Life of miners in America

Their dangerous work did not prevent the coal miners from enjoying fable-telling weekends

The below article appeared in Greek Catholic Union Magazine, October 1989 and was authored by Michael Roman, K.S.G.G.
This is used with permission from GCU. Any other use without prior permission from GCU is strictly prohibited.

Among the founders and pioneers of the Greek Catholic Union were many coal miners who also helped in organizing our Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes in America.

The work of our early coal miners at the end of the nineteenth century and the early decade of the twentieth century was full of many dangers, fatal accidents, and lifelong disabling injuries.

There appeared in the 1908 Greek Catholic Union Calendar a very descriptive Carpatho-Rusyn article - printed in the Cyrillic alphabet - on the life of the miners and the dangers they face in digging coal. The author of the original English article was John Mitchell, the first president of the miners union. He said that he wrote the article because the American public knew very little about the tragic and fatal accidents occurring in the mines, and the terrible working conditions of the coal miners.

Mitchell used the following paragraphs for the purpose of enlightening the public:

"I am referring to the half-million men and boys who are working underground for us by day an night, separated and hidden from their fellow men. Rarely do these men see the sun during their working week. They labor very hard in permanent darkness with just a little light coming from their miners' lamps, under often falling rock, coal, slate and sand. It certainly is not pleasant to work under such dangerous conditions.

"They dig and shovel coal, while facing many dangers to their lives. Hardly a day passes by without death or disablement for life occurring. falling boulder, a huge lump of coal or slate rarely misses a coal miner. Then too, he has to battle against suffocating, unhealthy and sometimes fatal gases."

As mentioned above, the larger part of the coal miners week was full of dangers and escapes from disabling and fatal accidents. No wonder they looked forward to the weekends when they played card games such as "Fil'ko", "Jack" and "Durak", "Dunce".

Card Games Were Followed By Story-Telling

On Friday or Saturday evenings, about 50 or 60 years ago, a group of Conemaugh, PA coal miners gathered under a huge oak tree above main street to play card games. The Headrick Spring was nearby and the writer of this article brought the cool refreshing water to the card players. At first he would watch them play and listen to the coal miners talk about their hazardous occupation. Later, he also played "Fil'ko" or "Durak" with them, mostly as a substitute.

At the conclusion of the card game, which usually ended with the players wearing their miners' lamps, they talked about their youthful days in the Old Country, and then the story-tellers, led by Uncle Afton, related the fables they heard from their fathers and grandfathers. It is too bad there were not tape recorders available at that time.

The story tellers always ended their fables with moral lessons. Some of the fables I found later - in the late 1920's - in the Citanka-Reader compiled by Father Joseph P. Hanulya which was printed in Cyrillic. Maybe one of the story tellers - a self-educated individual - had quoted from Father Hanulya's Reader. The following are some of the fables I still remember although more than 60 years have passed since those weekend miners' card games


The burgess of a town wanted to discover who had stolen some money from a villager. He gathered all the villagers in his hut and extinguished the fire. He placed a soot covered black rooster on the table and requested all to file past the rooster, gently touch him with one hand, and then return to their places. The burgess emphasized that when the actual thief would place his hand upon the rooster, the latter would crow loudly.

After all the villagers had filed past the rooster, the burgess asked them if they had all touched the rooster with their hand.

"Yes, we did", came the reply.

"That is strange the rooster did not crow," said the burgess. "There must be something wrong here. Let's have a fire and some light."

After the fire started to glow, the burgess requested all the villagers to show their hands. All showed their hands and with one exception each villager had a clean hand and a soot covered hand because the burgess had rubbed the rooster with some soot.

Both hands of one young villager were clean. The burgess approached him and announced "This one is the thief!" and had him arrested.

Moral: Do not steal!


It was a very hot summer day and little Stephen was walking through a field. He was sweating profusely and a strong thirst had overcome him. He finally came to a forest spring, from which water was flowing freely.

Although he was often told not to drink cold water when he was overheated, he forgot about this warning and quenched his thirst as quickly as possible

Almost immediately he started to tremble, and when he reached home he became very feverish and went to bed.

"Oh, oh!" he moaned, "who would have thought that such clear, refreshing spring water would have caused me to be so sick."

His father overheard Stephen and told him: "It was not the water which caused you to be sick, it was your own lack of concern for your health."

Moral: Don't blame someone else for the wrong thing you have done.


A certain man had a craving for fruit. He bought one apple and ate it. Still his craving was not satisfied. He bought a second one which soon found its way to the man's stomach. But the craving still remained.

Whereupon he purchased a third apple and ate it, and he still had a craving for fruit.

Finally he bought a pear and after he had eaten it his craving had disappeared.

The man smacked himself on the head and said: "How stupid I was to eat three apples without satisfying my craving. Why didn't I eat the pear first?"

Moral: It often happens in this world that some undeserving people get recognition and praise.


A sailor was talking about the dangers of a seafaring life. A businessman heard him talk and asked the sailor:

"How did your father die?"

"By drowning," came the reply.

"And what was the cause of your grandfather's death?"

"My grandfather died by drowning," replied the sailor.

The business man then with great emphasis said:

"And you are not afraid to travel by the sea!"

The sailor did not answer this question. Instead, he started to query the businessman:

"Will you tell me where your father died?"

"In bed," came the reply.

"And what about your grandfather's death?"

"He died in bed," answered the businessman.

"Then how can you go to bed without any fear?" the sailor asked.

Moral: Often times we are doing the same thing which we condemn in others.


Ivan and Theodore were going into the woods to chop down and bring some dry branches. They brought with them a hatchet and a sled on which to haul the branches.

Twelve year old Ivan was chopping down the branches, while seven year old Theodore was piling them on the sled.

Seeing that the sled could hold no more, they tied up the branches and were about to start the journey homeward when from behind a tree appeared a large grey wolf. He was larger than a domestic dog, holding his head and ears erect.

Ivan did not loose his senses. He told Theodore to hide under the sled while he grabbed his hatchet and calmly waited for the wolf to make his move.

When the wolf approached his sled and began smelling around Theodore, Ivan with all his strength swung the hatchet upon the wolf's head and the latter immediately fell down unconscious.

The brave lad, in this manner, saved his young brother and himself from death.

Moral: Do not lose your senses in the face of danger, but be calm and cool!


Peter, the small son of a village blacksmith, was sitting under a tree in a large forest, crying and praying loudly. A wealthy gentleman who was in the woods at that time approached the lad and asked:

"Son, why are you crying?"

With sobs Peter replied:

"My mother is very sick and my Dad asked me to go to the village for some medicine but somewhere along the way I lost the small bag with the money."

The rich gentleman pulled out his pouch silk bag with some gold coins and, turning to Peter said:

"Maybe this is your bag?"

"Oh, no, answered Peter, "mine was not as pretty, nor did it contain so much money."

"Then maybe this one is yours," said the gentleman, and showed Peter a purse-bag made of animal skin.

"Oh, yes, that is mine," shouted Peter joyfully.

The well dressed gentleman gave Peter the lost bag and while doing so said:

"Since you were honest and prayed to God so fervently, I am giving you mine with all the money it contains. God bless you, son!"

Moral: Although at times in this world it does not seem so, honesty does pay.


Two squirrels found a walnut and began arguing between themselves.

"The nut is mine," said the first squirrel. "It was I who saw it first."

"No, no," screamed the other squirrel. "I picked the nut from the ground."

A fox who was nearby heard the argument and approached the combatants and said she would settle the argument. She stood between the two squirrels and bit the walnut in half and then made her decision.

"This half belongs to the squirrel that saw the nut first; the second half belongs to the one who piked it up; and the kernel - the meaty part of the nut - is mine for settling the argument between you two."

Having announced her decision, the fox gave the disputants the empty half shells, and placed the meaty kernel in her mouth and departed.

Moral: Often times the third party benefits when two are fighting.

May God grant eternal memory and blissful repose to the departed coal miners from whom I first heard the fables of the Carpatho-Rusyn people!

The pioneer miners certainly played a prominent role in the development of the GCU and Rusyn parishes.

Return To Table of Contents