by George Ambrose
My father was the ultimate decider in our family. My mother always had suggestions, but my father – as the bread winner – always decided. This included what church we attended (St. John’s – “the Slovak Church”), where we bought our cars (the Ford dealer in Lehighton), where are groceries came from (A & P), and where his kids went to school (St. Ann’s Catholic School- K to 12). All of these decisions influenced my life. But the most impactful was deciding where we lived. When I was almost five, we moved from Freeland (pop. 5,000) to the “patch town” of Jeddo (pop. 250).
Jeddo is essentially a line of houses on either side of PA legislative Route 940. This two-lane road was officially referred to as “Main Street” in our mailing address, but there were no street signs. There was a small section at one end of town behind Main Street. It had about twelve house and was referred to as “Back Street.” A small store operated out of one of these houses and was named for its owner “Jacko’s.”
At the other end of town were two landmarks: the Jeddo Elementary School (public) and the Jeddo Stars (private). The latter was an “athletic association” because it sponsored a hardball baseball team, the Jeddo Stars, in the Anthracite League. The team was always a contender, and won its share of league championships. But to the regulars, “the Stars” importance was that it had a liquor license and operated as a bar for its members. It had a family-fun-filled summer outing in July, and a Ladies Auxiliary that had Bingos and kids’ parties.
Behind each line of houses there was a dirt alley. Across the street from our side, there were railroad tracks behind the alley. The trains transported locally strip-mined coal. Vast coal “strippings” lay beyond the tracks. Positioned among them were a bevy of large electric shovels filling massive “ukes” with the grist for new mounds, or occasionally, with coal. The noise, blasts, train whistles and dust were constant.
You could, according to how old you were, walk, hitchhike, drive or take the bus that ran along 940 to go to Freeland at one end of the line, or to the metropolis of Hazleton (pop. 10,000) at the other end. Our school, church, and grocery store were all in Freeland. Hazleton was more for special events and holiday shopping. Going there (especially without your parents) was an adventure that we looked forward to.
You’d be surprised at how many Catholic churches there were in tiny Freeland. But how they were known is the clue. It was not “St. John’s” or “St. Ann’s.” Instead they were “the Slovak church”, “the Irish church”, “the Polish church”, “the Italian church”, the “Greek church” etc. This is a legacy of the mine owners, bankers and churches conspiring to keep ethnic groups apart, complete with priests who “spoke their language” to keep them from joining together into dreaded labor unions. Terms like hunky, dago, mick, wop, pollock, and spick peppered the conversations of young and old.
Even the nearby small town of Eckley (now a state Museum of Mining and Paramount movie location) with about 100 souls had a Catholic Church (Immaculate Conception) at one end of town for the miners, and a Protestant Church (St. James Episcopal), protected by a white picket fence, for the Welsh overseers at the other end. “Us and them” prevailed.
For the most part (except for direct teasing) these differences were minimal among us kids. Except when we went to church services at St. Ann’s. Those who were “local parishioners” sat in Center section, while the “others” had to sit on the side aisles. I was even told when I attended my uncle’s funeral in the Greek Rite church that I must NOT participate fully in the services because they were “different than ours”.
All this was forgotten when we were out of school. The entire outdoors was one large playground. The only requirement was that we had to come home when we heard our mother ringing her large cow bell! Sticks and stones were our “free toys.” We could ride the sticks, throw the stones, and hit stones with sticks to both improve our batting skills and see who could hit the farthest.
If we got hungry or thirsty, there were plenty of berries to eat. Huckleberries (blueberries), June berries, teaberries, elderberries, blackberries and “swampers” (high bush blueberries) were available in season. We knew where and when to look for this “free candy”. Neighbors yards also had cherries, plums, and apples.
Using and enjoying the outdoors became second nature. As we got older (and more resourceful) we built forts and tree houses in the woods. We had campfires and ran home for hot dogs and marshmallows to cook over campfires. As soon as we could, we began riding our bikes and going out farther. My best friend from school lived a few towns away, but I could either walk or bike there as he could to my house.
Exploring also led to discoveries. In about 8th grade, I was climbing around on the slate banks when I thought I saw the whited outline of ferns on a larger piece of slate. In fact, it was a prehistoric fossil! Fossil collecting became an early obsession. We always found plants, but hoped for dinosaurs. My mother worried that we were venturing down into mines to make our discoveries. We had to assure her that most were laying right on the ground. The electric shovels had dug them from their hiding places. Later, I even found some shards of early Indian pottery!
My father must have had patch town life in him. He left nearby Drifton to join the Navy in WW2. He trained as a medical corpsman and travelled widely. When he was discharged in New York City after the war, he decided to embark on a career as an undertaker. His plan was to return as a “big man” to his small town. He enhanced his family plans by marrying my mother. She was in NYC as a private practice nurse to a famous Doctor. She had left her poultry farm in Ohio to train as a nurse in Boston before coming to New York.
Together they went to Drifton. My father explored establishing his practice in Freeland. However, like Catholic churches, there were already too many undertakers. They were either young and not needing a partner, or older with a son anxious to inherit the business. He switched careers to selling life insurance, collecting small weekly and monthly premiums while “prospecting” for new clients who “needed” insurance.
My first “real job” was as scorekeeper for the Jeddo Stars. I kept track of the games and posted tin numbers on metal hooks at the end of each half-inning. I admit that I felt pride each time we drove past the large billboard that announced “Jeddo Highland Coal – the Aristocrat of Anthracite!”
When I got a two-wheel bike, it was a hand-me-down from a neighbor with three sons. I crashed the first time I rode it, but I got up and walked back up the hill and came down again. There is a certain toughness and resilience in this environment that rubs off on its inhabitants.
Later, I tended bar at the Jeddo Stars as a summer job during college. I laugh remembering that, in high school, I had heard that it was illegal to serve alcohol to miners. I thought how unfair that was. These buggers worked hard all day and deserved a drink if they wanted one! Alas, I was the victim of a homonym misunderstanding. Thank goodness for my classical education!
A number of my high school classmates went to Viet Nam – and saw other places. But most of them returned to NEPA afterwards, and have stayed there. My saying is that (for me) “Jeddo is a nice place to be from…far from!” But, in many ways, it shaped me into who I became. I still consider myself a Slovak patch town kid.
George Ambrose was born Anthracite country. He graduated from St, Ann’s High School in Freeland, then King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and then Temple University in Philadelphia. He is a retired HS teacher. He is married to a nurse and they have two grown children. They live in the western suburbs of Philly.