The Place: Western Pennsylvania Coal Country

Beneath the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania lay one of the greatest deposits of bituminous coal in the country. During the turn of the century, when coal and its purer form of ‘coke’ was used to fuel the American industrial machine and particularly the nearby steel industry, this area became a magnet for the wave of European immigrants looking for a place in the American labor force. Into towns like Brownsville, Connellsville, and Uniontown came Irish, Italians, Poles, Croats, Serbs, Slovaks, Ruthenium’s, Russians, and other Europeans. An elaborate network of streetcars shuffled men from town to town and to the base of the mines. On weekends, the larger towns such as Uniontown or Brownsville were so overwhelmed with people celebrating the receipt of their paychecks; it was nearly impossible to walk along the crowded streets.

Here, too, several important sagas in American history played themselves out. The labor movement took hold at this time, as the fight between worker and management led to the creation of the union, largely through the leadership of men like John L. Lewis. Strikes held by the workers led to the importation of scabs, which then led to violent confrontations.

The Klu-Klux-Klan was also very strong in this area, as many of the local farmers banded together against the influx of the predominantly Catholic ethnic groups that were overwhelming their homeland. Wild rumors spread about the immigrants, including the idea that the incense burned in the Catholic Masses was somehow tied to human sacrifice.

But by far the greatest concern voiced by the Klan was the seeming disorder created by this massive influx of humanity. The Klan, which had its roots in the Know-Nothing Party in Oregon, was mainly about maintaining the social order. It chose ethnic enemies because of the potential disruption to that order they believed were posed by these groups. Throughout this early time in southwest Pennsylvania, cross burnings and other methods of intimidation were common.

It is interesting to note the way the coal that was mined in the area was made into the higher grade ‘coke’ and the reason for this process. In the steel mills of nearby Pittsburgh, iron was brought in its natural state, which is ferrous oxide, or rust. In order to make steel, the oxygen has to be liberated from the iron, and in order to do this, the iron has to be heated at extremely high temperatures. The coal that comes from the ground has too many impurities to heat the iron at the temperatures that are needed to cause this chemical reaction. Therefore, the impurities in the coal must first be burned out of the coal to create a purer form of fuel which can burn at higher temperatures and thus liberate the oxygen from the iron to make steel. Throughout this area of southwestern Pennsylvania were hundreds of ‘beehive coal ovens’ that got their name from their domed, beehive-looking shape. In these ovens, coal was slow-burned, liberating the impurities and thus creating coke. The tremendous pollution the coalfields were known for came about because of this process. Each day, thousand of pounds of coal were brought from the mines into these beehive ovens, and each day, thousands of pounds of impurities were sent back into the atmosphere. The effect was so profound that often the day became as black as night.

Today, this area has a ‘sad and beautiful world’ quality to it. In towns like Brownsville and Uniontown one gets a sense of a downtown activity that hasn’t completely disappeared, but is less than that alluded to by the exquisitely shaped buildings and stately homes that grace the landscape. The area possesses a profound sense of days gone by and the significant chapters of American history that were written there.

The Process:

When I undertook this project, I was living in the Appalachian Mountains, producing “The Reach of Song,” drama. In the ten-hour drive between western North Carolina and Southwestern Pennsylvania, I was to undergo a complete cultural adjustment. People in the mountains tend to be more reticent, saying only the exact amount of words that need to be said on any given point. This is a particularly disarming form of communication, and I have seen people absolutely unraveled by it. The less one person says in a supposed conversation, the more the other person attempts to make up for the auditory deficiency by saying more. Pretty soon, the talker has laid all of their cards on the table and then some, to which the reticent party politely responds: “Uh-huh.”

Among the immigrant population of southwestern Pennsylvania, however, generally speaking, there is no such thing as a private thought. People tend to speak their mind regardless of whether anyone cares to listen. This mode of interaction is the exact opposite of the guarded Appalachian way. The manner in which one must work in either of these two environments is also very different, and it always took me some time to adjust.

I have come to believe that the reason for one group being so protected and the other group being so open is that the people from ethnic backgrounds have had to forget things about their past -as in their entire ethnic histories prior to arriving in America. As a result, as a group they are generally better equipped to work through problems, such that every fight or transgression is not a forever thing. While I loathe the stereotypes that are heaped upon the Appalachian culture, there is a strain of truth in the Hatfield and McCoys legend. Again, speaking in broad stereotypes that tend to be true for only parts of the population at best, I found that people from the mountains tended to have a line which divided the people of their world. If you were on the good side of their line, there was nothing they wouldn’t do for you. If you were on the bad side, there was nothing they would do for you, and what’s worse, you could never get back on the good side for the rest of your life.

I came to love both ways of living.. I had an apartment in downtown Uniontown in the Fayette Bank Building, which itself housed a remarkable cross-section of humanity. Across the street, Anthony’s Pub and the Highland House are still two of my absolute favorite places to go in the world, although my understanding is that the former has since closed its doors.

The interviews I conducted were across ethnic lines and spoke to the experience of the new world, and in some cases, the experience of the old world as well. In keeping with the cultural characteristics of the area, I found myself being constantly late for the next set of scheduled interviews, basically because the people with whom I spoke would not stop talking. I often had people following me down their driveways continuing to recall events long after my tape recorder had been turned off.

In time, I came to realize that this was more than a cultural propensity to make conversation. As I dug deeper into the immigrant experience, I found that people had remarkably little knowledge of their history on the other side of the Atlantic. Any customs or traditions that were brought to America had been stripped of their meaning and cultural significance. What my research told me might have been a fertility rite in the old world, in the new world mentality, this same action was described as having been done, “for luck.” While the physical dimension of some traditions or rituals may have crossed the Atlantic, their meaning was forever left behind in some village somewhere. I assumed this was for purposes of hiding that which might be an embarrassment and limit their transition to becoming an American.

In my own experience as a third generation Italian immigrant, I found the generations that were closer to the old world were less likely to want to talk about it. I believe their thinking to have been that they had left there, they were poor there, and they didn’t want to hear anything about it because any ties they kept to the place kept them from being an American. This was a rare opportunity in the history of the world: If an Italian went to work in Switzerland, he didn’t become Swiss; if a Pole went to work in Germany, he didn’t become a German. What America was offering was a whole new identity and an escape from one’s history. But as I was seeing, it came with a price.

Increasingly, I viewed people’s need to talk as an attempt to somehow make sense of their past, and also to make sense of the funny last names they had carried with them. The external realities they had created to do this: “The Slovak Club,” “The Sons of Italy,” and “Italian Day Festival” were a shallow and Americanized version of a greater need that few could articulate. Generally speaking, these representations of the old world in the new world had only a name connecting the two. Perhaps there were also a few ethnic recipes that crossed the Atlantic, but even these were often Americanized, as occurred with the many rich versions of Italian cuisine -Lasagna, Manicotti -that one would never find in Italy. (It is interesting to note that the Italian-American perspective which created these rich dishes was fueled by the belief that because they were in America, the food had to be richer and bigger than what they were used. So they added the cheeses, fillings, and calories that were absolutely inconsistent with traditional Italian fare.)

I hadn’t fully realized what a violent transition Americanization had been. The writing of the play was an attempt to reconnect the past to the present, and to help provide these people with a sense of where they had been.