Oral History about Gates Patch

by George J. Plava [b. 1920] June 18, 1999
Interview & transcription -Sheila Garred, corrected by Mr. Plava
Additional information—[in brackets] supplied by Joseph E. Scarry October 2009)
(Download a pdf version.)

The Donovans

Your grandfather (Mike Donovan, [b. 1883] Gates Asst. Superintendent) was very personable, a nice man. He used to walk around the patch in the evening to sure make sure everything was done—the horse-wagon had emptied the garbage and taken it to the dump that was alongside one of hillsides near the mine. Also that the ash boxes were whitewashed so everything looked bright and clean. He gave out whitewash to the people. Yes, people came to him to settle disputes, but the police would have been the first ones called.

Jim [b. 1913 Mike’s oldest son] was a fireball. I saw him in several fights. I was right here on our porch, looking across the street (at the Hall). Some guy said “Just because your dad’s the Super you think you can do anything.” And Jim said, “Oh yeah? Wanna see?” They went off the porch and that guy knocked him on the ground and beat the stuffing right out of him. Pat [his brother] tried to help, but he couldn’t do much. Anna Grace [his sister] was very theatrical—and, Mrs. Plava [George’s wife] says, a great whistler during shows in Masontown. Camilla [another sister] was very reserved. Pat built the first canoe. He took barrel staves, covered them with canvas and then waterproofed it with tar. I went across the river in one of those canoes. I saw Pat dive off the icebreakers. You weren’t allowed up on the tipple. [The fight was probably when Jim was 14 years old.]

The Plavas

[George Plavic Sr. was born in 1889; he emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1904] (Plava’s house still contains the outline of what was their store.) The store was 20 x 32, with a central double door with windows on either side, and a front porch. Shelves and counters lined the side walls, and on the back wall was the door to our kitchen. It jutted out on the far western side of their white, two-story house that then was surrounded by a white picket fence. Our previous store, in Masontown from 1918-1925, was a dry goods store that sold clothes, shoes, canned goods, milk, and bread. We moved to Gates in July 1925. The Gates store was a general store, selling candy, pop, miners’ gear such as hats, (lunch) buckets, pick handles. I remember people coming into the store with one-gallon kerosene cans (for their lanterns) that I filled from a drum in the basement. Electricity didn’t come to Gates until 1929.

We knew a few words of each language, like Buena Sera. People came in and pointed to things. I still have a set of steel number-stamps we used to put a miner’s numbers on blank, brass checks (if they had lost theirs). The store closed in ’33 or ’35. Lots of stores closed in the Depression because a family could owe about $1,000 and you could have a dozen like that.

Then it became my dad’s barbershop and poolroom. Haircuts 25 cents, 15 cents a shave. He cut all the kids’ hair, many women, too. He was a trained barber. He went to barber school on Saturdays when we lived in Pittsburgh in 1915 and he worked as a steelworker during the week. He came from Spiska Stara Ves village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, near the border with Poland. They were miners in that area, the Czechs around Prague were the cultured ones. He didn’t come to Plymouth Rock, at age 15 he came to Plymouth, which is in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania.

(Across the road from their house is Plava’s Hall, a white wooden building with a hip roof built in 1927.) The Hall had a maple floor. The shelves from our store were brought in when the Hall was used as a Relief Station in the ’30s. Out back, during Prohibition, was the Gates Social Club, a room where your grandfather and my dad and miners and friends used to sit and drink Dunbar moonshine. He didn’t allow any gambling, card playing or anything like that. My dad built some garages out back to make it level and then above them he built 2 bowling alleys in 1932. We had square dances. A country and western band came in. Hobe Smith was the caller. On Wednesday nights we showed movies. Glenn Easter came around all the patches in his car with his projector and 2 speakers in 3 suitcases. He showed serials like Tom Mix. Ten cents for kids and 15 for adults. The kids didn’t like to sit on the benches—they sat on the floor. When weddings were in the company houses they lasted 3-4 days, but [they lasted] just for Saturday when they rented the Hall.

I attended California State Teachers College beginning in 1933 [age 14]. My dad paid $394 for a semester. It took two years to get your Normal Certificate. I had jobs with the NYA (National Youth Association). I mowed the lawns, waited tables, cleaned dormitories. Many miners’ sons joined the CCC. Your grandfather gave me a job on the yard and plant crew in the summers. I painted houses, up on a 40-foot ladder. (The tenants painted the insides of the houses.) On rainy days the 10-member crew couldn’t paint, so we went down into the mine and went to work picking up the coal that fell out of the cars—they called it “gleaning the haulage.”

It was hard for Catholics to get jobs. You know who got me my first job? Ed Mason, the Super at Edenborn—he was on the School Board. When I taught at Edenborn I was 18 years old, only 3 years older than some of my students. Then in 47 after the war I wrote them that I was coming back. They were supposed to save your job. I found out many years after that someone on the School Board said, “What does that Hunky want?” This was after I had been in the war for them. (Mr. Plava went on to teach 8th grade and became an official with the school system.)

Touring Gates [in the ‘30s]

Plava’s is located at the entrance to Gates, where the blacktop road intersects First Street. I bought Clyde Hartley’s property. He ran a 5-7’ slope mine during WWI. The Gates’ mine was 252 feet down and had a 9-foot seam. Before Plavas were Magda’s (later Garcher’s) and Richnafsky’s general stores. Also Harris Hill had a garage there. The blacktop road became cobblestone after it crossed First Street and went down the hill by the Catholic church and The Bottom. It later became red-dog—burned refuse from the slate dump.

My main memory of the Depression is families lining up around the Hall with their burlap sacks. How embarrassed they were, being hard-working people. My dad was a member of the German Township Relief Board. The truck would pull up on Tuesday evenings with the food. On Wednesdays, they’d hand you their relief card and we marked it. [George was 12 years old then.] I worked at putting the supplies in groups, so they would be all lined up when people came in: so much bacon, hominy, oleo, flour, potatoes, cornmeal, dried beans. During the Depression they went into the scrap yard for old belts. They were thick rubber and they made them into soles for their shoes. People also went into the Hartley mine for coal or picked it off the Edenborn dump.

We had horseshoe tournaments, baseball games, picked blackberries on the Strubel farm, and in the winter we picked Kieffer pears. They were hard pears; you wrapped them in newspaper for 3 weeks to ripen them.

Across from the Hall on First Street was one of the Deputy Shantys, where the Frick policeman sat. The other one was at the bottom of Mine Hill. Gibby had day shift and his deputy, Will Cornute, was on nights. They’d walk the streets to patrol. If someone came into the patch they didn’t recognize, they’d ask what their business was. The shantys had telephones. We had a telephone, and a 1927 Studebaker we got used in 1931. Many people came to our store to use the wall phone.

Here are the foundations for an outhouse, which was at the back of every property and next to that was their coalshack. Along First Street were three “shantys”—they were called shantys because “shacks” are in Kentucky or West Virginia! The first was Amacrelli’s shoe repair shop. The family lived behind the shop—their front room, behind that their kitchen and behind that their bedroom.

The ballfield was behind those shantys, and next to it was the Frick playground, which went on behind the company store. Gates won the Frick Section 1 baseball championship in 1937. I was center fielder. [age 17] I still have my jacket (navy wool, with a red patch on the right side and on the left his name embroidered in red). We played all the mining patches: Palmer, Ronco, Edenborn, Leckrone, Lambert, Ralph. Here on my leg is a scar from when I was coming into home place and Jim Donovan was guarding the plate with his spikes up. He played for Buffington after he left home.

Further down First Street is the red-brick, 2-story Union Supply (company) store. Mailboxes are still lined up across from the store. First and Second Street are about 3 blocks long and were red-dog. They were paved in the early 30s. The Donovan house is at the eastern-most end of Second Street. Behind it is an alley.

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Albert Vayda delivered mail from the sidecar of his motorcycle. The beer-man, Guy Funari, came round to make deliveries. The “honey-dippers” came at night, [to remove waste from the out houses. They had miner’s] lights on their hats. Bucket by bucket they loaded a wooden tank on a horse-drawn wagon. The hucksters [door to door salesman] were Syrians. Simon John came to the patch by taxi. He put his goods on his back, came round, said, “Mrs., I gotta nice (whatever), you want some?” [later Mr. John established a very successful Wholesale enterprise in Uniontown] The Prudential insurance man, Gene Hamilton, came once a month to collect his quarters. It was 5 cents a week for a $500 policy. I still have those policies.

What was the cobblestone street crosses First and Second Streets and then goes down the hill. Over to the right was the Catholic church, St. Mary’s, begun in 1906 and closed by the diocese in 1985. St. Albert’s, a brick church in Palmer, began in 1925. It was a company house whose porch was closed in and half of its second story removed to make a balcony. It had wooden benches but no kneelers—you knelt on the floor. It held about 100 people. Around the altar were varnished wood walls. Fr. Fabian Kondrola was pastor from 1927 to 1956. He seemed stern to us children. It was usually his assistant, Fr. Andrew Charnocki, who said Mass. The sermon was in English and Slovak for the old folks—he alternated. (The houses that were in the area after the church and before the school are gone.) Galbreath knocked the houses down in the early ’50s when no one would buy them because they were too expensive. There were 92 houses in Gates; now there are about 40. Galbreath also put the bathrooms on.

Out Fourth Street toward the east and Plava’s was the school, which was 2-story red brick with four rooms on each floor. It was torn down in the ’40s. Its total enrollment was 430 children—about 51 kids per class. The principal was Mr. D.I. McClelland, probably related to the family that founded McClellandtown. Some teachers I remember are the Britz sisters and Miss Stark. The teachers came in by taxi, or parked near our store because it was easier than going down the cobblestone road. The [cab] fare was about 50 cents each way. And Lucy Cavalcante’s husband Joe was the bus contractor. (Tony Cavalcante was an attorney who helped the Union.) The bus service to Gates, provided by the German Township School District, closed down from ’35 to ’38. I took the bus just my first year of senior high school (now Gallatin Junior High). Then I walked with my friend Bob (Barney) Barnhart. Quarter to eight we left, to get there at 8:30.

The bobsled run went from Rossini’s hill to Colored Bottom—a half mile. That was quite a ride! They got timber from the mine—with your grandfather’s permission it was OK. That bobsled must have held 6 people. It was quite a job getting it back up the hill.

The Croatians and the Italians made wine in their basements, which were just dirt, dug out, for their fruit cellars and washing. You washed in a big tub, unless the man washed at the Bath House. The Santellas made our wine because we didn’t know how. Brokers would go around and sign people up, for 25 or 50 boxes of grapes. We bought the grapes and then they made the wine.

Some patch nicknames? There was Pie-o, Deefy, Chick…

Hobos came in by train. They came to our house for handouts. Coal trains ran to and from the Pittsburgh steel mills through Brownsville and along the river to Fairmont, WV. Toad Christopher ran the ferry from Adah in Fayette Co. to Stringtown in Greene Co. The nice ferry was from Ronco to Nemacollin. They were steam-powered, with the cable underneath the river. Dr. Brown’s office was on the riverbank on the Bottom Road to Palmer. Further along this road was the colored church. Stoycos lived in Hartley Hollow.

Edenborn was a smoky patch, because their slate dump was burning. [Caused by spontanious combustion.] That was how you got red-dog, from burned slate. Their slate dump is being reclaimed. It used to be about 50 feet high. Gates wasn’t sooty. Gates dumped its slate along the hillsides and later trucked it to Edenborn.

The Mine

Paul Nixon [Jim’s future father-in-law] was the stable boss, Pat Kelly was the yard boss and John Susa the machine boss and Stanley Cominsky the pit boss.

This is where the boardinghouse was (at what is now the end of the Bottom Road). It had a dance hall. It was the oldest building in the patch; not many lived there by my time. (Nearby up the hill is the brick dynamite shanty, and the cement piling of what was the incline. This is where the wooden steps went down also.) The incline was torn down when the labor troubles began, that’s my theory, because the company thought why be nice to people when they don’t appreciate it? They can walk down the hill. It caused a real conflict in the town. It divided us between what they called The Brotherhood and the United Mine Workers. I remember when they picketed our store because they said we were for The Brotherhoods.

Across the railroad tracks—further west, beyond where the barges would have been, is the ’BAB’—Bare Ass Beach, cause some of the boys used to swim that way. No, I never swam across the river, the current was too strong. Floods caused this drop-off; back then it was smooth. (Next would have come the stable and the office. Going west along the river, next are the foundations for the Boiler and Wash Houses. Next, where the tipple was, is the remains of a cement culvert for pumping wastewater out of the mine and into the river. Furthest east at the curve of the river, out in the water, is a foundation of an icebreaker.)

The icebreakers were made out of cribbon blocks, 8 by 8s, like railroad ties, and filled in with stones. They broke the current, so it was safe for the barges. The river froze over rarely, then the icebreakers would break it up. Tow boats would also help break up the ice. It’s 26 feet out in the channel, and that’s the deepest part. The Mon needs the locks to keep its level up. Hydrogen sulfide turns the water yellow. The river turned orange when the barges came by and stirred it up. It smelled like rotten eggs. The Trotter Water Co. pumped the water out of the river at Huron, near Ronco, up to the two water tanks on the hill. Those tanks, with the force of gravity, fed 4 patches.

The barges sat about 8 feet out of the water when they were empty and about 3 feet when they were full. My dad was a riverman. The ’barge mover’ was a steam engine cable system that moved the barges. Rivermen stood on top of each barge and helped tie the barges together after being filled and drifted into position below the tipple. The paddlewheel riverboat pushed the barges up the river [to the steel mills]. They were 6 to 12 together, usually about 9 of them. 17 railroad cars filled a barge.

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