Working To Attain A Skilled Miners Certificate (Jacob, 1915)


During World War 1, the demand for anthracite coal outstripped production. I remember my father's exuberance when he returned home from work one Friday in the spring of 1915. '' I have some very good news '', he shouted. The colliery needs more contract miners for the new section that they plan to open in the fall. Uncle Stanley and several of our local contractors have recommended your father and husband. '' he said as he took Ma by the hand and encircled her waist with the other.

''And how did my handsome husband hear of this? “ she inquired.

“The foreman made the announcement.”

“But don't you have to take some sort of exam?” Ma looked happy but skeptical.

“Oh yes.”, replied Pa. ''First I need to be certified by the State as a skilled miner. The foreman advised us that the oral exam by the State Board will be held in Pottsville on the 15th of July. This time I'll be prepared.”

''What do you mean Pa?”, exclaimed Marty who had come in earlier. ''Did you take the test in the past?”

Pa got up shaking his head, “Yes, about four years ago and I didn't pass. The board asks each applicant 12 to 15 questions in English and you have to answer in English. I didn't pass last time because my comprehension of some of the questions was limited. Of those that I knew, my vocabulary was not adequate enough to explain my answers. Ever since then your Uncle Stanley and the rest of his team have been trying to put away the old language, and speak English. Of course, in times of emergencies we use both languages.”

“Dp you have anything to study, any books?”, asked I asked.

“ No little one.”, he replied, “The books that are available are all in English, and most workers can only read in their native language. This, or course, is why the exams are all oral.”

''Is the foreman doing anything to help you?” This time it was Alex asking the questions. One of these days I want to take the exam and be certified. It's the only way you can make any money.”

Our foreman has asked all those who are certified to submit 5 questions that they feel are important. So that should help. When he gathers these he will distribute them to all those who are eligible and have been recommended.''

''Meanwhile Pa continued, I'm sticking close to Uncle Stanley. Who could be more qualified? And He has been very helpful. He told me to expect several questions regarding the financial aspects of mining.''

“So why do they ask about the business side?”, Alex didn't wait for an answer, ''I'll bet it's the dam mine owners -- the big shots who threw in those questions; they're hoping we'11 be more sympathetic as to why they can't increase our wages and benefits!''

Ma was reassuring “Jacob, you've been working as a laborer for some twenty years. I know you wilt do fine this time. I'm so proud of you. I just wish I could speak English as well as you do. I've been so hesitant to try. I just don't like making mistakes and having others laugh at me. It's so embarrassing.''

All contract miners had to be certified as skilled miners. To qualify, one had to work as a mine laborer for a minimum of two years. Contract miners were eligible to organize their own teams or three to four workers. An experienced skilled miner might head two or three teams. Each contracted independently with the mine operator to produce ''X'' car loads of clean coal at a negotiated price per car.

The laborers relied on the contract miner for their orders and for provisions for their ultimate safety. All had to be on the alert for rotting, creaking wood, gas fumes loose rocks and rats on the move.

In Schuylkill County the veins or seams of coal were often at steep angles because of the higher pitched mountain ranges. These veins were more difficult to mine since the approach to many of these was via ladders that might extend 50 or more feet to the working surface. Once a blast was placed, the miner had to descend the ladder and clear the area below since coal would fall downward, through the passage, to the clearing.

The contract miner had other responsibilities as well:

To make certain the loaded cars didn't contain excess waste.The mine owners were always on the look out for sloppy work.

He had make sure his men had all the proper tools, clothing and miner's lamps.

He had to be sure he had ample blasting powder.

He had to be certain that all walls were properly propped, and that all safety features were in place.

Lastly, he was the one who distributed their wages.

Several weeds later, Pa came home with the application. It was in English. Mary and I read it to him and he signed if. A week later he came home with the 50 questions That the skilled miners had submitted as practice questions. Uncle Stanley was good enough to transcribe all those written in English into Polish.

We didn't see much of my Father through May or June. Each night after milking the cows he would excuse himself and retire to the shanty to review the questions.

The morning of the exam, Mike had his horse and wagon hitched early; and after a hearty breakfast they were ready to leave. We were all very excited and came down stairs to see them off.. There were lots of hugs and kisses. ''Good luck Pa.”, we all yelled as they sped down the street. Then grandmother gathered us for morning prayer; with a special one to look after Pa and bless him with the knowledge he needed to pass the test.

He received the good news In mid August; and there was a special celebration that Friday even though Marty and Alex had to leave early to join Mike in Mahanoy City and help him in the pool room.

After supper, my Father was very relaxed and talkative. ''Antoinette and Grandmother, you will never realize how much this means to me and to the family. Mike and Alex have been helping us with the family's needs for a tong time. But now they are adults.

Let's see, Mike is now 21 and Alex is18. One of these days they'll want to marry and have families of their own. By that time I hope I'll be making at least twice my present wages. They have been good sons and we can't hold them back.”

Ma agreed. They left hand in hand. was time to milk the cows.

In early September, my father signed his first contract with the mine operator. Initially he started with a team of three workers which included Alex and two of his fiends. By the Spring of 1916, we were beginning to benefit from Father's additional income.

Initially he had to go into debt for tools, powder and lumber, but these were now paid. We had a wonderful Easter, and with Mike still huckstering and dropping off a regular supply of fruits and vegetables our needs were more than adequately met. Any surplus was shared with family and friends.

My mother even promised to buy a pattern and cloth from the huckster and make me a new dress for school. Yes, we were still wearing boy's shoes, but that was one issue that was still not negotiable.