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Howard Rees - Miners, food and ethnic differences

Miners, food and ethnic differences Click on the MEDIA ITEMS below for more information


Howard Rees: A coal miner's day began pretty early. They were up around 5 and would be on their way at least by 6. My father's mother was a widow. My father and his brothers were in the mines at an early age. In fact, my father, who was the youngest of the three, was in the coal mines by the time he was 9 years of age. So the only education he ever got in his life was the 9 months he went to school after he married. But he was a genius with figures. He could add up 3 columns at one time and would come out right. He could look at a hundred head of cattle and tell you within a hundred pounds what they would weigh, and what their price would be. In fact, Armour and Company offered him a job as did many other large packers, but they walked to the coal mines.

And my father walked six miles carrying a bucket and a pick. The bucket was made of tin and in the bottom of the bucket was tea for lunch, and the top of the upper section of the bucket was a compartment for a couple of sandwiches or some fruit and then the lid. Inside the coal mines the temperature never varied, so the temperature that the food was as it was brought to the mines stayed the same temperature After a short time every coal miner's bucket smelled of the coal mines. You could scrub and scrub and scrub but when you pulled that sandwich out, it smelled of coal.

Coming home, sometimes, if they had a group - particularly a tenor and a baritone, someone like that — they usually knew each other from singing in chapel, as they called it, because they were not Anglicans, they were members of the dissenting churches, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists — they would strike up either a hymn or "Land of My Fathers" (Welsh National Anthem) or sometimes one group would be down the road a bit, and they would sing antiphonally to each other, and o' course sometimes the group would get larger and sometimes smaller, but usually they sang as they were coming home from a hard day's labor, and of course if they had their lamps on...

The first lamps were made of carbide and that is, this was a chemical and you put water with it and it produced a gas and you looked like a thousand lights near the darkness either going to work early in the morning while it was still dark, or o' course coming home at night while it was still dark. So that our little world really revolved around the coal mines.

Each ethnic group had its own cuisine. The Germans used a lot of pork, and they would have a piece of pork between big slices of rogenbrote, as they called it — rye bread — or schwarzbrote — black bread. They didn't go in for white bread like the Welsh or the Scots or the Irish. I can still see my grandmother with one of those big loaves of bread that — when she sliced it she put it in the crook of her arm and held it with her right hand, and she sliced it off while holding it. The bread loaf was so big you didn't put it on the table, but you held it in your arm and sliced it this way. I never figured out why but that's the way she always did it.

So that each group developed its own food styles. A very popular one was ham because it was easier to slice and to put into sandwiches, but almost everybody drank tea. I don't know why, but I can still see the coal miners going into the grocery store and buying tea by the pound. It was kept in large canisters on the counter where it would be handy because the store owner knew that would be one of the commodities they would be looking for—it was kept handy for the customers.

I used to enjoy watching the coal miners around the church picnics, around the church activities, for instance, after a dinner at the church, there would be a lot of cake and cookies left over. Everybody would withdraw discretely and let the coal miners go 'round and pick up the cookies or the cake for the bucket. And we knew o'course that was their treat.

And when we had a picnic you could always spot the coal miners by the way they sat down. When we went to a picnic we sat on the ground or a blanket or something, but they didn't. Every coal miner would bend down, put his heel under his buttock and put the other foot out straight, and that's the way he would sit all afternoon. He would never vary that position. You could always—you'd never fail to spot a coal miner because from working in the coal mines, he knew that you did not rest your seat on the coal or the bed of the coal mines. By resting it on your heel, you kept yourself from getting cold.

And you could always tell a coal miner by his face. There would always be blue powder marks where he was dynamiting and he didn't stand far enough back and some small pieces of coal would get into his face. And he never got the coal from around his eyes. He always looked like he had eyebrow pencil penciled around his eyes. He would scrub and scrub and scrub but that would be there for the rest of his life. O' course when they got up into their 40's and 50’s, because of silicosis, which o' course they didn't know then, they would find it very difficult to walk up a hill to work too much longer, because the respiratory diseases would get them. The coal dust, being breathed all those years, just paid a heavy toll.


Howard Rees and Elizabeth Rees Gilbert

Elizabeth Rees Gilbert

Lunch bucket from the Coal Talk Room at Garrett College Library. Photograph taken by Jim Matthews of Garrett College.


Collection Location:
Garrett College, McHenry.

Photographer- Jim Matthews

Coal miners--Maryland--History; Coal miners--West Virginia--History; Garrett County (Md.)--History; Allegany County (Md.)--History.

Western Maryland, 1930-1980

Western Maryland Regional Library
100 South Potomac Street
Hagerstown, Maryland 21740

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