Crabtree

Some notes and thoughts about Crabtree, PA. 

I have to say that based on my mother’s upbeat stories of her youth, I was surprised by some of things I discovered, not least the fact that Crabtree was a company town, mostly for Jamison Coal & Coke and Keystone Coal (roughly 1890-1940).

The coming of the coal industry to Crabtree soon resulted in the establishment of a US Post Office, where Aunt Katie worked in the 1920s, followed by her niece Margaret Haggerty.  There were some undeniable advantages to being in a company town insofar as the company provided medical services (the town had a doctor) and built a school, a church, a union hall, and a fire station.  (Usually company towns had a privately-run saloon as well.)  The town buildings were the venue for company-sponsored social events such as dances and movies, and there was a baseball team funded by the company.  (One cheery soul, the daughter of a Pittsburgh butcher and a contemporary of our parents, said in her oral history that young people in her circle gathered on Friday nights “to watch the slag heaps burn.”  This might well have been a pastime in Crabtree, too.)  And of course Crabtree has long been known for its fireworks display, which initially marked the Italian Americans’ celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel but later became a Fourth of July event.

According to Mary Kellington, there was a private Catholic elementary school operating in Crabtree in some periods but not others, depending on the economy.   School children had to attend junior high in nearby Shieldsburg and high school in Greensburg, 7 miles away.  Happily, by 1924 there was a first-rate, architecturally significant high school in Greensburg, which I visited in September 2008.  It is in the art deco style with monumental brass doors and friezes at the main entrance, complete with stately columns and social realist mural paintings (dating from the mid-30s) depicting the lives of the area’s miners and farmers.  The school also boasted an ornate auditorium, a swimming pool (no longer there), and a state-of-the-art gymnasium.  At one entrance there is a plaque dedicated to graduates who were killed in World War Two.  Among them is James Haggerty, who died in 1943; he was the grandson of our great-uncle James P. and his wife Julia Kane—the son of William and Catherine Haggerty of Crabtree.

In Crabtree as in other coal patches, the company-built housing, although uniform and unadorned, was relatively affordable and was decently maintained by the company.  The company provided coal (which workers’ families of course had to gather themselves) to fuel the two coal stoves in each house, a big potbellied stove in the kitchen and a smaller stove in the upstairs sleeping quarters.  There was no insulation, which must have made for some very cold winter nights in Pennsylvania.  Backyards were designed so that there was room for a coal shed as well as a family vegetable and flower garden.  At the edge of town by the railroad tracks was an icehouse, and in the middle of town was the company store.  As a way of ensuring that miners’ families remained as dependent as possible on the company, miners were paid not in cash but in scrip that could be redeemed only at the company store.  The company also bought land for a cemetery situated outside of town.  This was important, because in earlier times families often buried their dead in the backyard, a practice that resulted in the poisoning of wells, and in the earthly remains of the deceased floating to the surface in cases of flooding.

All houses in Crabtree were supplied with water and electricity, resources that the company needed for its own operations.  What this meant, though, was that each of the four rooms in a typical house (two upstairs and two down) had a single bare light bulb, and that there was cold running water in the kitchen (no hot water).  There was no bathroom; instead, there was an outhouse in each backyard, and people must have bathed in the kitchen in a zinc washtub.

Crabtree’s historian, Gene Yanity, told me that this situation did not change until after World War Two, when the town’s residents, who by that time had bought their houses from the company, were able to install a furnace, a bathroom, and a hot water heater.  Until the postwar period there were latrines over an open trench running through the backyards in Crabtree; the air was terribly polluted by coal ovens burning around the clock; the landscape was blighted by bare trees that had been killed by the coal dust; and there were enormous, unsightly slate piles all around.  Fortunately, there has been a considerable clean-up effort in Crabtree, but across the mining regions of Pennsylvania today, myriad mountains of slate stand as bleak reminders of damage done by reckless industrialists to miners and their families, as well as to the earth they walked on and the air they breathed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s