The Company Store And The Advent Of Hucksters


Agnes Beninsky was 8 years old when her family moved to the patch known as Morea year 1912.

The discovery of coal was responsible for America's industrial Revolution. In dizzying succession, large tracts of land were purchased - often from unknowing farmers who didn't realize that the large protrusions of black shiny rock on their land represented still larger fields of anthracite coal. Tunnels and shafts were dug, railroad tracks were laid, and breakers were erected. Coal was king.

Labor -cheap labor was needed and was provided by the poor of Europe reeling from long periods of war and depression. New immigrants came by the thousands. Simple, hastily constructed wooden houses were built in patches surrounding the 30 or more collieries doting the hills of Pennsylvania. With these small patches of humanity with their non-existent conveniences, emerged the company store.

Since most of the small towns were three to five mites away through mountains and snow the store was a necessity. In the early days of the industry the laborers had to buy their own picks, hammers and shovels along with heavy shoes, work clothes and miners caps to which one attached the familiar miners lamps. Initially, these lamps which fastened to the front of the caps, held a small can of crude oil and burned with an open flame. In itself, these were dangerous because of the pockets of combustible gas found in the mines. At the time my father and brothers worked in the mines, these lamps were replaced by the safer carbide lamps-- and still later by the electric lamp. All these purchases were made and charged at the company store. Also charged was their bill for housing, food and medical expenses.

Initially the company stores were without competition and prices were high -often twice that of the stores in the nearby towns. In addition some thought that they added on to the charges, but they couldn't complain. They controlled your job and your life. Some miners, even after several years as mine laborers; barely broke even on pay days.

As the small towns grew, a variety of stores emerged. men a variety of stores emerged. The new entrepreneurs, not ones to miss an opportunity, as well as fulfill a need, began to make their rounds of the patches with horse drawn wagons laden with both perishable as well as non-perishable, merchandise. These traveling merchants were called hucksters

The first company store in Morea also had a reputation for being, expensive and false charges. It later became a part, of the Dodson Coal Company which purchased the Morea colliery and breaker. Even though they enjoyed a much better reputation, they were still too expensive and my brothers didn't want Ma to shop there, and she rarely did.

Ma didn't like to go there for another reason, her English was very limited and they weren't very patient. On rare occasions when she did need something specials she would send one of us kids. Ma felt more at home with the hucksters who could speak Polish as well as other languages. They were friendly as well as patient. Some came weekly others only after payday.

Many of the Jewish hucksters had immigrated from Poland and Ma loved to talk to them about: the 'olde country'.

Mr. Bohard, she called him Mistky, had a store in town. He would take orders and deliver the next day. Among other items he sold men's as and boy's shoes -but no woman's shoes. For those you had to walk to town. Consequently, Ma bought us all boy's shoes no matter how much we pleaded because, ''They are more sturdy and wear better". But then she never went to town.

Mr. Bohard also purchased huckleberries from the children in the patches and sold them in his store in Mahanoy City. Mr. Kaplan was our baker. He came with special treats such as donuts, cookies and rye bread, -never white bread. We all baked our own white bread.

Others whom I can recall were Mr. Lipcowisky and a Mr. Walcheck, who was from Poland.

John Smith had a butcher shop in Mahanoy City. His driver came by the house weekly selling meat and meat products. Some of the residents of Morea, along with the Greek people who lived in the nearby patch Brooklyn, began giving the Smiths their extra money to hold for them. This was the beginning of the Smith Bank. Once a year the Smith Bank would give all their depositors a pair of shoes in lieu of interest. The shoes were very welcome. In the small towns and patches the concept of banking was still new.

There were also a few poor Jewish women from Pottsville who came via the train with wares contained in a huge sheet or blanket which they knotted and carried on their back. They usually came after paydays and would go door to door untying their burden and displaying their wares: sweaters, shirts, sheets and materials on the living room floor. Others sold housewares. Ma also made occasional purchases from gypsy women.

Ma depended on all of them for her shopping.