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REFLECTIONS FROM A CONGO COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER

“I was born a coal miner’s daughter, on a hill high above Congo hollow…”

Our home (with approximately 80 acres) was on the hill directly opposite the hill where the elementary school was located.     Our parents were Charles Szakas (1915-1978-born in Congo) and Julia Olah Szakas (1917-1984-born near Shawnee).  There were six children:  Charles Jerald “Jerry” (1939-1999);  Mary Jane “Janie” Szakas Lahmon (1941-now living in Sunbury, Ohio;  Robert Eugene (1942-now living in Drakes, Ohio); Joseph Delmer (1944-now living in Aredale, Iowa);  John Frances (1946-now living in London, England, with permanent residence in Seattle, Washington) and Julia Darlene Szakas Decoursey (1948-now living in Logan, Ohio).  Our grandmother, Mary Szakas, also lived on the hill directly above the slope/entrance to the coal mine.  Our home and our grandmother’s were demolished at the time the coal company (Peabody/Buckingham?) came to strip the valley.  To avoid maintaining an access road to the homes, the coal company purchased them, and Dad, Mom and Grandmother moved to Drakes.

“We were poor, but we had love…one thing Daddy made sure of….” 

And we also had the  coal mine, company store, church, school and a host of residents we considered friends and mentors.

Congo Coal Mine

Dad began work at the Congo Mine, as a teen-ager, working in the stables (horses were still in use at the mine).  He ended his work there, as a night watchman, when the mine closed in 1954.   A few years after the mine’s closing, the old Congo Tipple, which stood so tall in the hollow, burned to the ground.  Sparks and flames from the burn ignited on our hill in front of our house keeping us very busy extinguishing them in the grass as they landed.

Of course, to us, Dad’s most important job at the mine, was when on every New Year’s Eve, at 12:00 midnight, he “blew the whistle” to toll in the new year.   At any other time, this “whistle” was used only as an emergency siren alerting the entire town that a disaster had occurred in the mine.

Company Store

In addition to stocking  some grocery items (comparable to a modern-day “convenience store”), this building also housed the Congo Post Office and  the administrative office for the coal mine.  The miner’s paychecks/vouchers, hourly reports, etc., were handled out of this office.

My memory brings me to three ladies who worked in the store:  Joan Edwards was in the post office and provided service in the store as well;  Lou Brown clerked in the store and a Jacqueline, whose last name I can’t recall, was the “bookkeeper”.

I do recall the many mornings when six little Szakas’ (probably close to the next payday before the big grocery shopping trip to New Lexington or Zanesville) would stop at the company store, early in the morning, on our way to school, and the ladies would put lunchmeat sandwiches, an apple, orange or banana (our choice), and cookies or a cupcake in a brown bag for each school lunch that day.  The lunches were charged to Dad’s company store “account”  and, of course, deducted from his pay.  We left the store not only with a good lunch for the day, but also with great encouragement and memories of how nice those ladies were to us.

There were also trips to the company store to pick up those things you quickly run out of with a large family; i.e., a loaf of bread, milk, etc.   And for it to be your turn to walk down our hill, across the mine hollow, and up the other hill to the company store was a real treat.  For whoever’s turn it was, in addition to getting the needed item, was also able to get a special treat for making the trip…an ice cream bar, candy bar, chips, gum, soda (your choice).

Little did I realize at the time, but Jackie, the bookkeeper, was my true inspiration.  She was so pretty, dressed so well and I remember telling my parents that when I grew up, I wanted an “office job” like Jackie’s where I could dress pretty and not have to contend with the dust and dirt inherent with the jobs at the mine.   I guess my dream was realized as I retired two years ago as office manager and executive assistant to the CEO of the Nationwide Insurance Companies, one of the largest insurance companies in the U.S.A, based in Columbus, Ohio.

Congo Church (during Mennonite years of 1950’s)

“Mama read the Bible by coal oil light.” 

As I am involved in my church today, I often reflect on my early religious participation and development.  Indeed, the very basis for the on-going faith and beliefs I now have began in the little church in Congo.   It was there that I was baptized in 1958 or 59. 

At the time, the services were under the direction of  members of the  Mennonite faith.   The pastor I remember was David Helmuth, who married a local girl, Naomi Ketchum.  They lived in the house on the curve across from the Kopcho house and next door to the Richards home.  Weekly choir practices were held in that home as well as other fun events for the children of the church.

During my annual involvement in our church’s summer Bible School, I reminisce about the Bible School my brothers, sister and I attended at the Congo Church.  In addition to the daily instruction, there was nothing anymore fun than the volleyball games that took place on the lawn outside the church on a daily basis.  The close of Bible School family picnic was also fun and sometimes found all of us on a picnic-swimming venture at Lake Isabel near Fultonham.

Congo Elementary School

 “In the summertime, we had no shoes to wear; in the fall, for school, we all got a brand new pair.” 

We walked (a two-mile-a-day round trip) to the Congo School.  The school basically was a two-room schoolhouse with a gym, two outhouses (one for boys and one for girls), and a playground which consisted of only one big sliding board.

Grades 1 through 4 were in one room and the teacher was Beulah Craig.  Grades 5 through 8 were in the other room and they were taught by Nina Davis Kaylo, who was also the principal.

She also had taught our Dad years before us.  There is no comparison of today’s expectations of requirements for a good education to how we were educated in that little schoolhouse on the hill.  Frugality certainly reined and the budgets were very low (and maybe nonexistent).

Each room had a coal stove that was fueled by the respective teachers.  We did have a janitor who, after school hours, would fill the coal buckets for the next day’s classes.   Water was pumped into a pail and placed in each room.   Each child/student was required to bring their own glass from home; and when they needed a drink, they filled their glass using a dipper from the pail of water.  Of course, all lunches were brown-bagged.   Also, when nature called, the teachers distributed the requisite toilet paper from a roll to the students.  Paper was never left in the outhouses to avoid the possibility of waste and misuse.  If you were fortunate, on Friday afternoons, you might be selected to dust the erasers from the blackboards on a log outside the coal shed.  Another reward was to be chosen to ring the big bell for recess, lunch and dismissal.

Another treat was when there was an extra nickel, dime or quarter brought from home that allowed you to go down the long steep steps to Stenson’s bar at lunch or recess time to purchase a soda, candy bar or chips.

In addition to absorbing the wealth of knowledge that came during class time, there are fond memories of the joy of a good baseball game and/or playing “red rover” in the field, basketball in the gym, and the plays, and graduation programs held in the gym converted to an auditorium for the special events.

Residents

Names of residents I recall, during my years in Congo (1940’s and 1950’s), are: Jones, Baird, Benedict, Bobanich, Parks, Murray, Richards, Wesney, Kopcho, Raskey, Toki, Toth, Ciber, Wilson, Brown, Gaddis, Hinkle, Starling,  Stenson, Ferguson, Kanuch, Almashy, Gecsei, Horvath, Vargo, Beddow, Ketchum, Gill.  Like the coal mine, company store, and school, these folks who were there back then are mostly gone.   Even most of the homes they lived in, like ours, is gone.

The one remaining Congo Constant is the Congo Church building and grounds that, fortunately, due to the efforts of a great group of people, still calls us to a great homecoming/reunion every July.  Like a beacon, it also reaches out and provides sustenance, services and a gathering place for all those who now live in Congo as well as to all those who feel the need to occasionally “come home to Congo.”

Mary Jane Szakas Lahmon                                                                                              August 2005