Marty's Early Career In The Colliery The Breaker Boys


Marty B. born 1901, third son in family of nine children.

I was 10 years old and shaking. I had never been so terrified in all my life. My older brothers had warned me about this place. I was 150 feet above ground. The black breaker like it's dirty windows shook violently as coal from deep within the mines was pushed skyward tipped and toppled.

Tons of coal cascaded endlessly into the huge rock-breaking machine. The thundering and ballistic noises were terrorizing as rock ricocheted against metal. The floor vibrated, the building trembled and the windows rattled.

This was my first day as a breaker boy. I should have run then but instead I quietly stood in line waiting to ascend. 50 cents a day was a lot of money and I was now a wage earner.

Our Welsh boss Mr. Burton hurled insult after insult at us. "Get in line you lazy no good Foreigners''.

Foreigners-- Foreigners the word ricocheted in my ears!

The other boys, I know they had faces but what I can never forget was their hands which they attempted to soothe. They were bruised, swollen, scabbed and calloused. This is what I saw. An older boy whispered, ''If you pee on your hands it helps.”

I had been warned about Mr. Burton but I wasn't prepared for the crack of his stick against my backs and the large piece of slate he threw my way--a piece that I had missed. It was our job to pick slate and other rock from the coal as it came tumbling in rapid successor down our secondary chutes.

Coal rubbed against coal, rubbed against rock, and against my fingers until they bled--until there was a steady trail of crimson on the cold black rock. MY FINGERS THROBBED BUT MY ANGER AND RESENTMENT WERE EVEN WORSE.

I never liked school but now as I sat tossing slate I wondered why I was so anxious to leave. 50 cents a day seemed like a lot of money and I wanted to sit at the breakfast table at 6 A.M. and eat fried pork clops- a special meal for wage earners only. I wanted my own lunchbox with a piece of fruit and another pork chop or sliced bacon tucked between two thick slices of bread.

It was my ninth birthday and summer was coming to a close. "Pa" I said " I want to quit school. I can read and write all I want. I don't need to know anymore. Please Pa''.

I said Pa because I thought Ma was already on my side. She had already decided that I knew too much and that the protestant, English teachers would surely ruin me.

Pa hesitated but my brother Mike didn't. "You need to stay in school little brother. Heaven knows-- someone in this family needs to know how to read and write. Pa, you can't let him quit. The miners are again organizing unions I hear the older men talk.

Tell him Pa. How are we going to know what's going on?"

Pa agreed, ''Times are changing.

Alex followed, “And someone needs to know their numbers or they'll just keep cheating us. They think were stupid- as is''.

I wasn't quite old enough to know the meaning of Alex's remarks; on the other hand, I had always worshiped my brother Mike. He placed his hand on my shoulder, "How about it little brother? I can't even sign my name. Do it for us, for me. And every night when I come home from work I want you to teach me how to read and write my name".

''We11-Er-", I stammered.

Mike continued, "I'll even pay you 5cents a day for every lesson. How about you Alex? You can sit with us and Marty can teach us how to count. Then maybe we can better understand those debts they subtract from our pay checks".

Alex frowned as he pondered Mike's comments, and after a few minutes of silence said, "O.K.-- but I might not want to do this every night. But I'll pay you 5 cents for each lesson".

"Yes, yes". I responded "I'll go back to school but only for another year". 10 cents per day wasn't bad. The matter was settled.

Mike was always patient and good to us younger kids, and I looked foreword to our time together. He was eager to learn, "There are opportunities out there. We don't have to be miners forever". At the end of the year he could add, subtract, write his name and even read a bit from my primary reader.

Alex didn't do as well. It's not that he wasn't eager, he just wasn't very patient and was easily frustrated. He did learn to write his name and I did go over the debit slips so that at the end of the year they were both knowledgeable.

On my 10th birthday I was adamant. Most of my friends were working and I wanted my own wages. Pa and Mike finally gave in.

A year has passed, the breaker still shakes like hell and Mr. Burton is as mean as ever. Somethings are better. My hands are calloused and toughened but are still prone to crack and bleed in Winter.

We heard how the breaker boys from a neighboring colliery got rid of their boss. They reported to the colliery but instead of working they walked around the breaker in protest. They couldn't fire all of them. The higher-ups had to listen to them. Their boss was fired! A few of the older boys had a plan. We would do the same. The next day we broke rank and started walking around the breaker.

Mr. Burton shrieked, ''What the hell do you think your doing?'' That did it. We were all back in line except Jack who was 14. He fired back, "I've had it with your crap!" He was fired on the spot.

Furious, Mr. Burton turned to us and yelled, ''Are there any more of you dumb peasants who want to follow?” No one budged. ''Then get up there and start working!''

Maybe some of Ma's preaching about family pride had something to do with it- but the fallowing week when he whacked my hands for no good reason, I had--had it. I picked up the largest piece of slate on hand and with deadly accuracy I hit him right in the middle of his forehead. The force was enough to cause him to spin and lose his balance.

"Get the hell out of here you little Polak b- - - - - - and don't ever come back. I'll black-ball you from the mines for the rest Of your life.'' - He was fuming, beet red and bloody. I made a hasty retreat. True to his word, I was black balled for one year.

Ma and Pa weren't too happy about my show of independence, and Pa switched my legs a few times. Grandmother who was always very religious, was also very disturbed, ''Surely it is the work of the devil". She pulled out her big black prayer book and prayed over me for weeks. There was no way anyone in her family was going to go to hell--not if she could help it!

About this time the school system was changing. Since I was under 12, the truant officer ordered me back to school--just punishment.

The following year Mr. Burton was transferred to another colliery. The new boss was Lithuanian and Catholic -a blessed combination. (in the old world the Poles and Lithuanians always got along and shared many holidays and customs). Best of all, he was sympathetic to the plight of the breaker boys. I reapplied and was hired. The pay was now 55 cents a day, and I liked that pay check. I continued to work in that capacity until I was 14.

Just before my 12th birthday, my brother Mike was severely injured. He was 17 and had been working in the mines as a mule boy. My boss advised me of his injury and excused me. I could wait for them at the mine entrance. Pa and Alex were already at his side. There was a lot of commotion as the rescue team emerged from the mine & headed towards the company ambulance which would take him to the hospital. Pa saw me and took me aside. He was sweating and very upset. He spoke rapidly, " Your brother Mike was kicked in the face by his mule Moses. They don't know how it happened. He's alive but he's not responding".. He hugged me tightly, almost desperately. ''Alex and I are going with him to the hospital. There now, there's no time for tear's". I tried to steal a glimpse of Mike.

His right eye,. the right side of his face and all of his head were wrapped. He wasn't moving. I tried to run to him but Pa stopped me. "It's serious son but you have to hold on. You will have to tell Ma but try not to alarm her. You know how she worries. I'm counting on you son," he added as he ran towards the ambulance, ''Pray for us''.

We later learned that Mike had a concussion but was expected to live. Multiple lacerations about his face and eye were sutured. As for the eye itself, that was a different story. In time a thick gray scar formed over the right cornea--forever blocking all light and sight.

Each day Alex and Pa would give us the latest news. With great joy we held on to every little movement and every utterance that they observed.

Mike was in the hospital for three weeks and had to recuperate at home for another four months. Lingering headaches and dizziness were the last to leave.

Ma was determined that Mike should never enter the mines again, ''You only have one good eye. What would your life be if you were blind? The mine bosses don't care about you--but your family does".

Although the mining company did pay for all Mike's hospital and doctor bills: he never received any other type of compensation.

At this time Pa was the only full wage earner. Alex had also been working as a mule boy. Their salaries were half that of the mine laborer. Uncle Stanley who was fortunate enough to be a contract miner, came to our rescue once again. He eventually had an opening and was able to hire Alex as a mine laborer at beginners wages!

With Alex's new job and mine plus Pa's wages we almost had the equivalent of two full wages but our family had continued to expand. In addition to Ma, Pa and grandmother, there were now seven of us kids and Ma was expecting again.

Our family's budget continued to be strained. Gone were the morning pork chops and the coffee was weak. We planted a large garden and I never realized how many ways Ma could make soup! That, plus farmers cheese, milk from our own cows, plus lots of bread-that is what sustained our bodies.

As for the rest I have to give credit to Pa, Grandmother and Mike. Pa constantly tried to cheer Ma who was prone to depression. She always had a hard time coping with stress. Thanks to grandmother, faith and prayers were in abundance. Despite headaches and periodic dizziness, Mike never complained. He was patient with the younger kids, and frequently engaged them in play or song. He was determined to achieve full recovery, ''As long as I have one good eye I can do as much work as any man ".

While he was still recovering, he began his own business buying locally picked huckleberries, and packing them for shipment to Pottsville. Thanks to my teaching, he was able to keep records on his sales and profit. The latter turned out to be dismal but he had promised Ma he would stay out of the mines and every little bit helped.

When I was 14 uncle Stanley said he had an opening on his team and could take me on as a mine laborer. I was muscular, mature, and could pass for sixteen. I wanted to work. "I know it's dangerous Ma but Uncle Stanley says I can do the work and he'll be there to look after me. - Come on Ma you know how much we love and miss your fried pork chops! '' Ma smiled. Everyone likes to be appreciated.

The following week I was on the job, and the work was hard. We now had three full wages, pork chops for early morning breakfast and full bodied coffee.

Each night as we walked home from the mines, the best feeling was seeing my younger sisters as they ran down the dusty road to greet us, and to eagerly examine our lunch boxes for the few treats we always left behind.