irish?
Mike: Well, I would guess probably, the first one that founded it was a guy by the name of John Byrnes, and I believe a lot of, and they came over from Ireland, and they came from one area, the county of Mayo in Ireland, and I guess they attracted others from that same area. To my understanding, talking about this, a lot of people came to the same area, and their family names said that they came from the county Mayo.
Brunina: I think word probably got around, like oh yeah, so-and-so went over there, and they're living in ...
Mike: Yeah, they got a job, that was the big thing ...
Brunina: Yeah, the networking thing.
Me: They got a job working in coal, and then everybody talked about it.
Me: Okay. My next question was, basic question, was, where did most people work, both in Byrnesville and Ashland, and where do most people in Ashland work now, if you know. Do you have a sense of that?
Mike: Well, people did work in the, in the uh ...
[The kitchen oven beeps.]
Brunina: [Indistinct explanation about baking bread and changing the oven temperature.]
Mike: Mostly anybody, the major industry was coal mining. One of the reasons why a lot of these small towns grew up is because people would move close to the mines. And a lot of times, the mine owners would actually start building houses. And, that's one of the reasons why a lot of small towns are not around now, because of that. Ashland had a couple of collieries around. I'm sure that's a big ... what attracted people to Ashland. But then, in, I'm saying later years, I'm not sure what time frame, you get a lot of dress factories and the like. And I think they cropped up when the mines were slow, the women would go working in the dress factories a lot. Some had cigar factories ...
Brunina: Mount Carmel had a cigar factory, but I don't ...
Mike: Dress factories and things like that. Shamokin, some of those places had shoe factories. They would pick up the slack from the mines when they were slow.
Me: Why were the mines getting slow? Were they just empty, or ...
Mike: Well, strikes is one thing. When the unions came in, there's times they would have strikes, and at that time, there was nothing else for the miners to do. And I don't know whether you ever heard of bootleg mining ...
Mike: And actually what it was is when the mines would shut down the colliery, the guys had no place to go to mining, they didn't have unemployment compensation or anything. So they would go out in the mountain someplace where they knew there was a place they would dig a hole and start digging coal out. So they'd dig their own coal for their homes, and also dig their coal and they would sell it. It sort of kept them going. Most of the time, the mines, the major coal operators sort of turned their back to it, but then when it got too big, then they started shutting them down and the like. So it was always back and forth. So that's basically the industry as it was. Actually, the coal mining industry boomed, it was even good during the Depression. But then, after the Second World War, well, during the war, we shipped a lot of coal overseas, to support the war and the like, but then after the war, a lot of these mines shut down. And that's why people like my brother and my uncle who work at the same hospital. Penhurst ... is that the name of the hospital? No ... maybe. Yeah. They worked there. My brother, he was a plumber, and my uncle was a cop down there at the hospital, because the mines shut down, so they moved ... And a lot of people moved away because of the mines. A lot of people went to Philadelphia. Area, should I say. Just to give you an idea, like I say, myself, I went to school, and when I went to school, the only thing I could think of was, when I get out, I get a job driving truck or working in the mines like everybody else did. And it was a way of life then that after you graduated, probably the next day, you would go down to the coal mine and put your name in for a job. And so I did the same thing. I went down and put my name in. When I went to the office I thought, “There are a lot of people here with suits and ties, which you don't usually see.” And it was real crowded in there, and as I said I come in and put my name in, and I thought I could sense some snickering and stuff, and I thought, “That seems quite odd.” But I thought maybe I looked young. But anyway, they let me fill the application out. The next day, I read in the paper that this mine is going to shut down, and that there's going to be about fifteen hundred miners going to be out of work. That's the best thing that ever happened to me, that I did not get a job in the coal mine. All my brothers did. So but, then, it was so hard to get a job. Actually, I worked in Ashland. My first job was as a dry cleaner route man, in Ashland, that area. And then, after I got sick of that, I went and I got a job at a gas station in Ashland, top of the town in Ashland. Worked there for a couple years I guess. Then I went to a garage. And then I got married. And then I realized these gas station and garage jobs ain't gonna support a family too well. So I've gotta give my wife credit, and her sister, for saying why don't you go to school for drafting, because I knew that's one thing I liked at school was drafting. So I did. And I learned at night drafting, and I got a job doing that. So for thirty-some years I was a design draftsman locally. Like I said, closing down the mines was the best thing that ever happened to me. I've seen what happened to some people.
Me: When did you move from Byrnesville?
Mike: Eighty-seven. Now here I was, I was in Byrnesville when the mine fire and everything was going on. [Drawing with his hands in the air:] Centralia's here. Byrnesville's here. And Ashland's here. Well, I was a resident of Byrnesville all my life, born and raised there, so I didn't want to leave. I had too good there. All around Byrnesville was all wooded area for miles. I had little trail bikes and motorcycles that we used to ride all over the mountains. But, we had the effects of the mine fire. And one of the problems was some cave-ins on the road that, the road was closed down, and then our waterline, caved in around that and our waterline burst and we didn't have water for awhile. But I still thought, you know, we could get them to fix the mine fire and everything else. Anyway, the road from Centralia to Ashland goes around here, around Byrnesville, route sixty-one actually. That mine fire traveled down here just west of Byrnesville, and the smoke and the fumes blew towards Byrnesville. So, that was the worst, but we used to get that smell from the mine fire more than anything. So that sort of prompted me, yeah I better start thinking about ... so I moved here, which is halfway to Danville where I worked. It cut my traveling in half.
Me: What was the town's general reaction to Centralia? Like, were people not surprised, were they angry, what was the ...
Mike: Centralia and Byrnesville and anyone else involved was split. Some people wanted to move, other people thought, you know what, I'll get them to buy my house, and I'll go get something better, something like that. And there were some real bad feelings among people, people that wanted to leave and some people didn't want to leave and the like. And that went on for quite a few years. We'd have meetings, trying to get them to do something about the fire, dig it out and take care of it, and they'd have meetings, trying to get the government to buy them out so they could leave and the like. There's two different groups. We were the group wanted to stay, essentially. So they were always at odds.
Me: Did you have family still in Byrnesville, also?
Mike: There is nobody in Byrnesville now.
Me: I mean, before, before it closed.
Mike: Yeah, I had brothers and sisters, and my mom lived there at the time. She died since then, and uh, they moved somewhat closer, right above Centralia actually, they live up in the hill. We didn't know where we were going to move, and we just, one of those things where, it's one of those things, how things can happen. On my way to work one day, out on fifty-four, I see the land on the other side of the road and I go, “You know what? That's a nice piece of land over there, I don't know whether I need it or not, but it would be nice to have something like that.” I called the people lived across the street and asked them if they know who owned that, and they said, “Oh yeah, we just sold that last week.” But then, they said, “Well, we do have some land up the back,” as they call it, because they live out there on the road. So anyway, after work I came and looked at it. And just by chance I made that call, and found it. But I'm happy with it. It's a nice view, six acres and all that.
Me: Did you build the house?
Mike: We had it built.
Me: Cool. It's nice.
Mike: We put a lot of work in. All this land here was all shrub, brush and junk and everything else. Course I had two boys home with me then, and we all worked hard cleaning.
Me: So, I guess back to the basic questions, where, I guess people in Byrnesville shopped in Ashland.
Mike: Ashland or Centralia.
Me: Okay. And where do people, do the people in Ashland still shop there, or where do they go, 'cause so much is closed down?
Mike: Well, I think it's like a lot of towns around, they go to Wal-Mart. You don't have any shoe stores, you don't have any clothing stores. You have some food stores, you have, I think, well there's one drug store in town, one chain store drug store, on the outskirts of town. [To wife:] What's the name of the store, on the outskirts. Across from Moyers?
Brunina: Rite Aid?
Mike: Rite Aid. I wanted to say CVS, but it's Rite Aid. Even restaurants, a lot of the restaurants closed down.
Me: Because people were moving out, or because there weren't jobs, or ...
Mike: Well, both, people were moving out and weren't jobs is right. And stores had a hard time keeping open I guess.
Me: Do you know how Ashland was founded? Was it, somebody came in and found a mine and ...
Mike: Uh, see, I can't say that. They had a Web site, and twice now for some reason it's just up and gone. And just lately, their site has, it's gone. I don't know what it is. A couple of times I talked to them and I said to them, you know if you want, I would make a Web site for them. I'm not a computer expert. I struggle to do whatever I do. But, for some reason, they're always talking to somebody else, so I never got to do anything for them. [More discussion of the Ashland Web site.] One of the big things down in Ashland was the parade in Labor Day. And this year, they're not having it.
Me: Oh, really?
Mike: Problems with the financing, problems getting bands and the like, it got too much. [Discussion of how best to contact Jim Klock from the Ashland Historical Society.]
Me: I guess another thing that interested me was, we took a tour of Sunbury and the tour guide was talking about how Sunbury kind of looks down its nose at some of the other coal towns around, and I was wondering how that works in Ashland, how that works in Byrnesville, any sort of stereotypes about other towns, or ...
Brunina: [Laughs.] Well, there are walls around them.
Mike: Well, your coal region sticks together, essentially, which is Shamokin, Mount Carmel, Ashland, all of that. But you do have competition with football teams. In other words, you have your football mentality competition. That-that- [laughs]. But other than that, people get along well.
Brunina: Well, they get along. But like, the way you used to say about how people in Danville didn't think much about the people over here.
Mike: The, right, the coal region, and let's say the river towns.
Mike: Well, some people have the mentality of, “they're from the coal region.” I had one girl that worked with me one time and she told me right off, she said, well, I don't know how she said it, but she didn't care too much for him or this one or that one because he came from the coal region. I said, “I guess I'm alright because I live in Elysburg now.” She said, “No, you're in the coal region, too. Elysburg's the coal region.” [Laughs.] But, I even, I had a boss, that he was so prejudiced against the coal region. Like, he didn't talk to me for years. And, uh ... I don't know why. I didn't care. He wasn't my big boss, so.
Me: That's so odd, I mean ...
Mike: It is.
Me: That seems strange to me. Everybody's so close. You're all in this central ... I guess from Eastern PA, I just think of “Central PA” being this blob, so hearing that Central PA is divided up was interesting to me.
Mike: [Offers to show me a book about the Susquehanna Valley, and an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the bathtub shrine.] See, we still have a shrine. My dad built a religious shrine in the hillside.
Me: I was going to ask about that. Your dad built it?
Mike: Yeah, well, be built, he was the thing, but we all, when Dad worked we all worked with him. So he built that, and we kept it up.
Me: Can you see it from the road?
Me: I think I saw it.
Mike: Oh yeah?
Me: Yeah, I recognize the picture.
Mike: If you were coming from Ashland, coming up at Centralia, there's a detour. See, at one time, that same road used to come up around sixty-one, come up to here. Now, because of the mine fire, now they have a detour around it. That's where that shrine is, yeah.
Me: How did your dad come about building it, what did he make it out of, I mean, people mentioned that the sides look like bathtubs. Are they bathtubs?
Me: That's awesome.
Mike: Well, there's a story behind that too. First of all, my dad built what they call an honoral, for the veterans during the Second World War. And it was up there for awhile, but because this was before pressure-treated wood and the like, it deteriorated little by little. So, he got an idea to built a shrine, so he built a cinder block shrine. And then, that was there for awhile, just that one block building. And then, the one time, Pop sometimes, he was a man of view words sometimes. So the one time we looked, and here Pop went someplace and he had two bathtubs in the yard. And we'd say to him, “Well, what's with the bathtubs?” “I don't know.” [Laughs.] Anyway, Pop's idea was, he took the bathtub, turned it upside-down, fill it half with concrete, and then that made that shrine.
Brunina: It won't wear out.
Mike: So then, we had that shrine over there. After everybody moved and everything, we kept it up, and we had some nice statues and the like in there. The only trouble is, every once in awhile they get stolen. They break in and steal the statue. Sometimes we find them smashed and things like that. So we try to keep statues in. One time we put this one statue in that's a little bit, uh, worn, I'd say. We put that in and it stayed there for a long time. So then we thought, you know what, maybe we put this better statue in that we have. We did that, we put that statue in. That was stolen. So then we put this one back in, right.
Brunina: The plastic one, yeah.
Mike: So, that's still there, yeah.
Me: What year was that, did he build that? Do you know?
Brunina: In the fifties.
Mike: Nineteen-fifty, sometime around there. I guess that the honoral itself was probably built, probably right after, probably during the war actually, during the Second World War. And then after that deteriorated, then he built that shrine.
Me: Do you know what prompted him to build a shrine?
Me: 'Cause he didn't really talk about it.
Mike: No, no no ...
Brunina: Well, I think your brothers were in the war, they were overseas in the war, right?
Mike: Well Ray was, yeah, and James ...
Brunina: And I would just think, my own idea is that, you know, it was a way of praying, and you know, praying for their safety and all, and like, you know how you kind of think, well such-and-such, maybe I'll make a shrine, so ... That's just what I'm thinking. We don't know what he was thinking because he never talked much.
Mike: [Laughs.] Well my dad worked in the mine for fifty-six years. Had miner's asthma really bad. But he lived to be about ninety. He was lucky, but he had some hard last years.
[Mike and I head to the basement, to look at pictures on the computer and read articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer and National Geographic, in which his family is quoted talking about Byrnesville and the shrine. Mike begins talking about his drafting job when I turn on the recorder. He says that colleagues told him drafting would soon be done on the computer.]
Mike: And I said, yeah right. And I said, okay, maybe they can make big layouts or something, but, little by little, they started doing all their drawings on computers and everything else. So me being at the time probably around sixty or so, a little hard getting in there. [Points out articles.]
Me: [In reference to shrine article.] How did somebody find out about this and contact you?
Mike: I got a phone call one day from this lady from Philadelphia, what's her name ...
Me: Kristin Holmes.
Mike: Yeah, Kristin Holmes. And she said she heard about the shrine. Actually, before that, there was a guy who went around, he's a guy, probably in his, twenty-four, twenty-five or something like that. He goes around visiting all these religious things, and, I got a call from him, and he does this on a bicycle. And he has a laptop computer, he has, I forget how much gear he said he had in his pack. He called me, and we met him, and I think that's where that Kristin Holmes got the idea from.
Me: [After reading the Inquirer article.] I like the bit about people thinking the shrine provides them with favors or helps in some way when they pray. Is that still true, people still go for that kind of stuff?
Mike: Yeah, really. Yeah. My wife still corresponds with someone from around Byrnesville. She got interested in that shrine, too.
Me: Do you still mow it twice a week?
Mike: Well actually, my brother Jim does that. We mostly go work on the shrine, take care of the statues and painting and things like that. He's closer down there, it sort of helps out.
[Discussion of the logistics of making a Web site.]
Me: What prompted you to make the Web site?
Mike: Well, I started off by making a little page about Byrnesville. And then little by little, then when I got ... [mumbles at computer]. I went from one to another. And I still have more that I still don't have on there. I had about two of them about Knoebles, you ever been to Knoebles?
Me: Yeah, I have been there.
Mike: Well we're only about five minutes away, so we enjoy that.
[Later, Mike starts talking about a Byrnesville homecoming.]
Mike: They wanted to have a homecoming there. This lady's brothers and sisters and stuff are all over. So then she thought, “You know what? Maybe I'll invite different people.” And it wound up the Byrnesville homecoming. And that was nice. It was nice to get together again.
Me: When was that? 2005 I think I remember?
Mike: Uh, yeah, I think so. [He shows me different pictures.]
Me: Do you think something like that will happen again?
Mike: I would like to think it would. Actually, we did it on a smaller scale. When her brother had a birthday, we invited different people which turned out to be a lot of people from Byrnesville. This is the one who had a birthday. Actually his name is Joe Brown and he was a professor at West Chester. [He shows me old postcards of Byrnesville and Ashland that he purchased from E-bay.] I would never think the little village of Byrnesville would ever have postcards, and I found two of them!
Me: How many kids do you have? Just a daughter, or ...
Mike: I have two boys and a girl.
Me: And were they raised here?
Mike: Well, my daughter mostly, I guess. She was born in eighty and we moved in eighty-seven. My two boys were born over there. Oh, they were here for awhile too.
Me: So they still remember Byrnesville.
Mike: Yeah. The boys more than anything I guess.
Me: So where were your kids born? Where's the hospital nearby?
Mike: Well, the hospital, the closest hospital was at that time Ashland State Hospital. But then it changed over the years, and someone else took it over. One time, the state used to own it, and then different other ones took it over. But we go mostly over to Danville, to the Geisinger.
[After looking through pictures on the computer.]
Me: Do you often get people coming and asking you questions about the area?
Me: How frequently would you say?
Mike: Well, eh, about three or four or five times a year. But when the mine fire was going over there, all the time. [Laughs.] A lot of times what would happen is, the news used to be all over the place. A lot of people wouldn't want to talk to them, and I used to think, like the one time there was a big crowd there because the waterline had caved in, we didn't have water and everything else and the big crowd because I guess somebody was there. So the news came, and I was, I don't know what I was doing but I was all dirty and everything else like that. I'm sort of back in the back, and I see these guys come with the camera. I could tell them out, sort of, and I thought, “Don't tell me they're coming over to me!” So they come over and they ask, “Can I ask you some questions?” I said, “Yeah,” but I said, “Let me ask you one question.” I said, “How come you walked from all the way over there through all these people to come over here?” And they said, “Well we talked to this one and that one, asked them questions, and they said, 'Why don't you go over and ask that guy over there?'” So that's how I got that.
Me: [Laughs.] That's while you were still living in Byrnesville?
Mike: Right, we were still living there, yeah.
Me: So you're kind of known as ...
Mike: Yeah, check with him.
Me: The talkative one. When your waterline broke, did they fix it, or was that just ...
Mike: They did. But at first what they did is they took ... there's a picture and I wish I could find it, but it would probably take too long. They took one of these, like a big tractor-trailer tanker, that you get milk in, like? Well, it was that big. That took that in, they were going to take one of them in full of water and just leave it there. So they come down and, for some reason the truck coming down the hill started losing its breaks. So they had a heck of a time stopping, stopped just before it hit my brothers house. So then, they moved the truck over, and they put this big tanker right in front of my house. So they wanted to take the tractor away from it and just leave the tanker there. So they disconnected it, and here it was a hot day, and it was on amecite, so these wheels that stick down on this big tanker, they start sinking into the amecite. Oh my God. Everybody thought it was going to tumble. They really attacted a crowd that day.
Me: What's amacite?
Mike: Amacite is macadam, in other words, what your roads are made of that are not concrete. The black stuff. So that was in there, and when it's hot, it's soft. So we all thought it was going to go, right in front of my house, right where I parked my car it was. [Laughs.]
Mike: People from a German company came and interviewed me one time.
Me: Really? What were they doing the film about, like, immigrants from Germany or ...
Mike: No, they just, about the mine fire itself. They came and they interviewed me in Byrnesville. And you know, I happen to think, because that goes back awhile, that was right after nine-eleven. They were here and, I forget where in Byrnesville but some planes going over and we were all like ... [looks up nervously]. Alright.
[Mike takes me into the garage to show me a model of a mine which he has just finished. Behind it are shelves stacked with boxes – his Polaroid camera collection.]
Me: What prompted you to collect Polaroids?
I have no idea. I always liked to take pictures. I used to take pictures a lot. I'm not a photographer, but I like to take pictures. And some of these cameras are fantastic, the size of them. [He takes one out of the cardboard box, out of its plastic wrapper and hands it to me. It's about seven inches by four inches by two inches, and hefty.]
[Back in the dining room, we meet back up with Brunina, who offers me two slices of her fresh-baked bread. I slowly convince her to tell me a little bit about her life.]
Brunina: They came from Italy in the twenties, and so both of them only spoke Italian, so they came here, had to learn English. And in fact, my older sister only knew Italian until she went to school, learned English. But as each one of them went to school, they all learned English, and didn't speak as much Italian, so it ended up that by the time I came along, my parents still spoke Italian, and I answered them in English. Kind of odd.
Me: Were you the youngest of some amount of ...
Me: Seven. [Laughs.] Wow.
Brunina: Yeah, there were sixteen-and-a-half years between me and my eldest sister.
Me: Why did your parents go to Mount Carmel? Did they move there?
Brunina: They knew friends who had gone there and, you know, kind of followed people that they knew, to stay with people from Italy who traveled to Mount Carmel. Some of them, I understand, would go to Philadelphia. That was a big spot for them, I guess, for whatever reason. More jobs, probably. My dad was a bricklayer. I guess he worked in the mines probably ... maybe he lasted a few days. He did not like mining at all. So then he just go back into the bricklaying business, and then he opened up a lumber company, and a concrete plant eventually. He did alright with it. Great education. You could do that years ago, you couldn't do it now.
Me: So what did you do growing up, and after school? Were there sorts of expectations for a woman growing up in Mount Carmel, that you do “x”?
Brunina: Growing up in Mount Carmel, I guess I could say, when I was in high school, it seemed like your choices were a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. You had, like, three ways to earn a living. None of them ever really appealed to me, so all I ever wanted to be was a housewife, a mother, that kind of thing. I was fine with that. We had, in school, you wouldn't remember this but they had these, they had for Betty Crocker, like the Homemaker of the Year Award kind of thing. You don't even know who Betty Crocker is except for there are cakes now with Betty Crocker.
Brunina: That was our big thing. Actually, I was Betty Crocker of 1962 Catholic High. That was my biggest achievement [laughs]. But you can see what a bit twitch there is now, with women today. Today I guess it would be the Martha Stewart awards, you know. To become like Martha Stewart, have a career, be famous on your own, something like that. But, yeah, that was about it for us. Some of the girls from high school go to Washington, make a career of that, being down in Washington as secretaries. And as I said, a lot of them, nurses, teachers. I think we had one girl in our class who made a doctorate, but in psychiatric nursing actually. But it's not the usual.
Me: Still had nursing in the title.
Me: How did you two meet?
Mike: Fifth and Oak.
Brunina: It's like become a joke. I, mutually friend, she introduced us. We were walking downtown one day and we were walking down Oak Street, he was walking down Fifth Street and as we turned the corner we met, and, you know, my girlfriend introduced us. And, so, when we start to get confused and say, “Where did I go wrong?” we always know it's Fifth and Oak.
Mike: Fifth and Oak! [Laughs.]
[As I turn off the recorder, I chat with Mike and Brunina more informally, and discover that Brunina actually attended college.]
Me: Why did you go back to school?
Brunina: It's a long story.
Me: Very very long?
Brunina: Eh, not that long. Okay. I've got to think how old I was when I went. Okay, we'll say it this way. I stayed home with the kids most of our married life, so I could be a stay-at-home mom and take care of them. And then when it became time for a full-time job, it was the question of, what could I do, in a full-time job, that I could, you know, make some money and whatever. So, I guess what pushed me really into it was I had breast cancer, and you get to that point in your life where you start to think, you know, what do I want to do with the rest of my life, if there is any, or what did I always want to do. So I always wanted to go to college and take up art. So I thought, okay we'll do that. I was thinking it wasn't going to last very long, whatever. And I thought, no, maybe I should just go and learn some kind of business. So I thought, okay, we'll do that, but with all these options in my mind. And so I went more with undeclared, then went into taking a business course, and then I needed to bring up my GPA and I thought ah, this is where the art will kick in, I can do that, so. One course led to another and before I knew it I was in up to here and I thought, “Well, I've got to keep going,” so seven years later then, I got my degree.
Me: What did you get it in?
Brunina: In art.
Brunina: Yeah, mm-hm. They said I just was not a business person. I disagree with that. I think I could've been. But to me, it was more important to do what I wanted to do, so that's what I did. So I didn't really ever work in art. I think, you know once, how can I say it, once you have to do it for money, it's just not as much fun, you know what I'm saying?
Brunina: Plus there aren't any jobs in art. I could've worked at the newspaper, they were looking for someone with computer graphics skills. You know, they liked my portfolio and all but then it got to be well, one night a week I'd have to work 'til two in the morning. I don't think so. So that wasn't gonna work. Around here there just aren't jobs in art, so then I went and I saw this thing in the paper about you could be a substitute teacher. I don't know how it said it, something about giving back, you know. Whatever. And so, I thought okay, I'll do that. I substituted for two years. And now I'm back to retirement.
Mike: She worked at Knoebels for awhile.
Brunina: While I would go to school I worked during the summers at Knoebels. Did the whole college thing, you know.
Me: Yeah. [Laughs.]
Brunina: It was really nice because for the whole time that I was at home, I was, like, out of the mainstream. I don't want to say I didn't know what was going on, but my kids were my focus, so there was a whole other world of information I needed to hear.
Mike: She wouldn't ride motorcycles.
Brunina: I tried it, I didn't like it. It was too noisy and too smelly. But it was just wonderful. I just really appreciated the education because I valued it more than some of those kids were, sitting there just because their parents said, “You have to go to school,” and didn't know what else to do with their life so they're sitting there, you know. But I really appreciated every course I had. Wonderful teachers and nice kids, a good experience. I highly recommend it to anyone.
Me: Do you have any work around the house that I could see or anything?
Me: The shyness kicks in?
Brunina: I can show you quickly just what's hanging.
[Brunina shows me several works of art in many mediums. One abstract image in pure white, black, and cobalt blue strikes me with its mix of a realistic depiction of the water and ice floating on it, and the beauty of the forms she exaggerated. Another, all in black and muted red, shows a woman kneeling before a candle. She says this one represents her resignation to God. One watercolor in bright, bold strokes she calls her Tai Chi. “That's a Renoir,” she points out. “I won't take credit for that one. Another, of glasses hyper-realistically painted against a dark background, she calls magic realism.]
Brunina: These I didn't do in school. These were, Sister Amadeen had a once a week get-together and just do some art at the convent. The watercolors are from college. The others, they're from, oh way back when, when I was taking them at the convent. The courses. It was just like a get-together. Once a week, we'd get together and have coffee and tea. It was just like a nice, friendly get-together.
Me: Where's the convent?
Brunina: It was at Saint Peter's in Mount Carmel, down in the basement which was all finished and all. She was the art teacher at Lord's and once a week she would have evening classes for adults at night. Nice group of ladies. We would go on art trips and have good times. I guess that's how, what encouraged my art interest, you know, that I had it in high school and it continued there. I think I found out, I had a part-time job at the University store and they wanted me to do like, art work for the store, like, to tell people about their sales and all. I did a poster, like the University alumni thing. Not my idea of doing art. Of course, the things I have, I don't want to sell them. What do you do with art? So, anyway, this is where I am.
[After our conversation, Mike and Brunina drove to the site of Byrnesville, with me following. Because of a sudden deluge, when we park next to the shrine, I get in their backseat and chat, waiting for the rain to end. Mike tells me about a house they purchased.]
Me: A house in Centralia?
Mike: Yeah. I thought maybe the boys would be interested or something. So I bought the house anyway, but it needed a lot of work.
Me: I'm guessing this was before the fire?
Mike: Right, it was before the thought of any relocation or anything. Anyway, while we were looking through this house, we found up in the attic old letters and passports and military papers and stuff. There was quite a few of them.
Brunina: They're in another language.
Mike: In some kind of a Slovak language. I tried to get them deciphered.
Mike: Translated. This is why I keep her around. But it seems like every time I get someone that's all enthusiastic, they can help me and all that, and they'll do this and that, but as soon as they get to it, it seems it goes by the wayside. But it's interesting, and they're from like early nineteen-hundred, which is the interesting part of it. But, I always come up against a stone wall. What was the latest thing that someone said, that it was like cyrillia or something ...
Mike: Cyrilliac language? It's sort of like part German, part ...
[As the conversation continues, it turns to the topic of Brunina's name, which I find difficult to remember.]
Brunina: My father's name was Bruno. And I'm telling you this to help you remember. I was named after my father. As I said, I was the youngest of seven children, and he said this one is either going to be Bruno or Brunina. So I got Brunina. And then, the Italian custom is your name, you name them, you know, like around whenever they were born in other words. So, I was born on Saint Anacletus's day, so my name is Brunina Anacleta Bevevino. I had to learn that for first grade. And I tell everyone that because I want credit for it, because it wasn't easy.
Mike: The worst part I had to learn it when I first met her. And people would say, “Who's your friend?” [Laughs]. You know what Bevevino stands for?
Mike: Drink wine in Italian.
[Mike takes out a picture postcard and starts comparing the landscape to it. The road forks, one fork being the continuation of the highway, the other an abandoned street. Mike points down that street.]
Mike: Right here, this is where I was born and raised, in there.
Me: Right here?
Me: Huh. So there were houses.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. [He holds up the old postcard, which matches the fork in the road perfectly.] Actually, the first house you see there was our homestead, and that's my mom sitting on the porch actually.
Brunina: And we're parked where the person was taking the picture.
[They discuss angles, and how many houses there were, then start talking about where they lived when married.]
Brunina: And where the road goes down, veers to your left a little bit, our house was down there.
Mike: This was the brother's house, and we lived right beside him when we got married. Another old house that we put a lot of work into. We re-plumbed it, we rewired it, you name it we did it.
Me: I guess living in a town that just disappears probably gives you a sense of the transience of things.
Me: I guess that's what drew me to it, just the fact that cities can disappear.
Mike: Yeah. Well, that's one of the reasons I made Web pages, because in this area, probably be a lot of small villages that are gone and just well forgotten. But, they're, like, gone for fifty years or so. As the coal companies went down, so did the towns, the houses little by little I guess, they, after they left, they moved out and pretty soon they fell down.
Brunina: Ain't nothing lasts forever, huh?
Me: Yeah, this makes it pretty clear.
[We make small talk. They offer to take me to Centralia, and I decline. Mike mentions he saw the Bucknell bus.]
Mike: My wife keeps telling me she wants me to put a stand up over here and sell pictures and souvenirs and stuff. I think she's trying to get rid of me.
Brunina: Right through the bushes if you can see, there's a trailer there. That's our trailer. We still own that land. And I keep telling him, put some windows in, you know, put up a sign, information booth, and he could sit here and just give tours and talk.
Me: Yeah. What do you do with the trailer?
Mike: Well, when we still lived here, that lot came up for sale and I bought, again with thinking, you know, three kids. So then we bought a trailer and put it there to put things in it. So then after I moved, I had the idea that we put our trail bikes and the like in there. And we'd come over here and we'd ride around whenever we want. But no matter what we put there, it got stolen. Automobiles, whatever. Even, my son got into racing for a little while, and they came and they stole cars. You couldn't trust anything there. So now, there's junk in there. And my son put a pipe on the door to open it, and people look at it and go, “Eh, it's too much trouble.”
[Mike and I leave the car. I take pictures by the shrine, then he shows me something back in the woods, to the left of the shrine.]
Mike: This is coal. You could go and crush it there. It was very simple. They had a coal crusher there.
Me: Who had a coal crusher there?
Mike: My two brothers, actually. Those are the remains of it back there.
Me: Oh, really? Could I see it?
[We walk over. He shows me what looks a ramshackle hut made of wood and metal, next to an old-fashioned car, rusted brown. He explains that the car powered the coal crusher, and the dilapidated structure actually was the coal crusher itself. At its base, I see the sparkling black glitter of a pile of crushed anthracite left behind. Mike tells me a bit more about the shrine, that the flowers are there from his wife's sister's funeral last week.]
Mike: That was a common thing that, a lot of times. People would come and put their flowers there. All this stuff here, we used to have this all fixed up, all cleared up there. And these trees, I can still remember when the guy came to visit us one time and said, “Well I'll buy you some evergreens.” But this was my playground here. I could come and go, and roam. Play, ride bikes. Coal companies owned the whole land but if you weren't around where they were doing their digging, they didn't bother you. They never bothered the people that were here, so we wouldn't complain about their noise and dirt and stuff like that, and they didn't complain about us, we didn't interfere about their operations.
[He tells me more about the coal crusher.]
Me: So the car was the power for it?
Mike: Yeah. The coal ran up the top there. Then it would come down this shoot, and there was a crusher there. It would turn and break the coal. And then over here there were screens. And this car ran everything. It ran the crusher, the screen went back and forth and coal came out the other end.
Me: So people who did private mining on their own would come here?
Mike: Right. Pick coal in the banks and stuff. And when there were strip mines, they'd throw it out. A lot of times there'd be coal mixed with dirt and stuff, so we would go pick the coal. Many a ton of coal I picked. [Laughs.] There was a little strip mine over here. I'd dig it out, haul it up, crack the coal. Use it for the house.
Me: [Looking at the shiny black pile.] What's this?
Mike: That's the crushed coal. After it was crushed there'd be the fine dirt and coal and stuff like that would come out. Usually we threw all that stuff away, and now they're using this stuff.
[He picks out a larger chunk of coal and gives it to me.]
Mike: That's a good piece of coal.
Jim Klock in Ashland, Pennsylvania
Introduction: Jim Klock and I met after Mike called him, asking if he'd be willing to talk to “a young girl writing at article about Ashland.” Jim has lived his entire life in Ashland, although neither he nor his father ever went into the mines.
As the treasurer of the Ashland Area Historic Preservation Society, he knows a lot about the history of the area, and has been very active in attempting to preserve Ashland's traditions. However, he was less willing to talk about his own personal life with me, which gave this interview a different flavor than my conversation with Mike and Brunina.
We talked mostly in the meeting room of the Historic Society, which is located on Centre Street, the main drag in Ashland. He also gave me a tour of the mini museum the society has set up, which included themed rooms. In addition, we watched the documentary “The Town that Was,” about Centralia.
Although had difficult cracking Jim's professional exterior, the things he did want to talk about were very telling. Overall, I learned that Mike misses a time when Ashland was a more close-knit and overall wealthier community. Through his work with the Historic Society, he is preserving a memory of that time.
As I walk into the duplex house on Centre Street,
I am sitting on an old rocking chair in a dimly-lit room. Behind me are rows of folding chairs. This is the meeting room for the Ashland Area Historic Preservation Society. The Society's treasurer, Jim Klock, has kindly agreed to talk to me on this Saturday afternoon. The man who sits before me looks to be in his early sixties, MORE DESCRIPTION HERE. He agrees to being recorded.
[Showing me a thick manuscript printed on white computer paper.]
Jim: This all came about, I think it was in twenty-oh-two we had a walking tour of Ashland. It started at the top of town and came downtown. It was for the benefit of the Meals on Wheels for the special holidays, and I wrote the script for it. But of course I didn't have enough time to do it justice. So I just kept working on it, and I'm still working on it. In fact that's a map of Ashland that I was given with sections and the lot numbers, because when I go to the court house, that's what I get, and then I can refer to that and I know where the house was. But anyway, the tour starts at the top of town. I'm getting a brief history of major buildings along the line, and prominent houses. So if you have any particular ones in mind ...
Me: I guess I don't know anything about them. I just go, “Oh, that one's pretty.”
Jim: Yeah, but none that sticks in your mind?
Me: I walked by the one that they're painting.
Jim: Yeah, that is ... I described that as the John Pepper house. And that was built in nineteen-sixteen, actually that's the new kid on the block. And it was built at the time of World War One. In fact, they started it, and had to stop construction until after the war, probably because they couldn't get the materials. But it was built by John Pepper, and he was involved with Thomas Pepper, who was his father. He had a whiskey business at Eleventh and Centre Street. I don't know if you have anything on the Peppers, but they were a pretty prominent family. Thomas went into the whiskey business and his brother William had the soda. And he was pretty well-known for ginger ale. We have some artifacts there from Pepper's Ginger Ale. It's currently owned by Diane Godorov, I think that's how you pronounce it. She's a pediatrician at the Geisinger hospital. She bought it about a year or so ago. The one next to it, that big brownstone one, that was built by Peter E. Bobkin. He had a hardware business in town from about eighteen, let's see, in the eighteen-seventies. Eighteen-seventy-three he bought that house. But he rebuilt it. Thre was a house there but he took it down and rebuilt it the way it is in eighteen-ninety-two. But that is probably the most beautiful town in Ashland, and the most expensive too. The woodwork in there is magnificent. It's really, it'd be nice for you to see the inside of it. This house was put here by Anton Loper and Anton Loper was in the cabinet business. Well he started out in the casket business and then branched off into cabinet making. He made church pews and bar, back bars and stairways and all that intricate work, and he bought this house in 1902 and I'm not sure if he tore it down, because it was a single dwelling. We have a picture of it with just three windows across the front, which meant it had to be, it couldn't be divided like it is now. And then, he probably rebuilt it as a double dwelling. The first thing we did when we got it was take the wall out so we could get back and forth. That's why the two stairways are like that. It was donated to us by an attorney from town. We got it in twenty-hundred.
Jim: Yeah. Ten years ago. We were here. Well, nine years ago. We organized ten years ago. Do you have any other questions?
Me: Could we maybe sit down and I could ask you about your life in Ashland, if that would be alright?
Jim: Yeah. [Walks to another room, facing the street. This room has several antique photographic portraits on the wall, antique chairs, and a fireplace, as well as rows of folding chairs. I sit in a padded rocking chair.] This is where we hold our meetings.
Me: So I have some questions written down. I've actually, I haven't seen Ashland in up-close detail, but my group from Bucknell stopped at the mother's memorial, so that's kind of what sparked my interest. I thought, “That's unusual! I haven't seen that before.”
Jim: It's the only one in the world that's a monument to mothers.
Jim: At least United States.
Me: If it's alright with you, I'd like to ask some basic questions about how Ashland came to be, and those kinds of things.
Jim: Well, what I could do, is copy these first two pages. That's a brief history of Ashland.
Me: That would be great. That's actually one of my questions, is what's a brief history of Ashland.
Jim: The basic how it came about and who bought their land first and all is in here, so that'll save a lot of time today.
Me: That'd be great.
[Discussion of how to copy the pages ensues.]
Jim: I guess, other than that, my questions are more about what it's like now. One of them is, well, let me start out the questions with you. How long have you lived here? Your whole life I'm guessing?
Jim: Yup. I was born up on Walnut Street, Fifth and Walnut Street.
Me: Okay. My other question is, would you call Ashland home? Is this place home? And if so, what makes this particular place home?
Jim: Yeah, I consider it my home, only because I was born here, I went to school here, I grew up here. I went to school in Pittsburgh, I liked that too, but Ashland was always home. I lived in Philadelphia for a few years, Ashland was always home. It was just a place to work for awhile. Why? 'Cause I'm familiar with it I guess. I guess everybody, everybody considers where they grew up, there their home, I guess. My parents, of course, were from here. I've been here all my life, except for about four years that I was away, back in the 60s.
Me: What were you doing in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia?
Jim: I went to school in Pittsburgh. That was two years I was out there. I actually went to an art school, it wasn't college or anything. Then my first job was in Philadelphia, in interior design.
Me: So why did you come back?
Jim: I guess my parents encouraged me to come back, and also, I wanted to. Life was a lot, is a lot easier here than it was in Philadelphia.
Me: How is it easier?
Jim: Cost-wise it's a lot better, and, just, I guess I was more comfortable here. 'Course I, when I came back I was with my parents. It was a lot easier than trying to keep an apartment.
Lily: Did you still work in interior design?
Jim: Yeah, I started I business. Well, I came back to a furniture store in Valley View. I worked their for a couple years. And then I bought a property in town, just up the street here and started my own business in, actually, nineteen-sixty-eight I would say, so it was quite awhile ago.
Me: Is it still open?
Jim: No. I retired. And then, last January their was a fire next door, and the damage to the building was not enough that it had to be taken down. But it really, it put me out. But I really wasn't doing too much before that. It was a struggle in that field.
Me: So, your parents were from here. What did they do, how did your family come to Ashland? Why did they come to Ashland?
Jim: Well, my, I guess they both came from the farming areas around here and my grandfather, I'm not sure what year he came, but he worked for the Borough of Ashland. And my dad, he had a job on the railroad, and my mother was born in Ashland and she lived here all her life and died here. She was a housekeeper and she worked in a factory, a shirt factory.
Me: Okay. I was talked to ... brain fart ... Reilly, Mr. Reilly ...
Jim: Michael Reilly.
Me: Mike! I keep wanting to say Tom for some reason. Tom Reilly, he was saying that there was a lot of mining here at first, and a lot of people immigrated here from Europe to mine. And then, factories came up, and I was wondering, when mining went down. And I was wondering if you could fill in the details or if that's true or how that worked.
Jim: Well, I remember in the fifties, in the mid-fifties, the mines really did go down. But, I guess they were progressively going down before that.
Me: Why was that?
Jim: The peak was – Uh, people started to use other fuels to heat their houses, oil, and, well natural gas came along later, but a lot of the coal was shipped to the Philadelphia and New York area. But I guess that was the main thing, people stopped using coal as much as they had been.
Me: Yeah. Sorry, I interrupted you. The peak was ...
Jim: The peak was probably in the thirties, that's when our population was the highest. It touched about eight-thousand. Now it's less than thirty-two hundred.
Jim: It really, yeah.
Me: Are most of the houses, do they have people living in them, or are there a lot of empty houses?
Jim: There are a lot of empty ones.
Me: So what do, I guess my first question being, where do most people come from? Are they still immigrants, like, descendants of immigrants, and if so, where do they come from, or is it a good mix?
Jim: Ashland was unique in that we had more German people I think than the surrounding towns. Shenandoah has a little bit of everything, Ashland is mostly German, Welsh and Irish.
Me: Why was that, do you think?
Jim: I really don't know.
Me: Just kind of happened.
Me: I guess, if you wouldn't mind delving a little bit into what it was like growing up in Ashland and your childhood here, even your adolescence, what people did, where they shopped, and how that compares to now.
Jim: Ashland was a business town more than a mining town I would say. So we could almost get anything we wanted right here in town. I guess I didn't know any different. So as I was growing up, this is what I thought the norm was. I didn't realize it could be different, and all the small towns around here probably were the same way.
Me: So, what did you do for fun? I know there were a lot of parks built, I think during the Depression.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. There were the parks. We spent a lot of time gathered on street corners and things like that in the evenings. Of course, when we were in school, Ashland had its own high school, so there was a lot of activity there, dances, football games, things like that, which we lost when we joined with all these other towns, we lost that individuality. And this was the days before drugs, so we could congregate and didn't cause trouble, and people weren't afraid to walk by us and things like that.
Me: Is there a problem with that now in Ashland?
Jim: Yeah, I think there is in all the towns around here.
Me: Are there a lot of young people, or do they generally move out ...
Jim: They usually leave.
Me: And where do they go?
Jim: To the more metropolitan areas I'd say. Most of the families in Ashland that have businesses and raised families and educated them, there's only one person I know of all of those prominent families, (and we had quite a few of them – Ashland was a very wealthy town), that's still here.
Me: Why was Ashland so wealthy?
Jim: Because it just happened. Well Peter Foxwhite, I told you about his house, he was probably the wealthiest man in Ashland. He made good investments and he had a, his business was wholesale and retail hardware and farm supplies, and since we're pretty close to the farming area, the farmers would come here to buy their supplies. Then the Goyne family started a foundry. They're still in operation but they're known as Goul Pump division of ITT Industries. They started that up in the eighteen-eighties. That was a pretty wealthy family. Lobensteins had a foundry where they made screening and segments, they call it, for the coal industry. That's closed now but they had quite a bit of money. There were a few other businesses, the Shillings and the Steves. They all educated their families here, and then they left.
Me: So I guess this area was well-situated to manufacture things for coal and for farming.
Jim: Yeah. Mostly the coal industry. The pumps to pump the water out of the mines, the screens to screen the coal.
Me: When you were growing up here, was there any expectation that you would come out of high school and do this or that, or was it more free, did people do many different things. Just because I was talking to Mike and he said that in Byrnesville, there was an expectation that you would either mine or go into a factory, I guess. This seems like a bigger place, though.
Jim: I don't think when I graduated, people expected to go in the mines, because they said in the fifties, they closed. I graduated in sixty and I went to school the very next fall, and had intentions of going into my field that I told you about.
Me: I'm just trying to get a sense of what life was like and is like. And another thing I'm trying to look at in this area is the relation to the landscape, particularly, I saw actually that you have something called “Schuylkill Saturday,” I think?
Jim: “Schuylkill Saturday” was a local, weekly newspaper that was printed here up until this past January.
Me: Why Schuylkill?
Jim: It's Schuylkill County.
Me: Oh, okay. 'Cause I know in my area we have Schuylkill River, and I'm from more easterly, so I didn't think it came out this far.
Jim: We got the name from the Schuylkill River, it's Schuylkill County.
Me: Is the river near here at all?
Jim: The headwaters are, yeah, geeze, I dunno. Probably starts around Pottsville, and flows to Philadelphia.
Me: Is the Susquehanna River nearby too?
Jim: It's not too far, but we're not in the Susquehanna watershed. There's a creek that goes through Ashland, the Mahanoy Creek flows to the Susquehanna, into Harrisburg.
Me: Do people have any sense of connection, at least to the creek if not to the river? You play there, you fish there ...
Jim: Well, we refer to it as the black creek. “Crick.” Because it was used to clean the coal, and it was actually black. Also, along the line, all the little towns empty their sewage into it. So it wasn't too pleasant. You couldn't play. Now it's cleaned up, with sewage plants and things like that. It's coming back. And there's actually fish in it again. But that's downtown. I was an uptowner. We usually didn't go downtown too far. We used to hike the hills around town and build shacks and things like that. But Ashland is landlocked, with the two mountains, so there's really no place for us to expand.
Me: I noticed that. It's very long.
Jim: Long and narrow.
Me: Is that because of the hills?
Jim: Because of the hills, yeah. And probably the Mahanoy Creek was one of the attractions that brought the founders into town. That and, there was a turnpike that went through here. They called it the Centre Turnpike, and it originated in Reading and ended in Sunbury. And the people that would travel on that, they, well that's explained in here but it was a vision he had to have a town here.
Me: Let's see ... okay. We were talking about, my group, the topic of the importance of coal in this region as forming an identity. Is that true in Ashland as much?
Jim: It's true, but not as much probably as maybe a little north of us. Definitely coal was mined around here. There were collieries, several on this side of town, several on that side of town, and if you were at the Pioneer Tunnel, that might be a good place for you to stop.
Me: Is that the ...
Jim: That's where you go into the mine, yeah.
Me: Yeah, I'm thinking of doing that.
Jim: And that was an operating coal mine until the early nineteen-thirties. And the train ride that you take there goes along the mountain and actually did at the time, too. And then there was a colliery at the end of that mountain called the Bancroft Colliery and that's where they processed it. And then, a railroad comes in through there, the old depot's still down there, it's that stone building. And, when the railroad came in here, they were able to take the coal from that Bancroft Colliery to Gordon which is the next little town. They had what they call a flay, and they were able to get it up over the mountain to the other side and then take it through barges to Philadelphia.
Me: Okay. So they floated it ...
Jim: Yeah, there was a canal called Schuylkill Canal, and that went to Philadelphia, so that's how they got the coal there. This was a pretty wealthy town. Somebody told me, well the man that donated this house to us said, when he first started practicing in Ashland, he was an attorney, Ashland was the third in degree of wealth. Pottsville was first, Tamaqua was second, and Ashland was a close third.
Me: In this county, or ... ?
Jim: In Schuylkill County.
Me: How are the other towns doing in relation?
Jim: About the same. They all are struggling, all these small towns around here. Ashland, probably, business-wise, lasted maybe longer than some of the others, but now there's very few businesses here. The mall sort of put the kibosh to the whole thing.
Me: Where's the mall, and when was that put in?
Jim: Schuylkill Mall is Frackville, it's about six miles from here. Then there's Wal-Marts and things like that. The small-town stores just couldn't compete with that. They closed.
Me: We were talking about the area. We actually took a tour of Sunbury, and our tour guide said that Sunbury tends to look down at some of the other towns. And she said, “I don't understand why, since we're all right here.” But I was wondering if there's any sense of other kinds of stereotypes or tensions between other towns and Ashton.
Jim: 'Course there were school rivalries. Why Sunbury snubs other towns, I don't know. They might be ... they're considered a city. Our town, you see, Pottsville is the only city in Schuylkill County. Maybe it's just 'cause they're bigger and they have more cultural things. But we had our opera house and things like that, too.
Me: There was an opera house here?
Jim: There was. It's still standing a couple blocks up the street. Yeah, well, we can go upstairs and we have a whole room dedicated to theaters.
Me: When did it close?
Jim: Well, it converted to a movie-house in, movies came to town about nineteen-oh-six, so maybe in the twenties it was converted to a movie house. It had a two-story stage. That was taken off of it, but the building is still there. Most of the theater's still in there. But they did pretty big productions. Well, we were probably halfway between Reading and Sunbury, so, it took more than a day to make that trip, so this was a stopping-off place, and we had a lot of small hotels, too. And then the theater groups that would go through here would put on performances. They did plays like the Passion play, with real, live animals, things like that. It was pretty well-known.
Me: Okay. I have some questions that are very specific to Ashland. I'm very interested in the mother memorial and, I guess, what the mentality was when that was built. Why not a war memorial or something else. Why mothers in particular, and how did that come about?
Jim: It was a brainchild of the ABA. Now the ABA means Ashland Boys Association. And that was also a very unique organization and it started, probably, right before the turn of the century. And for some reason, before that, a lot of the men had to go elsewhere for, I think there was a mining strike or something, and they went to the Philadelphia area. And then, on Labor Day weekend, probably eighteen-ninety-eight or something like that, a group of these men came back, and they got together for a dinner and just roamed the hills where they used to play and visit their old school and things like that. And they thought, “This was a pretty nice thing, we should do it again.” So that started a reunion every Labor Day weekend. That continued up until nineteen-seventy-six and there's a room dedicated to that to. All these men and boys would get together. No women were allowed. And thousands of them, we have pictures of them at the park as you leave town up there. In nineteen-thirty-seven, they came up with the idea of building this mothers memorial, and dedicate it to mothers everywhere, not just Ashland mothers or their mothers. That was during the Depression, so it was pretty hard to raise money, but they came up with, I think it cost six-thousand dollars at the time, to do that. And the sculpture was made, well the inspiration was Whistler's painting, “Arrangement in Greys” or something it's called, and we think it's the only three-dimensional work of art that was done from a painting. It was done in New York, and we had other war memorials. We have a canon from World War One two blocks up the street, and there was another small war memorial which isn't there anymore, up the Stormy Hill, they call this hill over here. So, I just think they thought that would be more unique, and wanted to honor mothers.
Me: So these two hills have names?
Jim: Yeah, this is the Locust Mountain, that's the Mahanoy Mountain.
Me: Okay. And then, the stormy hill is part of it, or ...
Jim: Stormy Hill's the lower end of Mahanoy Mountain.
Me: So, did those names come about because people go up and spend time up there, or are they mapping names, or ...
Jim: Well, Mahanoy Mountain probably got its name from the creek, Mahanoy Creek. Well, this was called the Mahanoy Valley, because of that. This side, probably because of the locust trees. There was a lot of locust trees around here. This probably took the name from them.
Me: Do people still ... [I pause as a man outside lets out an extremely loud, hacking cough.]
Jim: Poor soul. Line up another one, Jacky.
Me: Do people still go up on the hills ...
Jim: Oh, I guess they do ...
Me: To hang out or ...
Jim: Oh, probably for other reasons.
Me: It's not quite as safe as it was?
Jim: I think it's safe, but there are other recreations that take up their time, like computers and games, things like that. Where, when I was growing up, that's what you did. We didn't have television until I was in fifth grade.
Me: We were talking about the Ashland Boys Association, and I know they had a parade. I was wondering if you could tell me how that started, your memories of it ...
Jim: Well when these men came back to town for that Labor Day weekend, so many of them came from Philadelphia, they ran a special train. And it came into town at seven o'clock the Saturday night before Labor Day. And as the men got off the train, their families and friends met them there, and they just walked up the town here to their homes. And that evolved into the parade we had. They added the band one year, and of course there were no streetlights and that, so they carried torches to light their way, and it was before Daylight Saving Time, so it was pretty dark at seven o'clock, or soon would become dark, so they carried torches. And it evolved into what we call the mummers parade. And that existed until this year. This is the first year we're not going to have it anymore.
Me: Why is it not happening?
Jim: For several reasons. One, our population is less than half what it used to be, so we don't have the support of the people. A lot of the families are no longer here that the people would come home to visit. They don't have a place to stay. And, interest is not what it used to be. The new people that are coming into town don't know what it's all about. You know, don't know what ABA was all about. And another thing is these DUI safety checks that they have. It was a big party night, and people just don't want to have house parties anymore because they don't want their guests to be stopped going out of town and said, oh they got they're drinks at such-and-such a house. So, they just stopped celebrating as much as they did.
Me: Huh. That's kind of depressing.
Jim: It is, it is. I hated when they started that.
Me: When did it happen?
Jim: Oh, maybe five years ago. And then when the crowd is down, our collection is down, because we pass the basket the night of the parade to get money for the next year's parade. And then, participation fell off. The local people didn't want to go in the parade anymore, they'd rather just sit on their porch and watch it, and quite a few different reasons. Also, we made a door-to-door canvas weeks before the parade to get money, and each year we lost a few of our collectors. They either couldn't do it anymore or didn't want to. So, I hated to see it go by the wayside, and maybe it'll pick up again. Maybe somebody will give it a shot, but I'm on that committee and we just decided we can't do it anymore. We really struggled to get one together last year. And we were about fifteen units short from the year before. We usually have three divisions. Last year we went with two for the first time. It's just like everything else, it's just ran its course I guess.
Me: So I'm guessing the parade was still strong when you were a kid -
Jim: Oh yeah.
Me: - and you probably participated in it. Did you, were you actually in the parade, and if so, what did you do?
Jim: I was, later. As a kid, I wasn't. But after I got on the committee, of course I was one that made that collection, and I got involved with one of the Philadelphia string bands, I don't know if you're familiar, where are you from?
Me: I'm from close to Philadelphia, actually.
Jim: Oh. Well I was a member of the Great Bucks County string band for quite awhile, a few years, and we did the parade that way. Then there was a local string band, too, because Greater Bucks disbanded maybe ten years ago. Then I was with the local one, and I paraded a couple times with them. And it is a tough route.
Me: With the hill?
Jim: With the hill. We went up Walnut Street and down this one. So, it's going to be a sad weekend, Labor Day.
Me: Especially if people aren't even having house parties.
Jim: Yeah. So, I think they'll always be ABA weekend though. I'm hoping people still come home and celebrate a little bit and visit.
Me: The people who are still coming home, is it just anybody who lived in Ashland, or is it still the miners?
Jim: Yeah, it's families, and a lot of times, they say, “Oh you have to come to Ashland this weekend. It's really wild,” and they bring friends with them. And then they sort of stop bringing their kids and things like that the next year, even by themselves. And, all the local towns, the people would come here. It really was a unique thing. We still get, or did still get some of the Philadelphia string bands, that's another thing. Their, their average price is three-thousand dollars. Now that's a lot of money to raise, to bring in one band. So, money is one of the things. But the interest and the participation was another.
Me: What instrument do you play?
Jim: [Said with a slight laugh, as if self-deprecating:] I play the banjo.
Me: How'd you learn banjo?
Jim: I actually taught myself. How I got involved, well, we met these people that came with the Greater Bucks to our parade. And then I went to Philadelphia a couple years to watch it. Well, when I lived in Philadelphia I watched it. And then I went with them as, they call them a marshal, or an aid, you know, and they were short a few players one year, and so they dressed me up and handed me a violin, and I faked it all the way across the street, which a lot of people did. And I thought, well if I'm going to do this, I want to learn to play an instrument. So, they lent me a banjo and taught me the basic chords and fingerings. I couldn't say I'm a banjo player. I could chord enough to be in concerts and in parades, but I can't play tunes or anything. It was fun. An experience I'm glad I did. I still have my banjo. I haven't played it for about ten years. I don't know if I could anymore.
Me: How old were you when you learned it?
Jim: About forty.
Me: That always interests me, I guess, as somebody just coming out of college, knowing that just because I graduated doesn't mean I can't still learn stuff.
Jim: I was pretty old.
Me: I don't know about old ...
Jim: Compared to what I am now ...
Me: You weren't seven and learning how to play banjo.
Me: Okay. I guess I have some questions about reactions of the area to things I know were kind of a big shock. For example, Centralia. How people in Ashland, if they took notice of that, what people thought of that, if they were afraid that it would affect Ashland, or if they were angry more wasn't done about it, or if they just didn't care.
Jim: I don't think we were really too concerned about it. A lot of people who moved from Centralia when the other direction. Some came to Ashland but not as many was went to Mount Carmel, like Michael went to Elysburg and things like that. There was a little concern about it moving toward Ashland, but I don't think that would happen because, I don't know for sure, but I think fire usually burns up, and we're lower. Plus, all our mines are probably filled with water at this point, because we stopped pumping them out. It came as close to Big Mine Run, which is just down the road, but I don't think the fire moving was a concern, and most of the people went the other direction.
Me: So when it happened, people didn't think it was coming this way so it wasn't a big concern.
Jim: Well, of course we were concerned because Centralia was a pretty bustling little town too, but now it's practically non-existent. The few people that are still there I think are leaving. Just this year some more of them left.
[We talk about books and documentaries about Centralia.]
Me: I guess the other big event I thought of was three-mile island. I guess there isn't really a power plant nearby here, but ...
Jim: No, Berwick is the closest one. That really wasn't much of a concern.
Me: Okay. I think that's pretty much ... oh, actually, I wanted to know how the museum, the coal museum, and the tunnel ride came into being. When and how.
Jim: Well, I guess we were grasping at straws for something to keep this area a little prosperous. And the attorney who gave us this house was instrumental in opening that mine up. He came up with that idea, to capitalize on the tourist industry, and I think that's what our future is, the tourist industry. We opened that in the early sixties I guess. You know all the details I'm sure.
Me: I actually don't. I don't know when they opened it or anything.
Jim: Well, if you go up there, and I recommend you do, there's a very small book, I guess it's still in the gift shop, that tells the whole story about how it came about, and how they obtained all the small trains. They call them the Lokies. And the museum was put there by the state, probably because one of our local boys worked for the Museum Commission in Harrisburg. He's dead now, too. But he had a lot to do with bringing back the railroad. A couple years ago, the state wanted to close it.
Jim: Well, I think they're cutting down a lot on their museums and things like that. This was one of three in a complex with Eckley Miners' village.
Me: Not aware, what's that?
Jim: That was a town, a little coal-patch town, that, in the, probably the seventies, they selected to make the movie The Molly Maguires. Did you ever see that?
Me: No, I didn't.
Jim: It was a movie, they wanted to do a movie about a traitor, and they picked the Molly Maguires as their theme, because it was one of the coal and iron police that infiltrated the Molly Maguires and was instrumental in getting a lot of them hanged at the time I guess and turned them in. But their theme was really the traitor aspect more than the Molly Maguires. It's not a documentary. It's a good story, but it's not an authentic documentation of the Molly Maguires. And Paramount Pictures made it. And they picked that little coal town and they really turned it back to the way it might have been in the eighteen-seventies. Sean Connery was in it, and Samantha Egger and Richard Harris.
Me: So it was a big deal.
Jim: Yeah. It was a fairly good movie. Then, when the movie was finished, the state turned the whole town into a tourist attraction, and they're maintaining it. And then they built a similar museum up there, which deals more with the heritage, this one deals more with the mining of the coal, and then there was a third one in the Scranton area. I was never at that museum. But it was a complex of three museums. The other two are still owned by the state, but they wanted to close this one, and then at the time, Ashland was looking for a new borough hall, to build one, and our local state senator wanted to keep that museum going, so they actually turned it over to the Borough of Ashland and we moved the borough hall up here so it's now the borough hall, but the museum is still intact. It's run by the town now.
Me: So do you walk through it to get to the borough hall?
Jim: Actually, you pass by the borough hall offices first, and then you go back to beyond it. It's well-worth seeing, too. Well done.
Me: I guess that's pretty much all I have unless you have more you'd like to add.
Jim: No, we can go upstairs.
[Jim takes me upstairs to show me the different rooms the Historic Society has arranged almost as a museum, housing antiques, photos, memorabilia and other knick-knacks. Each room has a theme. We start at the stairway landing, where a glass box shields several statues.]
Jim: This is the sample that the sculptor made of the mothers memorial to show maybe what it'd look like.
Me: What's it made out of?
Jim: Plaster. Plaster of Paris. They actually went to New York to look at that thing. 'Course I said it was during the Depression, and it was hard raising money, so the sculptor actually made those little bookends there. [He points to bookends, each a mini-statue of Whistler's mother.] And they sold them for a dollar, and he donated fifty cents back to the committee. And this was a coin, if you made a donation of a dollar, you got one of them. Here's a reproduction of the painting it was taken from.
[Down the hallway, he points to several small pictures, housed together in larger, matted frames. The pictures are labeled.]
Jim: Here's what Michael Reilly did for us. He put this together. It's all the people he remembered when he lived in Byrnesville, and the pictures he framed for us. His family did, well I guess he told you all that.
Me: The shrine, yeah.
[We enter the theater room. Its walls house posters, framed pictures, and pieces Jim has salvaged from the opera house building.]
Jim: This is our theater room. Here's an old sketch of the opera house. It more or less, it doesn't have this [indicates a triangle structure on the top of the facade] on it anymore. I don't know if it ever did. But, it's more or less the way it is now, except ...
Me: [I notice some unusual words near the top of the building.] What is an Oddfellows Temple?
Jim: The Oddfellows is a, like a service organization, like the Masons. It was built by them. [He describes some of the architecture of the movie theater, a bit of its history and the materials it's made of.] And we had another theater called the Roxie. And that was two blocks up the street, where Devito's Italian Restaurant is now. [I ask what the spire that can be seen over Devito's is.] That's the steeple of St. Mauritius Church. It has a clock in it. That was, that clock was put up there in eighteen-sixty-two or something like that. We consider it the town clock.
[He describes more of the movie memorabilia hanging in the room. Movie posters were discovered in an old garage, nailed backwards to the wall.]
Jim: They changed the movies about every two days, and every month they'd send these calendars out, to tell you what was going to play. Oh, we'd wait for those to come in the mail. [He points out dishes that were handed out every Thursday at the theater as a “premium. They are white with gold decoration, and consist of many different pieces, plates as well as pitchers, etc.]
[We enter another room. This one looks like a bedroom, with a dresser, chair, fully-clothed bed, and a form wearing an old bridal dress.]
Jim: This room, this furniture was donated to us by the Ricker family, who have a dairy in Gordon. They just donated this furniture.
Me: What about the dress?
Jim: That was not a Ricker dress, but belonged to Diel, dee-aye-ee-ell or something like that, in nineteen-forty-eight. Supposedly patterned after Queen Elizabeth's headpiece, there [he indicates a royal-looking tiara]. Princess Elizabeth at that time.
[We enter another room. This one has hospital paraphernalia, including a nurse's uniform, cape, cap and dress, and pictures of classes of graduated nurses.]
Jim: This is our hospital room. Picture of old Ashland hospital. This is the place the fireplace came from [in the Historical Society meeting room] the mantel, I should say. This was all torn down, except for the nurses' home. There was a school of nursing out there, too. That's still standing, and the building that was the laundry. [We discuss the architecture.]
Me: What is the nurses' house now?
Jim: They call it the Gaudenzia House. It's sort of a half-way house for abused women. That's what replaced that.
Me: So it's not the original building.
Me: What are these uniforms?
Jim: They actually had those capes. We have a picture of them all. But they actually wore those capes. [More discussion of the ceremonies for graduating nurses.]
[We walk back down the hallway, looking at pictures. The hallway also contains flags with various star counts, including thirty-eight. Then we move on to the Ashland Boys Association room. This includes a glass counter displaying pamphlets and fund raising trinkets, and two large papier-mache sculptures. Jim begins describing the Labor Day festivities.]
Jim: This is our ABA room. [He points to a long photograph, filled with faces, on the wall.] All the men at the ABA picnic on Labor Day. And there was no alcohol. They just got together and ate beans, put on a minstrel show in the afternoon. And if you bought one of those buttons, you didn't have to spend any more money, you just helped yourself to the food and soda or coffee. [He describes more of the trinkets.]
Me: Were you a member of the ABA?
Jim: Mm-hm. I used to go to some of these meetings.
Me: What did you do, what drew you to be a member?
Jim: I just attended the reunions. There was a home staff that sent out invitations. [He points out the invitations, from as early as 1912, under the glass. He points out an open booklet showing a page with a cartoon of the minstrels in blackface.] That's what people did. We can't change history. [He turns to the papier-mache pieces.] We got the idea from the Philadelphia division. There was a Philadelphia organization that would come home every year. They came up on the train, and they brought that float one year. They had their own buttons, with the Liberty Bell hanging on them. [...] They even had a clubhouse down there. Ashland never had a clubhouse, but they did in Philadelphia.
[Jim shows me many more artifacts, and even a room which hasn't been set up yet. Quilts, photos, and wood-under-construction fill the room. Another partially-filled room will be the school room.]
Jim: This is going to be our school display. [...] School's were a big part of our history.
Me: How were they a big part of the history?
Jim: Well, everybody had to go to school. When people come back for high school reunions and things like that, they would be interested in seeing this, their old alma mater. A lot of yearbooks downstairs. [Discussion of the genealogy the Historic Society produces for people as well. He points to a photo.] The old Ashland High School band from 1947.
Me: Is the high school still pretty much the same?
Jim: The high school's gone. It's part of North Schuykill High School now. Where this stood, the post office is now.
Me: So Ashland doesn't have its own ...
Jim: We don't have any schools in town.
Me: So there were elementary schools and all that, and now they're gone?
Jim: We had, at one time, three elementary schools, two parochial schools, and the Ashland high school, and the old school, before they built this, was used as a junior high, and they're all gone. One of the elementary schools is still standing. It's an apartment house now. And the buildings are there from the two Catholic schools, but they no longer have schools.
[Jim tells me where the new schools are.]
Me: Did you go to Ashland High School?
Jim: I graduated from this building, yeah. But they merged with Frackville and Geradville and Greentown.
Me: What was your class town?
Jim: Had a hundred and eight in our class. Which was pretty big at that time, for a town our size.
Me: What was it like going to high school here? I guess, did you have a lot of variety in classes, were you close with everyone ...
Jim: Yeah, well we were classmates. Now, there's so many of them, you don't really know them, I'd say. But you knew everybody, even the underclassman. You walked to school with them. You didn't get on a bus. People from Gordon and some of the outlying areas that came on buses, but most people walked to school.
Me: Was it uphill or downhill or ...
Jim: Uphill both ways.
Me: [Laughs.] And it was always snow, and no shoes.
Jim: Yup, four feet of snow.
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