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Remnants of Coal Culture

Mike Kuzemchak’s pay envelopes from the Ebensburg Coal Company for May 1936.

Mike Kuzemchak’s pay envelopes from the Ebensburg Coal Company for May 1936. Archival photo: IUP Special Collections

A coal miner was in a tough spot if on pay day he received a “snake”—just a lazy S on his pay voucher indicating that his deductions equaled his earnings. Tennessee Ernie Ford described it best in “Sixteen Tons” when he sang, “Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”

Snakes, pay ledgers dating to 1881, even the wood and brass pay gate where Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company miners picked up their money, are among the coal mining memorabilia on display in an exhibit in the University Museum in John Sutton Hall. The exhibit opened in September and continues into December.

A Walk Through Time: Pennsylvania Coal Culture, Featuring the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company Collection” documents coalmining life in Western Pennsylvania with artifacts, old photographs, company records, and a sample of the large mine maps now being scanned and made accessible by IMAPS.

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Harrison Wick, Special Collections librarian and university archivist, said the exhibit features about one hundred panels of images and text and roughly 150 items, including miners’ hats, lamps, lunch buckets and tools, ledgers from local coal companies, and photos dating to the late nineteenth century from coal towns like Ernest, Sagamore, and Whiskey Run. The display has pamphlets produced by R&P for its employees, written in several languages, reflecting the cultural diversity of the company’s miners. It also includes the office furniture of Charles Potter, long-time R&P president. And it recounts mining disasters, unionization, and miner strikes.

But the exhibit is about more than just the job of mining coal.

“It’s to tell the story about the miners’ lives and their communities, what a day in their life was like as a miner and as a family,” said Rhonda Yeager, archivist assistant.

The exhibit is also an opportunity, Wick said, to promote the extensive R&P Coal Company Collection donated to IUP and to call attention to the need for funding to complete the processing of the collection to make more of it available for public viewing.

Items in the exhibit, on display through December 5, are on loan from the IUP Special Collections and University Archives, the Tri-Area Historical Society and Liberty Museum in Nanty Glo, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, and private collectors.

The University Museum is free. Call 724-357-2397 for hours or visit the University Museum website.