I spent most of my life in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which is technically part of the Mid-Atlantic area but I always considered myself a northerner, in the world of north versus south. Recently, my husband and I moved to Virginia, so far south we’re in the Richmond TV market. I wasn’t fully aware of how far south we are from the Mason-Dixon line until I noticed the Confederate memorial in town. It’s one of those stone soldiers standing on a tall pillar. I’m wavering between being appalled that it’s there, and intrigued that it is. No one seems bothered its presence–in fact, nobody seems to notice it at all. I want to take a photo of it before somebody does notice it and decides it’s time for it to be taken down. I’m a big believer in never forgetting our past, bad and good.
I recently got done writing a book about a lost coal town in northeastern Pennsylvania, where part of my family is from. My working title is “This, Their Friendship’s Monument”, a line from a poem about autograph albums. When I pondered what would go on the cover of the book, I pictured a photo of Main Street at Eckley Miners’ Village, which is an open air museum of a coal town that was in existence in the 1800-1900s. But then I went to Eckley again in early January and took more photos of the town. When I got home and looked through the photos I was drawn to the ones of the coal breaker.
Eckley, like so many towns in northeastern Pennsylvania, was built because a coal company found of vein of coal there. They had houses thrown up and a coal breaker built, and brought in workers, often immigrants because they were cheap labor. The mining companies owned everything in town–they rented the houses to the workers, set up the company store where the workers had to buy their basic necessities, including supplies for working in the mine. Mining accidents, sometimes fatal, were common. After a long week of back-breaking work, the workers were paid whatever little was left after paying for their rent, basic necessities, and mining supplies.
The town my family came from, Old Buck Mountain, was also what was known as a coal “patch” town. It was a few miles away from Eckley, and my great X4 grandfather was a carpenter for the coal mine there. In the early 1880s, it was decided that the coal vein was tapped out, and the coal mine was closed. Workers and their families, including mine, had to leave Buck Mountain to seek work elsewhere. The village of Buck Mountain gradually disappeared.
The reason I’m using part of a poem in the title for my book is because the book is inspired by an autograph album we found in our family memorabilia. Autograph albums were like yearbooks in the mid and late 1880s, except that it wasn’t just high schoolers who wrote in them. Friends and neighbors from Buck Mountain and nearby towns wrote in the album, which was owned by the daughter of my carpenter great X4 grandfather, who is also my great X3 aunt. The poem the title comes from refers to the autograph album as a monument to friendship.
I suddenly saw the coal breaker as a monument as well, to the men and women who worked in the shadow of it and whose livelihood came from it, and who were gradually broken by it with crippling diseases like black lung, or had their lives taken by it. It provided and arbitrarily took away their livelihoods. The coal breaker, like the Confederate soldier statue, is a monument to history.
I went by the Confederate memorial again today, and saw plaques with the names of the fallen on the sides of the base. It made me remember that the memorial is about them, those young men and boys who died in battle.
Good and bad, it’s important that we always remember what came before us.