Day 14: Gardens of the Anthracite Region

A common description of the domestic landscapes of the company towns and other neighborhoods of the coal region include references to copious backyard gardens. Folks we have spoken with in the region have suggested that this home vegetable growing tradition helped miner’s wives stretch the limited resources and scant wages to feed their families. It would have also lessened a family’s dependence on the company store.

Our trip to Eckley Miner’s Village last Saturday confirmed this image of copious gardens. We spoke to our friend, George Gera, a longtime resident of Eckley at age 85½. George remembered that every inch of yard space was devoted to gardens, including both front and back yards. At one of the houses at Eckley, a demonstration garden showed some of the crops that might have been grown there. A diagram in the museum illustrated the design of a typical miner’s house garden. A placard quoted an Eckley resident as saying:

There were no yards. The yard was the garden… The whole family worked in the garden… They got enough potatoes to last through the winter, as well as enough cabbage to last until Christmas time.

Archaeologically, the remains of gardens can be difficult to observe. However, there are a few ways they can show up in the soils through careful excavation and analysis. In some contexts, remnant plants, both ornamental and food-bearing, can continue to grow in a wild state. Also, plants leave pollen and seeds in the soil that can then be viewed through careful filtering and analysis. This often requires a microscope. Also, the planting, tilling, supporting and fencing of plants can leave traces in the soils that we can identify. In our units located in the backyards we have identified some of these traces, including shallow depressions and a few possible postholes. While some of these are undoubtedly the result of rodent or root disturbance, some show signature shapes of human manipulation. Later, we will remove soil samples from the bottom depths of our units for pollen samples to determine what sorts of plants may have been grown.

Given the difficult economic conditions faced by miner’s families during times of little work, and especially during times in which they were out of work for months as a result of the extended strikes that occurred in this region, the success of gardens were central to maintenance and endurance within the lives of the residents of Lattimer Canal Street Site.

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About LM Project

The LMP is a collaborative endeavor which aims to recognize the events surrounding the Lattimer Massacre, an incident that changed the labor movement and impacted the world by bringing to light economic disparities and ethnic tensions in the anthracite region of PA.
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2 Responses to Day 14: Gardens of the Anthracite Region

  1. Barbara Little says:

    Hm, surely this is unintentional, but something feels dismissive about assigning a woman’s identity based on her husband’s occupation.

  2. LM Project says:

    Barbara: yes, good catch and thanks for your “teaching moment” (we changed the title). Yes, our brain gets fuzzy by the late evening when we title and upload these things. We consciously avoided the more obvious, but entirely neglectful, “A Coal Miner’s garden”. We want to emphasize that the space here at Canal Street was clearly as much, or more, a place for women and children as it was for those that worked in the mines. With this, the responsibility, creativity, and wile needed to endure the economic conditions of this kind of work was equally shared with the wives, mothers, siblings and children of the miners. This involved all kinds of work, both in and outside the house and mines that included working in silk mills, and other jobs, and work from home such as boarding, gardening, etc. It also required involvement in forms of overt union politicking (from folks like Mary Septak), challenging the working conditions of the miners.
    Just a thought: the thing about coal mining company towns is they aren’t like other places. We wonder if the treacherous work the men did in the coal mines is the only reason families stayed in these intense places, other than to maintain connections to family networks. These too, though, were always somehow connected to the coal industry. Even today you really can’t throw a rock in this place without hitting someone with a family connection to work in the mines…

    It certainly does not justify the dismissive term, “Miner’s Wife”, but it is a major concern for us to ask how we can recognize the severity of the connection between the labor the men did in the mines, and the social and economic systems that seemed to circumscribe not only their lives but those of their families…. and yet still leave room for lives outside it? What do our readers think?

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