NEMACOLIN – “Fire in the hole!”
Leonard Udovich, 86, of Nemacolin, had a twinkle in his eye as he remembered coal mining from back in the day. In the Udovitch family, that day goes back to 1917.
“That’s what they yelled when they cut the coal. The shot fire – that’s the guy who drilled holes and put in the dynamite, he’d yell it three times, then …”
It was a fine summer evening and Udovich was sitting in sister Leona Block’s backyard in Crucible with the family gathered around. Cold drink in hand, this retired miner with a knack for fixing things was ready to recall when coal was king and workers were recruited from abroad to come to the hills of Greene and Fayette counties and make a new, hard labor life for themselves and their families.
“My grandfather, John, left Yugoslavia in 1917. He couldn’t make a living there with farming,” Udovich said, picking up the story of his own family’s three generations in the coalfields. Leaving behind his wife and two children, his grandfather John crossed the Atlantic, boarded a train in New York and ended up in Carmichaels.
“It took him three years working in the mines to save enough to send for them, and by that time my dad was 18 years old. We still have cousins living on that farm in Yugoslavia,” he said.
Udovich held up the yellowed, original copy of his father John’s citizenship certificate, issued in 1930. “Race, Croatian. Former nationality, Jugo-Slav” it read. In the lower corner, a photo of John Udovich, age 28, stared soberly outward. He was now a coal miner like his father and had a son of his own, 3-year-old Leonard, born in Crucible, a coal patch town a few miles from Carmichaels, perched above the steep slope that lead to Crucible mine.
Sister Leona would follow three years later and by then her brother’s knack for fixing things was beginning to emerge. “Every toy I got I took apart. I put lights on Leona’s kitty car in 1933,” Udovich admitted, grinning.
His father worked alongside miners from many countries who, like him, were learning English on the job. “Half the guys in the mines you could hardly understand, but my dad spoke six languages.” Udovich said. Growing up in a town with a company store, where almost every man took the long walk down the many steps that lead to the mine, Udovich has a child’s memory of the struggle to bring in the United Mine Workers of America and strike for better pay.
“It was tough getting the union in back in the 1930s. We had coal company cops in every town. They rode horses and there was a 9 p.m. curfew. What I remember is my mom telling me they were kicking people out of their houses. If you went to another town, they’d stop you and ask what you were doing there.”
Still, the close-knit community of poor but industrious immigrants struggling to find a foothold in America was a great place to be a kid. Udovich’s memories of the 1930s are vivid. “Every back yard was a garden, people traded plants, kept chickens and grew potatoes, enough for the year. My mother made the best doughnuts and noodles, everything was homemade. The coffee had chicory in it and would cook on the stove all day,” he said.
“You sat at the kitchen table, drank coffee and played cards for fun. I drank more wine when I was a kid than milk because you had to buy milk and my dad made wine. And we walked everywhere. There was no extra money so a tin can was our basketball. We’d put tin cans on our feet and get along real good. And we were outside all the time from morning to night. I think we ate healthier then. You didn’t see a fat coal miner.”
Baseball was the great American passion and there were teams in every coal town. “We had three teams and I remember when I was 13 or 14 we walked to Isabel across the river, up the railroad tracks to play a game.”
His grandfather left mining behind as soon as he could. “He didn’t like it and when he got the chance he got a farm in Crawford County. We’d go there every summer and help put up hay with horses, load it in the wagons. The girls slept in the house, we’d wash up and sleep in the barn. My dad didn’t like mining either but he died before he could get his farm.”
Kids grew up quickly back then, Udovich noted. “We had to work. There was no other way.”
At age 16, Udovich got his first job as a welder and in 1944 joined the Marines.
After the war he finished high school and was hired in 1947 as a mechanic at Crucible mine. “There’s no trace of the mine now but if you look across the river you can still see the slate dump,” Udovich said.
On December 20 of that same year, a lethal chunk of slate caught his father by surprise and showed just how dangerous, unpredictable and heartbreaking mining can be.
“Dad was killed the second month I worked in Crucible. He was only 48. I was babysitting my little brother Hobo at the house and when I looked outside the men were coming up from work at the wrong time. I asked them why and Carl Demlock said ‘your dad got killed,’ just like that. My dad loved Christmas and he had the tree already bought. We put up the tree and buried him on Christmas Eve.”
Udovich’s career in the mines brought him in contact with the old ways even as they were being phased out. As a mechanic he worked on every new piece of equipment that came in.
“During the war they went from hand loading to conventional mining with a conveyor belt. They put a washer in and a belt to run the slate and coal outside. Around 1950 I worked on the first continuous miner – the Lee Norse.”
Udovich married Dorothy Repko of Nemacolin in 1950 and had his own son Lenny Jr. in 1952. The next year the first annual Pennsylvania Bituminous King Coal Show was held in Carmichaels and Udovich was “glad I finally got to show Dorothy what the machines we were using in the mine looked like.”
That first show was full of the equipment that was ushering in the new age in coal extraction. As the years and the coal shows went by, the machines became bigger and more sophisticated and Udovich continued to master the mechanics that they demanded.
His career in the mines also reflects the economic ups and downs of the industry.
“I remember the date – March 6, 1958 - when the mine shut down. That’s when we lost a lot of the young men, war veterans. They left and went to Detroit, Cleveland, Virginia, where some got work in the auto industry.”
Udovich, with his reputation for being a fine mechanic, supported his family doing odd jobs “putting in bowling alleys, doing repair work. That’s when Carl Osborn, Joe Baker and Rollen Roberts started Carmichaels Mining Machine and Repair behind the VFW.”
Udovich was hired in 1960 by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Waynesburg, as a mechanic and assistant shop foreman. Then, when the coal economy turned again, he went back into being a mine mechanic in 1963 at “U.S. Steel’s Maple Creek Mine. It was steady third shift and that’s where I got my experience with continuous miners. They used shuttle cars to haul coal back to main dump to be crushed and put on the conveyor belt. When long wall mining came it moved so fast that it would sometimes stall the belt.”
Udovich said he continued learning how to fix things. He got his electrician papers in 1970 and was made shift foreman in charge of the electricians in 1972. By 1985, he was back on day shift in charge of all three shifts and retired in 1987 “right before the computers. They came in later.”
He said he as blessed with good foremen, excellent mechanics and every day was a challenge. “You can run the unions down but 99 percent of the men were good. The other one percent – you’ll have that anywhere.”