A Review of
R.S. Sukle’s novel
Bucket of Blood: The Ragman’s War (2004)
On a recent visit to my uncle, Merle Gray, I was informed that the West Deer Township, Allegheny County, PA, community of Russellton was originally called Gray’s Mill. Russellton was the economic center of the township that produced so many of our Scotch-Irish family surnames: Gray, Campbell, Norris, Leslie, and Hazlett, to name a few. Another of the surnames, McKrell, is applied to a main road leading into Russellton. This village was the site of a terrible labor battle in the early part of the last century that represented a greater national struggle between the United Mine Workers Union and various coal producing companies. Before it was over, both the state and federal governments were involved. Today, the government is still involved, but rather than coal production, which has long since ceased there, their concern centers around the pollution the Russellton area mines are generating. Growing up, my impression of the towns and township of West Deer was three fold: natural beauty, farming, and mining. Our families’ main businesses involved farming and these tended to support a mutually beneficial ecology. You will no doubt get the impression from our stories of West Deer Township that life then and there had almost a romantic quality. The mines, on the other hand, represented dark, unsavory characteristics: smoldering “bony” piles, rusting tipples, and dilapidated immigrant housing. This review of Rebecca Sukle’s new book considers all of this, but the thrilling part for me are references to places our family is quite familiar with. I am quite surprised at our connection to the struggle for workers’ rights that took place “right under our noses,” yet I, at least, knew nothing about it.
After my visit with Uncle Merle, I posted an inquiry on ANCESTRY.COM for information on Gray’s Mill. This was all new to me, and I have been unable to find anything on our earliest Gray ancestor, James, who supposedly came directly from Northern Ireland as a child before 1790 with Rev. Abraham Boyd. Boyd later established the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church, to which many of the Grays belonged and where dozens of our kin are buried. The church has no record of James Gray, however. Several sources suggest that the Grays were preceded in West Deer Township and specifically at the mill by families named Paul, Porter, Griffith, and McConnell. I received a response from historical researcher and author, R.S. Sukle via the Ancestry message board that her new book contains information on Gray’s Mill and Russellton. I purchased the book from AMAZON.COM, but any online service has it or a local bookstore will order it for you. The paperback has 256 pages with author’s notes, pictures, and maps and can be read in several sittings. Sukle begins each of the 43 short chapters with actual clippings from the Valley Daily News and Valley News Dispatch of nearby Tarentum to provide context and credibility. Her narrative, however, she claims is purely fictional, although she says it’s “an offshoot of research she was doing on her father” (255). He was a coal miner, union organizer, and civil rights activist. Her journey began with John Graff’s compilation for the township’s 150th anniversary, West Deer Township, a Century and a half of Progress (1836-1986). Information on the great strike was sparse in that publication and so she settled into the microfilm collection at the Community Library of Allegheny Valley. She says, “I was shocked and astonished by the articles I found. They verified the conditions my father had spoken about and then some.” Sukle includes additional family memorabilia in her narrative. What follows then is not so much a literary analysis as a survey of geographic and historical references that I think you may be interested in from her book. I will list the page numbers when possible.
Gray’s Mill is almost immediately referred to in the introduction to Sukle’s father, who was known as “Ragman” because of his avocation during the strike as a collector and reseller of rags:
He was ten when the Bessemer Coal and Coke Company sunk the Russellton No. 1 shaft , old enough to remember when the valley below was green with grass and trees. Crops grew where the houses now stood, and fields of changing colors sloped to the creek, all the way through Little Deer Creek Valley. Only a few farm buildings dotted the landscape with the exception of Gray’s Mill, a small village crossroads midway through the valley. The village, with its mill, blacksmith shop, wagon maker, general store and post office, was a gathering place for nearby German [and Scotch-Irish] farmers who came once a week to collect mail, buy supplies, or exchange gossip.” (4)
The author says that life changed forever after the mine shaft was sunk. The pasture around the entrance soon contained 24 double and 7 single wood-framed houses, all without basements, plumbing, or electricity. Sidewalks were unheard of. Though the first miners, single men, were brought in from other operations in Pennsylvania, later entire families from all parts of Europe were recruited. Additional houses were hurriedly built, but according to Sukle, care was taken to keep the Italian “interspersed” with the residents from Slavic and Baltic countries. “Divide and conquer,” she claims. My mother, Ruth Gray Pearce, born nearby in 1917, where Monnier joins the Bakerstown Road, remembers that to the neighboring Scotch-Irish farmers, the whole valley was referred to a “Little Italy.” Also of interest is that West Deer Township probably had no African Americans until they were imported from the South as replacement workers during the “Strike Years” (186).
John Graff, West Deer teacher and historian, reports that, while the first test hole revealing a rich vein of coal had been sunk in 1884, the mineral rights under the Gray and Griffith properties weren’t sold until around the turn of the century. George Love, son of a West Deer pioneer paid $29 an acre for about 1,000 acres. The 67-acre Griffith-Gray farm was also transferred and would become the town called Russellton. As for class distinctions once the immigrants arrived and the homes were built, he says it depended on “location.” No miners owned cars or horses, so none of the houses faced public roads. Graff indicates, “The mine owner lived in a cottage on a hillside opposite the mine. All mine foremen and workmen lived in the double houses provided for them.” Sukle says, “Mine supervisors had the more prestigious single houses along the main road. The superintendent had the largest home nearest to the mine” (5).
After the houses came a saloon, barbershop, shoe store, and dance hall. Company buildings included a company store, post office, doctor’s residence, a boarding house, and two churches, Catholic and Protestant. The finest structure in Gray’s Mill was probably the new two-story brick combination mine administration building and bank. Like most coal mining towns, Russellton, as it became more commonly called, provided for the workers’ needs at the company store: foodstuffs, dry goods, clothing, and all the supplies for the job. Debits were deducted from pay and the store operated at a profit, but the workers never had to leave company property to find the necessities of life.
Each living space had a small open fireplace at first, but if a miner could get ahead enough, he could purchase an iron stove. Workers could have all the low-grade coal and bony they wanted to fire these. These “gob piles,” as they were called, lay in the valley next to the mine opening, so all the houses were constructed on the hillsides. With new houses being built to accommodate additional miners, eventually most of the homes were wired for electricity and piped for running water. Water was pumped from the mine to several lakes above the houses and filtered for drinking water. Only the single dwellings where the bosses lived had sewers. The rest all had four season outhouses. Life was hard for the miners and Sukle cites the high infant mortality rate in the coal camps (182).
In 1925, additional land was purchased down stream and the Russellton No. 2 shaft was sunk. Sukle’s main character is 31-years old and had been working underground for 8 years. Most of the towns’ children dropped out of school to work and help support the family as soon as they could. This was not unlike those in the rest of the township, my mother at 14 and several of my uncles at 16. There were public high schools in Tarentum, Etna, Springdale and Butler, but few from West Deer Township attended. These schools were some distance and the families had no extra money to pay for transportation (141, 235). But the quality of life gradually improved; a new 12-room brick elementary school was opened in 1925 between the two Russelltons. It seemed like the citizens had everything they needed, as the outside world was also progressing: radio broadcasting, movies, automobiles, and many other luxuries. As early as 1920 Russelltonians could listen through headsets to KDKA in Pittsburgh, the world’s first commercial station; they could watch the latest films in their very own theater, which had its own generator; and they could have their car filled with gasoline at the one and only Russellton Service Station. Sukle’s Ragman worked out of a used 1925 Model “T” Ford Truck. My great Uncle Russell Stanley Gray owned and operated the Ford dealership in Culmerville in those days and may have sold the vehicle to the original owner whom Sukle describes as, “The owner of a small, one-man mining operation up on Rich Hill, who had died” (9). Actually, in 1920 there had been only three automobiles in town and the gas station was operated by the Russellton mine owner’s chauffeur. But, these were all signs of things to come.
Other, more ominous, signs were on the horizon also. Sukle writes:
Ragman was twenty-one in 1915 when a charter was issed by the United Mine Workers to form a local union. [In 1881 the Pittsburgh iron and steelworkers had formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL), but the very first union work stoppage was by the Journeyman Printers of New York City in 1776.] Bessemer Coal and Coke refused to recognize it. It took a general strike in 1916 at Russellton and nearby mines to force that recognition through a contract signed by the coal companies that endorsed the United Mine Workers. (5)
The demand for coal during World War I brought peace to the coalfields, but after the war was over in 1918 demands for higher pay and concerns for workers’ safety fell on deaf ears. The main sticking point was a proposal known as the Jacksonville Agreement calling for wages of $7.50 per 8-hour day, up from $6.25. With lower demand for coal, several companies believed they could force the workers back to $6.00 a day.
Once the strike began in 1927,Ragman and a partner looked for hauling jobs as they drove around prosperous neighborhoods in the area, Etna, Squirrel Hill, and Shadyside, to name a few. The author says:
[They] charged a fee to haul away the trash, and then made a profit when they sold the same items to less prosperous folk on the poorer side of town. They earned additional money by doubling as a delivery service. They would haul produce to town for the farmers, then items from the city to the non-company stores near home. Ragman wanted to save enough money by the time the strike was over to buy a house in one of the river towns and get [his wife] away from the poverty of Russellton. (9)
This sounds like any one of a half-dozen of my family. They had egg and produce routes in the city. One had a salvage business. Even when the Great Depression hit, they stayed busy buying, selling, and trading.
Coal miners who refused to cross picket lines were evicted from company housing. If they were lucky, they could move into hastily constructed union barracks. According to The Valley Daily News (December 14, 1927), some 3, 000 men, women, and children found shelter there, 1,300 in Russellton alone. Reports of as many as six persons staying in one room, many of them sick, were common in the newspaper The evictions were carried out by company security personnel called “The Coal and Iron Police.” They also enforced a strict code of who entered and who departed the camps. It was necessary to carry a pass at all times. Sukle’s “Black Boot,” the head of the police, was named Bucholz, and he was a large violent thug, a German-accented survivor of World War I. In the story he commits rape and murder for the company’s cause. In the end, Ragman survives to settle the score, but to say more here might spoil the intrigue.
Other coal mining towns in the area included Curtisville and Bairdford, owned by the Ford Colleries. According to Graff: The management for the Ford Colleries mining towns appeared to have much more concern for the personal lives of their employees than the other coal companies. [They] built a YMCA at Curtisville and this building was the center for much recreational activity. (26)
This may be why the strike was less effective at those locations and why the headlines in The Valley Daily News on March 29, 1928 read: “Curtisville Mine to Open—Operations at Bairdford to be Started Monday” (Sukle 249).
As the labor dispute heated up, the some union members turned to the Socialist Party for support. Not everyone thought that this was a good idea. At this point in the book our author reveals both the importance of these small Western Pennsylvania mining towns in the struggle for reasonable wages and the inspiration for her book title:
[The UMW] doesn’t want your other friends in there stirring things up. Russelton’s already a “bucket of blood” without bringing the Reds into the mix. Things are bound to get worse, now that the company is resuming operations. Russellton is a vital battleground in the war for the union. We lose Russellton, we lose the whole valley. We lose the valley we can kiss the movement good-bye in Western Pennsylvania. (154)
The 600 men at Bairdford did eventually all go back to work. Today, about 130 of its 175 homes were former company houses. According to Graff, most of the area around the mining town was occupied by two farms. One of them belonged originally to George Leslie (c. 1790- ), who gave it to his daughter Elizabeth (1818-1895) and her husband, my great-great grandfather William Sylvester Gray (1816-1879). It stayed in the family for two more generations with their son Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928) and William Garfield Gray (1889-1970). To read more about our family’s association with Bairdford, and particularly how Uncle Will and my Granfather Paul built homes for the miners for just $15 per month rent, see “Some Notes on a tour of the Old Gray Homesteads.” Graff describes the company houses as follows:
The typical miner’s house was built in four and five room sizes. In most instances they were placed rather close together in straight row, each looking like the house next door and giving a typical “patch” appearance. The necessary small buildings in the backyard were likewise in rows. Company policy was to have one well and pump for every three houses. (63)
Sukle has one of her main characters building the union barracks during the strike (134, 155) While it’s not know which of the homes in Bairdford William and Paul Gray built, Graff names three “patches” as “Russian” and “Shantytown,” for obvious reason, and “Hollywood,” occupied by mostly Anglo-Americans who wanted a “higher class name for their section” (64).
Of special interest to this writer are Sukle’s references to the Cambria and Somerset Counties’ coal and steel centers of Nanty Glo, Johnstown, and Windber. I have lived and worked in and near those towns most of my life and can relate to the hard working men and women who have struggled to survive there as they built America. We take pride in what we call our Industrial Heritage.
Finally, Sukle closes her dramatic literary creation with an epilogue that reads:
Before the winter of 1928 set in, the massive effort of the mine owners, aided by other industrialist, the state of Pennsylvania, and the federal government, did break the strike. After a year of severe hardship, their morale broken by the possibility of spending another winter in the barracks, the Russellton miners were defeated. A few moved away, but those that stayed slowly moved back to the company houses and worked for whatever wages were offered. The last holdouts were branded as organizers and either killed or removed. Throughout this process the Coal and Iron Police kept a tight rein on the company towns. The United Mine Workers did not attempt to organize Russellton again until 1933, after Roosevelt signed a law giving workers that right. This new fight was a bloody one for the union organizers. Many lives were lost, but then that’s another story. (253)
Perhaps the reason we know so little about that struggle today is because of the “let’s forget about the bad times” philosophy of our public school teachers and local historians. Graff simply says in his work, “In the late 1920’s a great strike was in effect, which had great temporary influence but little permanent change on [people of West Deer Township] (64).
Perhaps through the research of storytellers like myself and Ms. Sukle, future generations can read the accounts of the lives of our ancestors and make their own judgments.
The author of Bucket of Blood: The Ragman’s War, Rebecca S. Sukle, was born in New Jersey but moved to a farm in West Deer Township in 1952 at the age of nine. She has a degree from Thiel College, Greenville, PA, and now lives and works in Southwest Virginia.
Sukle, Rebecca S. Bucket of Blood: The Ragman’s War. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004.