Oral History Interviews – Introduction/ Interview of Robert Burczy

The Lattimer Archaeology project has been ongoing for more than five years now. It was originally planned as an examination of the physical and historical record of the Lattimer Massacre. It soon became clear that a broader research project was at hand, one encompassing aspects of work, memory, violence and everyday life in the region. Stories of hardship and struggle as well as community life and endurance complemented the narrative of the massacre in ways we didn’t expect. Speaking with folks about the memory of the tragic event often led to a discussion of the present and recent past, the collapse of the industry, the mixed fortunes of metropolitan Hazleton, the tension of contemporary life. In our pursuit of oral histories to learn about the town’s past, we decided not to avoid discussing the present because this seems an important concern of the folks we talk to, one they do not disconnect from the region’s tumultuous past.

With the permission of our interviewees, we decided to begin posting portions of interviews we have collected over the last few years on this blog.

The first interview we will post is from Robert Burczy, a painter, photographer and long-term resident of the town whose family has deep roots in the Hazleton Region. In the interview Robert reflects on the way that local history has defined his outlook on art, politics and history. The entire interview can be read here, and selections from it below:

A little background:

MR: How long have you lived in Lattimer?

RB: 3 years

MR: So your family has a long history in the Hazleton area?

RB: 90 plus years. My grandfather was born in 1879. He was born in Poland, in some town south of Warsaw. And he immigrated here … the stories I heard… He immigrated here because he didn’t want to join the Polish army to fight the Russians or he didn’t want to fight the Germans. So he skiddadled and I am glad he did. And we have been here more than 90 years. And especially where they are living now the Burczys and the Sojas (?) are the oldest names in the township now.

MR: Do you know what he did before he left Poland?

RB: Might have been a farmer? I think they were all farmers for the most part.

MR: But he ended up working in the mines?

RB: They offered him a job. Yes, the Lattimer Coal Company, I think they were in Harleigh….. he had a contract with them. And he didn’t get paid much, but when he died of black lung, his compensation, my grandmother was taken care of.

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MR: What about your mother’s family?

RB: They were from Poland. And it was a large family and you had to marry a miner to live in Cranberry, and that was the rules they had. She married a man, they had kids, he died, she married another guy, he had kids, but they still had more kids. My grandmother, didn’t move far from that area, they moved about ten blocks where she always stayed for the rest of her life.

On the heritage of anthracite coal in the region:

MR: Do you think that coal mining is still a big part of the identity of Hazleton? Do you think it defines people’s identities?

RB: Yeah, absolutely…… I think what the hell is wrong with me? Everybody has that question. Somethings’ wrong? But it, I think it is just generational. I think… every generation tells the other generation hints… and that then….. becomes a part of your makeup whether you know it or not. Just because your relatives were certain ways and those kids had kids and it goes on and on. In the end it shapes the whole area.

Photo by Robert Burczy of the roof line of the Lattimer Supply Company warehouse which stood in Lattimer until last year.

Photo by Robert Burczy of the roof line of the Lattimer Supply Company warehouse which stood in Lattimer until last year.

On the significance and memory of the Lattimer Massacre:

MR: When did you first hear about the Lattimer massacre?

RB: It was the monument itself. And way before I moved to Lattimer I came out here, because this used to be the skids. This was like the boondocks. So, but I looked at the monument and nobody was taking care of it so I took care of it early on. I am sure they had their guys doing it but it didn’t seem fast enough to me. It seemed like nobody was taking care of it. So that was my introduction to Lattimer, is the monument.

MR: Do you think the massacre is a significant event? Is it significant locally or nationally?

RB: Well it should national. There’s the [Triangle] Shirt Fire in New York…. that’s the one they always talk about. But then there are assorted massacres. So is one less important than the other, or does Lattimer top them all? I think that Lattimer, that one should be the big one….. but I think this is just because of the way they were killed. And if they were unarmed… that’s a big deal! When you have company men killing unarmed people…. what they were about, better wages, better working conditions.

On the history of immigration in Hazleton

MR: Do you think that issues of immigration were important in there as well, in terms of the massacre, but more broadly in terms of Hazleton?

RB: You just had people coming off a boat, and just escaped a certain type of system only to get locked in another system. I think that company men, the owners, they knew that there were workers there, they corralled them pretty well….  the people that mined, they didn’t want to go back there. So what were your options really? They were hired so…. yeah, I think that’s important…

MR: How do you think the way different immigrants lived together in these little patch towns? Is that part of the identity of the area?

RB: I think it would be coming together, of course. I think if you lived next to a neighbor that didn’t go to the same church or might have cooked different meals or stuff like that, they were in the same boat and they knew it. I think that germinated and I think it cross bred and then it became generational. I think it was a benefit. I don’t think there was a line of hostility because they were in the same boat.

On the value of remembering local history:

RB: It’s a parlor game. it keeps your mind supple….. You have to be agile. You are a little bit more aware in your surroundings, which you are always fine tuning, whether you are looking at the bird on the tree branch or you are looking at the people at the voting place, you have to be alert.

On the significance of the Lattimer Archaeology Project:

MR: What are impressions of the archaeology project? Do you have suggestions or requests of where we should go and what do you hope that we can accomplish?

RB: I am glad that you came around…. I think that it is important that you came in. You bring it to light. There are people out there that will connect to that and that will morph into something else. I [hope] it would get back to policy, it would get back to the way we live together. So it’s all interconnected by shedding light on it. But Lattimer is very special, because famous people came from here or passed through it. It symbolized something for the working man and its hard pressed to find work in that now, and that feel, and those words, and that movement is a good thing for a modern man … And when you get to be seventy and I am gone there are going to be kids talking to you about Lattimer.

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Shrine Imposing Sight by Day or Night

In our interviews with the elder residents of Pardeesville, a few things pop up frequently when we ask them about their memories of community life. The cohesiveness of this community is often tied to the social life surrounding the church.

Historical maps of the Italian community at Pardeesville show the first St. Nazarius church, built in about 1884, in the very center of a tight arrangement of houses. Town resident Dominic Matante remembers the church being disassembled in the 1950s, revealing that dynamite boxes made up some of the building materials.

This generation, however, better remembers the new church that was built on the top of the hill overlooking Butler Valley in the 1950s. At the edge of the church property an outdoor shrine was hand-built by residents of the town. From our interviews, residents were proud of this landscape marker, visible from miles away on Route 309 running through Butler Valley. This article, printed on the 4 July 1965 in the Reading Eagle describes the cross as an “imposing sight by day or night.” The article, written before the memorial to the Lattimer Massacre was constructed in nearby Lattimer, suggests that the shrine “would be an appropriate place to honor the miners who lost their lives”. In 1972, a monument to the Massacre was built near the site by representatives of local and national labor.

When the parish was closed by the diocese in 2009, the stations of the cross were donated to the St. Nazarius church in San Nazario, Italy. The remnants of the shrine remain in place where they were built.

1965 7 4 Reading Eagle Pardeesville Cross

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Lattimer Massacre Monument Commemoration, 10 September, 1972

Just uploaded this blogpost on the Lattimer Massacre Monument Commemoration on September 10, 1972. This event featured a major celebration with scholars, activists, politicians and working men and women present at the event. According to the event brochure The Lattimer Band, which was composed mostly of Pardeesville residents and directed by Reverend Ferrara, played the national anthem. We would love to find photos!

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Check out this post on the Lattimer Massacre Mass

Check out this post on the Lattimer Massacre Mass on our other blog, complete with a video of the emotional event:

http://lattimermassacre.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/lattimer-massacre-memorial-mass-september-10-2014/

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Lattimer Massacre Memorial Mass to be held in Lattimer, September 10, 2014, 6:30PM

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117 years ago this Wednesday, 19 striking miners were killed and 50 wounded by a posse of deputies in the event known as the Lattimer Massacre. This Wednesday, September 10, 2014 starting at 6:30 PM a memorial mass will be held at the monument at the corner of Quality and Lattimer roads. The Lattimer Massacre Project will be in attendance documenting the event. See you there!

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“A scythe and a pick axe hang next to my desk”

This post is from Paul Shackel:

A scythe and a pick axe hang next to the desk in my home office. The scythe has a blade that appears to have been well used. Tarnished with age, the words “Made in Austria” are located at the base of the blade. The blade has an occasional nick and I can image that many decades ago a farmer spent a long day in the autumn sun rhythmically slicing through wheat, barley and hay during harvest time. The pick axe is well used with many dents and nicks. It had one purpose – it was an implement used to extract coal from the deep underground mines in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Together, these two utilitarian, non-descript tools have a remarkable story to tell about the hopes and dreams of a new immigrant.  They reflect the reality of the limited opportunities available to new immigrants in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. They are a reminder of a life long journey to achieve the American dream.

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Joe Michel

The scythe and the pick axe once belonged to Michael Michel. Joe Michel, his son, has been mentioned in several blog posts. He gave me these items to guard the memory of his father’s work as well as the life of miners – at least for another generation. Michael Michel came to Jeddo, PA, from Austria-Hungary in 1922 with his scythe. His goal was to establish his new life in America as a farmer. However, after arriving in the region his dreams were dashed. “He didn’t want to go into the coal mines, but there was no place else to work,” said Joe Michael in a recent newspaper interview in the Standard Speaker. His father began as a laborer in the mines and in 1930 he earned his miner’s certificate, which also meant a larger income to support his growing family.

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A photograph of Michael Michel, who came from Slovakia to become farmer, but ended up working in the coal mines.

About 180,000 men worked in anthracite mines in the early 20th century. Many of the new immigrants went underground for the first time when they arrived in the region. Mining had one of the highest occupational mortality rates in the United States. More than 120,000 men died in the mines between 1847 and 1980.  So there is a reason why Michael Michel saved his money and found another occupation after 28 years in the mines.   He opened a bar called Mickey Mike’s Place in Freeland.

Today the mines in the region employ around 1,000 people.

Hazleton has always been a city of immigrants. The first
wave of immigrants consisted of English, Irish, and Germans in the mid-19th century. The second wave included Italians and Slavs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  More recently, Latinos have come to the city. People have always brought with them their hopes and dreams for a new beginning, sometimes carrying with them the tools of their trade. While our project has focused on preserving the history and memories of men and women in the second wave of immigration, I believe our work also allows us to think about the newest wave of immigration in a very different light.

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The Goat That Came for Dinner

This is one of a series of short stories collected from oral histories with town residents that will be retold here.

Pardeesville resident Maurice DeLorenzo showed us a panoramic photo of the town taken from a culm bank on the southwest side of town in the mid-1930s. This photo has been imperative in helping us understand how the landscape has changed since the early twentieth century, but also in helping us to understand how people lived back then. One of the most striking features of this photo is the abundance of wooden fences. Homemade wooden fences from different lengths and thicknesses of boards can be seen surrounding every house on Lower, Upper, and Church Street! While we initially thought that these fences might have been used to keep livestock such as cows inside people’s yards, during interviews with local residents we have learned that the fences were actually in place to keep other people’s livestock out of their yards! With the time and effort put in to planting and growing a garden, families couldn’t afford to lose all of their produce to a neighbor’s errant goat (however, keeping neighborhood kids out of the garden proved to be a steeper challenge).

One story related to us by a long-time resident of Pardeesville tells the story of when she and her husband went to visit her husband’s parent’s house in Pardeesville. With kids, neighbors, and extended family constantly coming in and out of the house, the front door had been left ajar. When our storyteller and her husband walked into the living room, they were greeted by none other than a stray goat that had managed to slip inside the house! Whether the goat or the couple were more startled is unknown, but I know that this story is one that neither soon forgot.
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