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.
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.
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.