The end of the nineteenth century was a turbulent time in central Europe. In the Hapsburg empire, two similar but different cultural groups were vying for more independence: the Czechs and the Slovaks. They worked out an alliance by 1918, but the events leading to World Wat 1 were smoldering in the area in the 1880s and 90s. One way out was to make the ocean passage to the “promised land” of America.
Coal was fueling the country’s economic boom, and the Anthracite fields of Northeastern PA had recruiters in the major ports of entry, especially New York City. Print materials in Slovak and English, widely distributed in Central Europe talked of immediate employment in areas where other Slovaks were already “living the dream.”. One such promising place was Drifton, in Luzerne County. Anyone with skills could obtain work better than basic laborer.
My Grandfather, John Ambroz left his birthplace for New York in 1902 at age 27. He was married with two children, and he promised to return and get them once he found work. He took a ship to NYC, and then made his way overland to Drifton, PA. He finally was hired in 1904. Mine owners had constructed villages for workers after the Civil War. Most were wood frame “twin” houses that accommodated two families. However, to obtain a house, miners had to agree to accommodate one or two single men boarders. They were provided a bed and meals by the homeowner. The mine owners deducted rent directly from the miner’s salary. Provisions, including tools and supplies, including lamps, helmets, dynamite, and fuses had to be purchased in the Company Store.
John was saving money for his passage back to get his family when, in 1907, his landlord, John Jensen, was decapitated in a mine accident. When the “black Mariah” (company hearse/ambulance) brought his body home, his head was in a bucket. Jensen had two children, ages one and two, and his wife Mary was pregnant with their third child. She was told that she had a month to find a new (miner) husband or lose the house.
My grandfather offered a solution. He would marry her if she agreed to raise his two children. She agreed, and Ambroz left for Czechoslovakia to gather the clan. However, when he returned to Drifton, his first wife, Joanne, was left behind. His children, Margaret 5 and John 1, came to America with “Pop”.
On the voyage, Margaret said that Pop told her that she was responsible for young John. One morning, she awoke to find him missing. She frantically searched the ship, fearing her father’s ire if he she couldn’t find him. Finally, she resolved to report the loss to Pop. As she approached in dread, she heard her brother and realized that he had been safely with her father all along!
John Ambrose and Mary Jensen married in 1908, and subsequently had seven more of “their” children, growing the family size to fourteen! One of the first things that John did was change Mary’s two sons’ names. John was re-named “Charlie”, and Joseph (Jr.) was changed to “Ralph”. His rationale was that he might want their original names for his “own kids”. He kept aloof from the three Jensen children, except for punishments! It is not surprising that the oldest of “her” children left home first and went to Philadelphia to avoid her stepfather’s reach. Within a couple years, both of her brothers joined her on their escape from tyranny in Drifton.
To make ends meet, the Ambroz family found multiple sources of income. John did some mining, but also cut timbers, cared for the mine mules, and brewed/sold moonshine whiskey. Mary had a large vegetable garden and kept pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. There were also three cows and two horses. To generate income, she made and sold beer, soda and candy out of the back of her “summer kitchen”.
At meal times, the men ate first – Pop and any borders. The kids ate next, and Mom ate last. Aunt Helen, one of “their” kids, tells of one kind border who saved scraps of his lunch for the kids. But this industry paid off, Pop was the first Slovak in Drifton to own a car – a 1934 Velie. Yes, a Velie. In 1939, Mary had neighbors come to the house to see her new Westinghouse refrigerator. Mary said “I didn’t know there was such goodness as this!” She died in September of that same year.
Funerals were home-based, at least the wakes were. Helen recalls Mary’s wake at home. “It was warm. With all the people coming and going, there were flies. It bothered me when a fly landed on Mom, especially on her face…I tore the veil off of my hat and used it to cover Mom’s face.”
My mother (Barbara) married another of “their” kids, my father George, and together they moved to Drifton. My mother had escaped the rural life of an Ohio poultry farm. Trained as a nurse in Boston, she then settled into a private practice in NYC. To say that life in Drifton was a shock in 1945 is an understatement. Her first encounter with a home wake was when Pop died. The deceased was laid out in the living room. Men sat around the perimeter, drinking various forms of alcohol. The women were mourning in the kitchen, preparing food for everyone. At some point, the men decided that “good old John deserves one last drink!” With that, they propped up the body and were trying to make it drink. Some men started yelling. The women came to see what the commotion was. My mother couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
John was the oldest of all the children, being Pop’s first born and his namesake. He literally followed in his shoes. He became so good at hewing timbers for mine props that he earned the nickname that he retained the rest of his life – “Chopper”. He was promoted and was able to move his family into the large “house” that had served as the infirmary for the Coal company. To this day it is referred to as “Hospital Crossing”. He was also my Godfather (see accompanying photo).
Ralph enlisted in the Navy as “George” to make it difficult for his stepfather to find him. However, when my father, George, enlisted the Navy insisted that he was already enrolled. He had to use the ID # that had been issued to Ralph! The youngest of “their” kids, Phil, also enlisted in the Navy and stayed for 27 years. Whenever he was on leave, he would head “upstate” to visit the family that was still there. His other craving was for Hazleton’s Coney Island hot dogs with “the works”. He had been to the original Coney Island, but preferred the Hazleton version!
Andrew also stayed in the area. He started his own business – a truck outfitted as a grocery store on wheels. We was a very caring person. He bought his wife a new Cadillac after a good year. He drove his son to chemo treatments. In the early days his phone number, connected by an Operator, was simply “94”.
Margaret, born in Czechoslovakia, lived in Jeddo, as did George. She had two husbands and nine children. Her house was a magnet for family. She raised a big garden and had a famous cherry tree. But it was Annie who most people would say kept the family traditions most. She was the oldest of “their” children and stayed in Drifton her whole life, where she had ten children, most of whom married and lived locally. Her large garden resembled Mom’s. Her house was the mecca on holidays – especially Easter, with all of its special ethnic foods. It was her house that folks headed to when they talked about going “up home”. Both women were active in the Slovak church in Freeland (St. John’s).
Family get-togethers were big events. My Godparents (John & wife Mary) drove over 100 miles to attend events like my confirmation, graduation and many of my birthdays (despite their being in the end of January). I lived in Freeland for 4 years, and then in Jeddo until I went away (to King’s in Wilkes-Barre) for college at age 17. As the third generation away from the two fathers and two mothers, I find the struggles, sacrifices and relationships that marked our family’s transformations remarkable in many ways. A trail of “blood, sweat and tears” mark the coal dust in their wake.
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.
Also by George Ambrose: The Joys of Jeddo