A coal camp Christmas


Second place: Alex Keck, 17, of Hanoverton, Ohio

It was early December of 1933, the height of the Great Depression in the tiny Pennsylvania coal mining town of Dunbar. The rows of company houses coated with black coal dust cast a bleak silhouette against the cold gray sky. Ida was 9-years-old and she along her 8-year-old sister Cassie and 7-year-old brother Oscar and little 5-year-old brother Kit lived with their parents in one of those houses. Ida’s dad Charlie worked in the mine earning two dollars a day but times were bad and he was only working two days a week. The house rent was five dollars a month and the company expected it to be paid whether the men were working or not. Ida’s mother Maude busied herself in the summer months tending to their huge garden and in the fall she canned as many vegetables as possible in addition to the peaches, cherries and plums gleaned from abandoned orchards. They also raised a few chickens so the Christmas dinner was pretty well covered. Despite this, Charlie and Maude knew the children would be expecting some gifts but there was no way possible to prove any. Their credit at the company store had been shut off weeks ago so the pretty toys and dolls would have to stay on the shelves. Last Christmas Santa had left one coloring book and one small box of crayons for all four children to share. He had run out of gifts before he reached Ida’s home but the kids were all certain he would remember them this year especially since he had eaten the cookies they had set out for him last Christmas.

Ida’s home had no electricity or running water and most of the little social life they enjoyed revolved around the huge coal cook stove in the kitchen. In a kitchen corner is where the Christmas tree would stand. The kids followed their dad into the woods where he chopped down a healthy Scotch pine. After dragging it home and getting it in place it was time for the decorations. Ida cut narrow strips of paper from her Big Chief writing table and the other children colored them with crayons and formed them into rings, holding them together with a flour and water paste they had concocted.

About 10 days before Christmas Charlie ran into the mine owner Henry Mathies who called him aside and said, “Look Charlie, I know you have four kids and I wish I could help out with something for Christmas but I’m pretty well strapped too. But tell you what. I own that big slate dump right next to the old coal tipple and there is a lot of good coal chunks buried in there. If you’re willing to go up there and dig, I’ll give you exclusive picking rights up to Christmas and maybe you can make a little bit of jingling money.”

Charlie was excited. Christmas was just around the corner and he knew he could recruit all the free help he needed and was confident he could peddle enough coal to raise the four dollars he needed to stuff the stockings.

After borrowing a team of mules and a wagon, Charlie and his crew dug two loads and peddles them to nearby homes for 50 cents a wagon load. Vern Freeman the owner of the hardware ordered two loads for his huge store and even a gave a 10 cent tip. It wasn’t long before the word got around and in six long days of digging and hauling, Charlie raised a little over five dollars. Christmas was secure. He went to the company store and plunked down 75 cents for several balls of colored yarn and took them to Anna Stavich’s house. She and her husband Milan were from Serbia. He was the mine blacksmith and she was an excellent seamstress and knitter. Her skill and effort would be the centerpiece of his gift planning. Maude busied herself baking gingerbread cookies letting Ida and Cassie spread the powdered sugar frosting while Oscar and Kit licked the bowl.

Christmas even came and Charlie instructed the kids to hang their stockings on the wall next to the coal stove.

“Better nail’em on there pretty good,” he said. “Santa will probably fill’em plumb full and they could get real heavy.” The kids could hardly sleep. There were up before dawn. Santa had not let them down this year. Each stocking had an orange, a banana, a huge peppermint stick, a shiny harmonica and a beautiful pair of red and green knitted mittens. This was their most exciting Christmas ever. After dinner the children drove Mama batty with their scratchy harmonica tunes.


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