October 5, 2011 Leave a comment
The Standard Speaker wrote a great article about our summer work. The text from the article, written by Kent Jackson can be read here:
Local man’s collection a researcher’s windfall
By KENT JACKSON (Staff Writer) Published: August 13, 2011
The letters show that Charles Brown was getting attached to a coal company’s mule. Brown, who lived in Nescopeck, wrote fondly in 1935 of the mule loaned to him by the Pardee Coal Co. of Lattimer. “He is like a child, and my wife bathes his back like a child,” Brown wrote in one of his letters, which Michael Roller read aloud.
Roller, a researcher from the University of Maryland, stood in an office in Hazleton where retired engineer Joe Michel stores the documents and mining equipment that he collected throughout his lifetime. While gathering information about life in coal towns around Hazleton for his doctoral thesis, Roller has been combing through coal company records and other documents in Michel’s collection. The collection includes mine maps, blueprints and coal company invoices that Roller and Justin Uehlein, an undergraduate student assisting him, already have spent a month reading.
Letters like those mailed between Brown and Pardee Coal give them pause. “The personal letters are really touching,” Roller said. Letters explain how families worked together to survive tough economic conditions, and they describe devastating accidents and injuries in the mines. The writers detail relations between union workers and mining companies. One detective, in reports to the coal company, wrote of efforts to catch bootleg miners and recover pilfered dynamite. Other letters just tell stories like that of Brown and his mule. “The mule has been injured. You can tell he wants to hold onto the mule,” Roller said. But the coal company replied to Brown’s neatly scripted letters in brusque tones written with a typewriter. A mule, after all, was company property, Uehlein said.
When Roller and Uehlein first entered Michel’s building, they were overwhelmed by the amount of material. “The only way to approach it is to go little by little, piece by piece,” Roller said. His specialty is everyday life in the coal towns, how people survived and how their experiences helped shape what Hazleton has become today. But Michel’s collection includes troves of information on labor history, World War II, engineering and mining technology – subjects that others might wish to study.
Previously, Michel made his collection available to anyone from surveyors looking for landmarks to people researching family history. He displayed some of his collection at Penn State Hazleton and loaned table-size maps to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, which scanned them so they can be shared by the public via computer. “Joe always said history belongs to everyone,” Roller said.
To advance his host’s goal of sharing information, Roller plans to post what he finds on websites. Although he focuses his interest in daily life in the coal towns, he wants to help make others aware of the types of information available in the collection.
For example, Roller hopes to create a computerized database from a card catalog that he and Uehlein found. Each card in the catalog, which fills two boxes, contains information about a separate employee of a coal company in Lattimer. Roller withdrew one card at random. “That’s a lucky one,” he said, realizing that the employee listed on the card, Peter Polanski, shared the surname of Lattimer’s most famous son, Walter Polanski, who went on to play college football, box professionally and win an Academy Award under his stage name, Jack Palance.
According to the card that Roller held, Peter Polanski was born in Russia in 1884, was married, had previously worked in Lattimer and in Syracuse, N.Y., and his mining certificate was on file. Roller said he wants to recruit a younger student to put the cards into a database on the computer. Then he would like to compile basic statistics on ages, nationalities and other information about the miners.
“We’d love to have people add stories,” he said. Roller and Uehlein also are seeking out personal stories by interviewing folks with mining backgrounds whom they meet while living in the Hazleton area this summer. During the interviews, Roller asks his subjects what aspects of Hazleton’s history interest them. He hopes to share information he uncovers about those topics with the public.
He also digs for history below ground. Next summer, in conjunction with Penn State University, he wants to organize an archaeological dig, perhaps at Lattimer. Already, he participated in the excavation that Dr. Paul Shackel, the chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Maryland, led last year at the site of the Lattimer Massacre. In Lattimer on Sept. 10, 1897, approximately 19 striking miners on a march to gain union members were gunned down by deputy sheriffs.
Roller has examined bullets found at the site, and read newspaper accounts of the massacre and the trial in which the sheriff and deputies were acquitted. But he also wants to bridge the gap from 1897 to the present to consider how life evolved in Lattimer. In Michel’s archives, he found blueprints of a typical house owned by the Calvin Pardee Coal Co. and rented to miners in Lattimer in 1889. The houses sold to Hazle Realty in 1930 for $60 to $80, Roller found out. He would like to know when water, sewer and electricity became available to the residents to get a notion how and when they improved their lives. One letter he found from 1940 said the company was going to shut off water to homes in the evenings because the water was needed for mining.
Documents found in Michel’s collection, interviews with long-time residents and excavations each tell part of the region’s history. “Between these three, the truth is very complex. I don’t think we’ll come up with steadfast answers,” said Roller, who hopes to inspire others to keep peering into Hazleton’s past.