From the Miner's Doublehouse: Archaeology and Landscape in a Pennsylvania Coal Company Town
By Karen Bescherer Metheny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006; 360 pp.; illustrations, index; cloth, $45.00.
In his classic country ballad, "Sixteen Tons," Tennessee Ernie Ford laments the life of a coal miner, explaining to his listeners that despite loading 16 tons of coal, a worker can expect nothing more than to grow "another day older and deeper in debt." Indeed, even death cannot be counted on to end a man's suffering as his soul is owed not to the merciful St. Peter, but instead to the avaricious company store. In Ford's eyes, a coal miner is destined to be "born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine," and then inevitably head underground for a lifetime of hard toil and little reward.
The image of the long-suffering coal miner is familiar to many Americans, even those who have never lived near a mine tipple or brushed coal dust off their clothes. Coal towns, especially the company towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are seen largely as unpleasant reminders of the nation's messy industrial past. Characterized by poverty, labor unrest, and deplorable working conditions, company towns represent the worst of the "Robber Baron" era, a legacy to be disparaged rather than commemorated.
However, in recent years scholars have begun to challenge such limited views of company town life, instead arguing for a more nuanced portrait of working class culture and society. Labor historians, in particular, have focused on the active resistance offered by workers to unfair company policies, including the taking up of arms in opposition to the hiring of private security forces such as the Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts agencies. Thus, rather than simply dismissing miners and their families as powerless victims, these new studies instead emphasize worker initiative and power. Using a variety of tactics, scholars argue, coal town residents succeeded in coming together to challenge and, at times, even improve their living and working conditions.
In her work, From the Miner's Doublehouse: Archaeology and Landscape in a Pennsylvania Coal Company Town, archeologist Karen Bescherer Metheny adds to our evolving understanding of everyday life in a coal town by looking at, in her words—
issues of worker agency and working-class behavior within the setting of the company town, with particular emphasis on the role of landscape, material culture, and social action in the creation of a living environment and in the negotiation of place within the corporate landscape.
Focusing on the physical and cultural landscapes of Helvetia, a small mining community in western Pennsylvania, Metheny presents the reader with a detailed case study covering the years 1891 to 1947. The text uses documentary sources and oral history and material culture analyses to "reconstruct living and working conditions" for the miners and their families.
A well-researched and thoughtful study, From the Miner's Doublehouse makes good use of the archeological evidence. By highlighting the ways in which residents shaped their physical surroundings, Metheny makes an argument for the degree of power available to Helvetia's working class. Literally sifting through the remains of the now-abandoned town, she reveals insights about the day-to-day life of residents.
Of particular note is Metheny's discussion of the doublehouse, or duplex, the company-owned residential structures where the majority of Helvetia's miners lived. While ostensibly corporate property, residents nonetheless took the initiative in molding and shaping the interior and the exterior of these buildings. Recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe frequently used their backyards for the cultivation of vegetables from the old country, while other residents built additions for more kitchen or storage space. By taking ownership of their homes, residents asserted control over their immediate surroundings, imprinting the coal town landscape with their own working-class values and traditions.
In writing From the Miner's Doublehouse, Metheny has added another layer to an increasingly complex portrait of working class life in coal company towns. After reading her rich study, one wonders how much more could have been discovered had the research been conducted 25 or 30 years earlier. Not only would more residents have been available for oral histories, but the town itself would have been able to "speak" in a more resonant voice. The quality of the interviews in the book is adequate, but the scope of experiences covered is quite narrow. Had more of the immigrants who called the town home been available, the depth of Metheny's analysis might have been far richer.
Regarding the archeological record, Metheny herself admits that the degree of material available for study was severely reduced by both a gradual deterioration of structures and a more sudden demolition of one half of the community, which occurred between 1990 and 1993. During those years, Helvetia's entire uptown district, once home to the town's immigrant residents, was strip-mined to a depth of 20 to 25 feet. The destruction limited the quantity of material available for study, an unfortunate circumstance given the capable analyses provided by Metheny on those areas of the town less damaged by the mining endeavor.
Despite these limitations, From the Miner's Doublehouse can be a valuable guide for historians, historic preservationists, and archeologists interested in the study and interpretation of industrial and post-industrial areas. The challenge of documenting the life of towns and cities where residents and businesses have largely departed is a very real one, and it demands a multi-disciplinary approach. When written records only reveal part of the past, oral history, material culture, and the built environment will of necessity become central to telling the story of vanished communities like Helvetia.
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers