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Hundreds Flock to Community Reunions : Company Coal Town, a Good Place to Be From, Now Even Better to Visit

October 25, 1987|MICHAEL HIRSH | Associated Press

SMOCK, Pa. — In the flower garden in front of Dr. Donald P. Vrabec's house is a large lump of coal, a conversation piece that sometimes puzzles visitors.

"From time to time, people will think this is pretty unsightly and say, 'Don, why don't you get that ugly lump of coal out of your flower bed?' And I'll say to them, 'I think it's beautiful,' or else, simply, 'It's a reminder,' " Vrabec said.

For Vrabec, the coal is laden with memories--of rooms with oil lamps and scrubbed linoleum floors, of frigid winter mornings huddled around the schoolhouse furnace, of picking coal off slate dumps during the Depression, of boyhood pals like Bumphead Batcho and Lanky Stefanik and of summer ballgames played at dusk, of neighborhood contests to produce the earliest tomato or the biggest onion.

The coal is an emblem, he said, of the dingy, die-hard mining town of his youth on the edge of Appalachia in southwestern Pennsylvania--of "our own little, special Smock."

Returned for Reunion

Vrabec, a 55-year-old ear, nose and throat specialist whose family left Smock in 1950, isn't alone in his fondness for evoking the past. Recently, he was among about 250 people who came to the fifth biennial Smock community reunion.

"We get 'em from all over the country: Arizona, California, Florida. Some people left 50 years ago. It's kind of hard for me to explain," said John Vaselenak, 72, a retired schoolteacher who organizes the town reunions.

"What brings us together is a tribute to the fact that we love each other," said Joseph Decosimo, 62, a Chattanooga, Tenn., accountant who left Smock in 1943 to join the Navy. "We're one big family."

"Everybody I knew there were immigrants or the children of immigrants. We were all in the same economic stratum--poor. We suffered the same pains, enjoyed the same joys," Decosimo said.

"In Smock everybody knew when a baby was born, when somebody died or when somebody was in the hospital. We had no television, and only a few had radios. What we had was each other. Getting together was our recreation."

Yet memories of Smock are as rich in irony as they are in sentiment. At times, it sounds like a sooty, ethnic version of "Our Town," Thornton Wilder's wistful vision of small-town America.

Memories of Hunger

Most of those who came to this summer's homecoming were Slovak-Americans in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Many of them acknowledged that when they lived in Smock they couldn't wait to leave.

"We were hungry all the time," Vrabec said, recalling buddies nicknamed for food: Chicken Petrock, Brown Sugar Stanzel, Pepper Poprosky.

Like its sister coal patches and the steel mill towns around Pittsburgh, 30 miles to the north, Smock was a place invented by the steel barons of the late 19th Century and doomed to poverty. Its buildings and the land under them belonged not to the residents, but to the U.S. Steel Corp., which owned the mines.

Smock would never have existed, the locals say, but for a tax law technicality that was exploited by Henry Clay Frick, the coke magnate.

Frick bought up coal-rich farm land in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania--including a tract deeded to him by a farmer named Samuel Smock--and built ovens for refining coke, the potent coal residue that fueled blast furnaces in steel making.

Towns in a Loophole

He built 499 coke ovens in Smock, then moved a few miles down the road and started 499 more, and so on, according to Thomas Turosak, a retired oven worker. The idea was to keep taxes down: 500 or more ovens would have put the operation into a higher tax bracket.

Through this scheme to save on taxes, Frick established communities like Smock and neighboring Grindstone and Keisterville, each with a singular character and a wellspring of pride.

"When you invest so much of yourself in that kind of social arrangement," the town becomes "an extension of your own personality," wrote Kai J. Erikson, a Yale University sociologist who studied similar mining communities in West Virginia.

A typical mining shift was 10 to 12 hours; a weekly paycheck, at 50 cents a ton of coal, came to perhaps $10 or $15. Large families, many with boarders, were crammed into the company-owned cottages.

Although fuel was the town's livelihood, the inkwells in the school often were frozen on winter mornings, the old-timers recalled.

Togetherness of Poverty

"It was especially during the Depression, through the boom-bust patterns of the mining industry, that people in these towns had to stick together," said Joseph J. Matvey, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

That gritty kind of togetherness also made for a lot of fun, former Smock residents said.

"Monday morning, there was a rivalry among the housewives to see who would have her laundry out on the line first," Vrabec said. "I remember sneaking out to hang the clothesline so it would be ready."

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