Pickin' Coal
by Joe Mosconi


As all of you know we were raised in a small coal mining village on the banks of the Ohio river.  The only road that entered our town was Route Seven. There was a coal mine on both ends of the town so it didn't make any difference which way the wind blew - it was still smoky and soot-filled.  You didn't know whether the day was cloudy or sunny. The ladies had trouble hanging out the laundry because of the conditions.  The clothes would get dirty before they had a chance to dry.

Summertime was supposed to be fun and games, no school or homework (not that I did much of that anyway). Summertime meant picking coal.  You had to pick enough coal to last through the winter months.  Initially, only Pat and Nick had to go up and pick coal, and my job was to take them lunch and drinks. So around noon mom would call and I would get on our bicycle (we only had one for 3 boys) and pedal to the mine.  It was about 2 miles and uphill all the way.  Mom would send up a quart of cool-aid with the sandwiches for Pat and Nick.  Now remember it was hot and it was uphill, so I would sip on the cool-aid, and by the time I got to Pat and Nick about half was gone.  Initially I told them that was all mom sent, but they could see the red or green on my lips. After complaining to mom about my drinking their cool-aid, mom would send a quart for them and a pint for me.  Aren't mom's smart and clever.

Well, as time went by my fun and games came to an end and I also had to go help with the picking. Let me tell you this coal picking was very competitive . Every family with an able-bodied son and/or a lot of daughters were up there picking coal.  It was not unusual to see 15 or 20 kids all fighting for position when the coal dumping vehicle came up. Some days it was pretty busy and other days very little.  On the “very little” days, we would try to find a cool spot and just relax. On busy days you didn't have time.  You were picking or bailing.

Now I know you don't know what "bailing" means.  There are two ways to pick the coal. Some used a sack and others preferred to "bail". If you used a sack it had to have a stiff liner so it would stay open while you picked thus you could use both hands.  If it wasn't lined you could only pick about half of what the others did. Now I preferred to "bail".  What this is - you pick out an area against a hill and you would fence off "your" area.  You would fence in the area by putting slate around it so the coal would not roll into other areas selected by your competitors.  Now you’ve heard the expression "honor among thieves".  Well, once you established an area, no one would trespass or try to get any of your coal. Also, once you started picking and throwing other pickers had to be careful or they would get hit.  There were a few minor fights from being hit but nothing serious. When the three of us picked, we had a slight advantage.  I took the top part of the dump, Nick the middle, and Pat the bottom.  In this manner we controlled the hill fairly well.

Now it took about 26 to 30 bushels of coal to make a load.  When you got that, you would hire a truck for 50 cents to haul it home. We considered that a ton of coal and we needed about 30 to 33 tons to get through the winter. Now if it was a slow day and you didn't get a truck load, someone had to stay with the coal you had or else some one would steal it.  Being the youngest I normally got to go home and sleep in my own bed. Now remember what they dumped was not pure coal.  It was a combination of slate, good coal, and bone coal. Bone coal was useable but it would not burn and heat properly so you would avoid that.  It would normally take about two months to gather in enough coal for the winter. When we got enough, some would continue to pick and then sell the coal for two dollars.  However, you had to pay the truck driver so if you had to work two days for a load you made 75 cents a day. Not what you would call good pay.

The best part of the whole summer was going down to the Ohio river after working all day to clean up and have some sun.  It must have been a sight to behold, 10 to 15 guys bare and washing. We never bothered to put on a swimming suit.  Well those days were good days.  We would pick in the sun, cold, and rain because we knew we were helping our families out.  Growing up poor wasn't all that bad.

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