Editor’s note: Each week “Miner Recollections” will spotlight Georges Creek coal heritage, and the sacrifices made by those who mined it, by drawing upon biographical sketches, family narratives and historical research.
During the 1950s and 1960s, most boys attended classes during the school year and as teenagers, they may have had an after-school job to earn a few bucks. Some bagged groceries and stocked shelves in a grocery store; others had early morning paper routes and came to school bleary-eyed, cat-napping as soon as they took their seat in homeroom. In the summer, some cut their neighbor’s grass for pocket change to play the pinball machines at Maude Kroll’s store or take their favorite gal to the T&S for a coke. Much of their time was spent playing ball in a pickup game or riding a bicycle over potholed streets. Summers were care-free, knowing that eventually fall would arrive — when they must answer the school bell, head to college, learn a trade or perhaps enlist in the military.
Looking for the perspective of a teenager in today’s world, I talked with Jarrett Pennington. Jarrett will be a senior at Mountain Ridge High School this year. I asked him what his favorite pastime is, and, as I suspected, he said soccer. I asked how he would feel if he could never play soccer again. He replied, “I would be in a bad mood, my spirits would be very low, it would be heartbreaking.” I asked him about his dreams and aspirations, and he said he wanted to go to college to be a civil engineer. Then I asked, “How would you feel if you were the most motivated and intelligent boy in your class (he probably is) and knew you could never go to college or be anything other than a coal miner?” He responded insightfully, “I would lose all motivation to do better because I know I have a limit.” Jarrett works three days a week at the Frostburg Freeze. I asked him whose idea it was for him to get a job and how he feels about working. He said it was his mom’s idea, but he doesn’t mind “because I knew it was time.”
In the early 1900s, for a boy of 14, schooling was usually finished and childhood thoughts and activities were left behind; balls, bats and bikes (if they were fortunate enough to have them) were traded for picks, shovels and carbide lamps; a boy became a man. Their workday, usually 10 hours long, started before daybreak and ended after dusk. They returned home dirty, hungry and too exhausted for fun. The cycle of “work, eat, sleep” was repeated daily until Saturday afternoon. After working half a day on Saturday, they were free until Monday morning, when the drudgery began again.
This was the life of Harmon John Frenzel and John Darr, one born in 1896 and the other in 1897; by 1910, both were digging coal in the dark recesses of the Georges Creek mountains.
Harmon J. was the son of Henry and Wilhelmina Rosina “Minnie” (Shuhart) Frenzel. His childhood was spent on Dogwood Flat in Moscow, where he grew up with four sisters (Pauline, Bertha, Anna Dorathea and Frieda) and two brothers (George and Raymond.) His mother, Minnie, certainly had her hands full raising a houseful of energetic little ones. In 1900, Minnie is listed on the census records as head of the household with a 1-month-old baby and other children from age 4 to 19. Thankfully, the older girls were able to care for the younger ones and help with the myriad of family chores.
In 1900, a strike lasting from April 7 until Aug. 7 depleted the savings of many families in the Georges Creek coal field. It is possible that Henry Frenzel, Minnie’s husband, was one of those men who had to find work in another state; he was back with his family in the home on Dogwood Flat by 1910, working as a coal miner. Sons George,19; Raymond, 16; and Harmon, 14; were also employed as coal diggers.
Harmon’s life as a miner lasted for only two years. He died Nov. 1, 1912, after being injured by a rock fall in one of the mines at Franklin. The rock struck him on the back, and although he was a young man with a strong physical build, the injury made recovery hopeless. The funeral for the 16-year-old was held from the Barton Presbyterian Church with the Rev. Stanley H. Jewell officiating. Interment was in the Moscow Cemetery, now called Laurel Hill.
John Darr Jr., born in March 1897, was the son of John W. Darr and his wife Eliza (Jones) Darr. Young John spent his early years in Romney, West Virginia, watching his father shoe horses and twist hot metal into useful tools. He was one of six children; he looked up to his older siblings, Bertha and William, and looked out for his younger ones, Marie, Thelma and Samuel.
By 1910, the family had relocated to Westernport. Along with a new address came a new occupation for Mr. Darr; he had left the hot forge and anvil behind and found work in the cool, dark confines of a coal mine. His son, 15-year-old William, worked by his side. Young John Jr. watched his father and brother and contemplated the vast differences between coal mining and blacksmithing; he came to the conclusion that “smithing” seemed safer, warmer and brighter. Being 13, he knew he was just one year away from becoming a wage earner. He feared that coal mining was his future, and his fears were well-founded.
On June 10, 1913, three months after his 16th birthday, John Jr. was at work in Washington Mine No. 5 of the Piedmont and Georges Creek Coal Co. near Franklin. He was working with Raymond Wilson loading a car when a large piece of roof coal weighing about 2 tons gave way, pinioning them beneath. Other miners came running to the site; on seeing the huge chunk of coal, they procured a railroad jack to lift the tonnage and pulled the young men from beneath it. Once the debris had been removed, they knew that John Darr had been killed outright. Raymond Wilson was still alive, but his back had been broken; he was transported to the hospital in Keyser, West Virginia.
John Darr Sr. continued to work until he was 72 years and 10 months old, digging coal for little reward. On March 6, 1930, he collapsed on his way home from working in Ross Mine and was found dead on Westernport Hill by Mrs. John Wilson. Philos Cemetery in Westernport is the final resting place for John Sr., his wife, Eliza, and several of their children; a burial site for John Jr. has not been discovered, so it is assumed that John Jr. is among them.
The opportunities for teenagers Harmon Frenzel and John Darr, two young men gone too soon, were vastly different from the teens of the mid-1900s, and from today’s Mountain Ridge senior Jarrett Pennington. Perhaps a high school diploma and a part-time job would have allowed Harmon and John to display their athletic abilities and enable them to become successful civil engineers.