Minooka Musings – Part 2 – by Dr. Joseph Lydon (1922-2008) of the Sharkey Lydon Clan
Michael Lydon, Dr. Joe’s father, moved to Minooka in 1883 from Joyce Country. His wife was Mary Kerrigan of Upper Cloughbrack, Galway. These are Dr. Joe’s reminiscences.
“Apparently, there were a dozen or so of his [Mike Lydon’s] old Galway neighbors in town. I do not think there were any of my grandmother’s people in the area. Despite her illiteracy and lack of English, she did make a few friends, old ladies around the neighborhood who spoke Irish. (The Fahertys, my great grandparents were Irish speakers and lived two doors down.) They were known as “shawlies” as they were called for the black wool outer garments they seemed to wear in all seasons. From the time she landed in Minooka, until we buried her in 1928, I doubt my grandmother had ever been more than a few miles from her new home in this vast land.
“Back to “Daddeh” and “Maime,” as they were called by their children, which Gaelic corrupted into the “Daddy and Mommy” of the next generation.
“Anthracite is a coal like no other. It is practically pure carbon, sometimes brittle as glass and as shiny as diamonds. It gives off tremendous heat per weight and is almost smokeless in its burning.
“The breakers where the raw mine product was processed dotted the lower hills along the river, many of them giving rise to surrounding “patches” where the miners’ families lived, sometimes giving the name to what eventually became towns: Bellevue, Pine, Taylor, Greenwood, etc.
“The actual mining was a difficult, back-breaking, dangerous job with an injury and death rate second to none in the country. This is not to mention the longer-term effects of Black Lung disease as well as the sharply increased incidence of lung cancer. Accumulations of gas pockets did occur in Anthracite mining, they were not nearly so common as in the soft-coal fields. The specific geology, peculiar to the hard-coal fields, made the “fall of roof” the biggest hazard. It took a certain amount of training before a man could get his “mining papers,” which certified him to be a real contract miner responsible for the laborer who worked along with him. Compared with bituminous mining, the anthracite miner was a skilled tradesman. It was also more dangerous.
“My grandfather bought three lots on the northeast corner of Davis Street and Pittston Avenue which gave him a ringside view of all funeral processions. He was one of the town’s leading funeral marchers. I can still picture him, Mikey Faherty, Pat Mullen, Tom Kelly, Wet Joyce, and a few other regulars in the same black hats, “Connie Mack” white collars, black suits, vests, and watch chains pumping their shiny shoes up what we called “Symmetry Hill,” in their procession from the church to the graveyard. The latter was on a low ridge to the east that paralleled the town. Coincidentally or not, this ridge contained six or seven denominational or ethnically different peoples: a large Polish cemetery (Sacred Heart), a Russian Orthodox, an Italian, a German, and a much larger Polish National.”
Michael Lydon’s brother John emigrated at the same time as his brother and lived in Hyde Park.
“John’s daughter Mamie married Petey Walsh, a fine man, just as subdued as Mamie was uproarious. Petey, had grown up in Minooka with my father, whose father, Ould Petey, was a friend of my grandfather in Galway.
“Of the three lots my grandfather bought, it was on the middle one that he built his house. The homes of this time and type were all about the same: L-shaped with three small rooms down and the same up. Some would add a small attached “buttery,” an auxiliary kitchen which was used in the warmer weather away from the hot cook-stove. There was no electricity until about 1920 although there was a centralized water system. Indoor plumbing was unheard of and the little backhouse took care of the more natural necessities.
“There was a barn near the rear of the lot where my grandmother kept her cow. Like all peasants, the cow was a part of daily existence. The cow gave milk for food and for churning butter. For the latter, I think she used the ancient up-and-down pole in a tub method, but the time I was a small boy, she had gotten one of the hand the with beveled gears for churning.
“The lot closer to Davis Street contained a small single-room house which my grandfather supplied to the town band for its practices. It was known by one and all as the “band shanty.” I suppose some of the old times were reasonably good musicians and my father fondly recalled how many nights he fell asleep to one of Sousa’s Marchers.
“The houses were built mostly by the miners themselves with the less able being helped by people like my grandfather, a talented woodworker. I think the lumber was supplied at a very cut-rate price by the coal companies.
“It was a tough life. The miner worked a ten or more hour day for about $1.25. From this, he supplied his tools, blasting powder, oil, and later carbide for his lamp. He was paid on the basis of production. A skilled miner in a good vein (“seam”) had to “sound his roof” with his drill and make a careful decision as to where he should stand his props (“timber”). Misjudgments would send him home early and forever, and he would be “slid under his door,” as the saying went. When he died, there was no compensation, the widow getting only the take of the raffling off of his watch. If she was young enough, she might remarry, or if the kids were old enough to be productive in lesser jobs (picking slate, driving mules, gate-tending for airflow control, etc.), she might make it until the kids grew up.*
“They were a hardy lot, and there was a great sense of interdependence which made life bearable. My father often told me about the procedures after the arrival of another “greenhorn” family. His father would load his barrow with a couple heads of cabbage and a sack of potatoes while he and Mikey Faherty would carry the flour and milk and deliver it to the “greenies” door. Other people would do the same until the newcomers got on their feet.
Generally, the miner ended his day by sending one of his boys for a bucket of beer. This was usually the handled part of the lunch pail and held about a quart which cost a dime. (It was known as “rushing the duck” or “rushing the growler.”) My father told me often of how, if the kid presented a quarter, the 15 cents were dropped into the beer by the bartender. Naturally, this led to many an over-indulgence by the miner.
“I remember as a young boy I would follow after Daddy. He made me his helper, giving me little things to do and always patiently answering my childish questions with “Yes, Ashthorr” or “No Ashthorr.” Ashthorr is an absolutely beautiful term of endearment which defies translation.
“With my grandmother, it was a somewhat different story. I was only in my sixth year when she died, and my recall of her is that she wore the same black dress that I swear she brought from Ireland and always smelled of her damned cow which she called Bossy. Her life was one of chronic peasant drudgery, and as it came, she accepted it.
“She was the first person I ever saw “laid out” after death. I remember the large crowd of people who “sat up” with her all night. In those days, it was considered very bad form to leave the dead unattended. Some were old friends who rocked back and forth producing a weird sound under their shawls which is known as keening. She was one of those mute inglorious heroes who contributed what she could to the broad fabric of this great land.
*Two of my great-grandfathers, Tom Lydon and John Mahady, were killed in roof falls.