Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is there a Mr. Smock?

In 1869, Samuel Smock, a German from New Jersey, was making his way toward California in search of gold, when he saw an opportunity to buy a small tract of land in Western Pennsylvania. He built a 2-story brick farmhouse, which is still there today, and began to sell the land and mineral rights to the Colonial Mining Company. Eventually, a railroad was built primarily to haul the mined coal and passengers to and from the area. The stop near Smock's home was called Smock Station. That's it. No battles with Indians, no heated land deals, not even a good romantic twist with someone named Shirley Smock or anything like that.

The Colonial Mining Company had several mines in the area, all with number designations. Smock had the Colonial #1 mine, and close by were Colonial #2 and Colonial #3. In the years to come, even the proper names of the towns were abbreviated. "Oh, she lives in Number 3", for example. These designations were eventually brought forth in a song that I wrote shortly after discovering girls, which was titled "I dated a girl from #3 but she treated me like #2."

When the Colonial mine needed to house workers, a blueprint for a two-story duplex home was drawn up and about 20 of these homes were built on what has been called "Smock Hill". I lived in one of those (or should I say one-half of one of those?). More homes were built on the "other side" of the Redstone Creek. Those of us who lived on the "Hill" must have spent months coming up with the name "the other side", or "new" town. Since there are five distinct architectural styles in Smock, someone from the National Registry of Historical (hysterical) Places decided to put Smock on the register. As one long time resident told me, "It doesn't put any money in our pockets."

And speaking of money, one of the more curious buildings in Smock was the store built down by the creek where you could buy anything from bacon to car tires. It was called the Union Supply Co. store. Yep, it was shorted to "the company store". My grandmother's sister, my aunt Katie, worked there and I remember visiting her when I was a child.

The miners would have their individual accounts credited with their bi-weekly wages at the company store. Then, as they purchased the items which were usually marked up between 15 and 20% higher than what you would see in neighboring Uniontown, the company store would simply debit your account. (And we think that the debit card is something new.) Miners had to pay to have their picks sharpened and shovels maintained. Even the oil in their "sunshine lamps" which were worn on their hard hats had to be bought. At the end of the two weeks, it was rare that you broke even. Many miners and their families went "into the red" which was allowed by the so-called benevolent company store. And every two weeks, the account would slide back and forth from the plus to the minus.

When vacations were planned, the company store representatives would talk to the miners and say things like "you don't have to travel on your vacation when you can stay at home and replace those old front steps on your house with new ones and OH YES, we have a sale this week on lumber." And right into the red you would go.

Some brave folk bought major appliances from the department stores in Uniontown and had them delivered in the middle of the night. If the neighbors ratted to the company store that you had bought an item elsewhere, then it was not uncommon for you to receive a letter from the mine saying that the section where you worked was flooded and that you should not report to work for a week. And in the meantime, you can enjoy that new Kenmore stove that you bought in Uniontown last week.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford popularized the song "Sixteen Tons", the words "I owe my soul to the company store" were the absolute truth for those of us who lived in Smock.

Sometimes it seemed like souls were bought and sold in that green painted store down by the creek. But they always cost more there than in Uniontown.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day and such

First, an explanation. "Slack" is shale or slate that cannot burn. It also means not tight or "loose". Moving on.

Smock was built on two hills with a valley in between cut by the Redstone Creek, a pleasant orange colored waterway, that smelled like rotten eggs in the summer.

On every holiday, I would watch the old men come out and hang their flags on poles, banisters, or from the downspout over the front porch roof. Those flags were placed there with great care and respect. Instead of thinking about my own military history, I think of theirs and remember a song written by a Scottish man named Eric Bogle after he'd move to Australia for a few years. What you need to know is that they have a sort of Memorial Day in April.

Now every April I sit on my porch and watch the parade pass before me
And I see my old comrades how proudly they march, renewing old dreams of past glory
The old men march by me all bent, stiff and sore, those proud wounded heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "what are they marching for"? and I ask myself the same question
And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the old men still answer the call
But year after year, more men disappear......soon no one will march there at all.

So when you hang your flag on the downspout this weekend, please remember and thank those who have gone before us that made the ultimate sacrifice.

Go ahead, they'll hear you.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My very first "blog"

On Saturday nights, many people hear Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion talk about the fictitious Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, "...the land that time forgot...". Smock is the land that time forgot and wants to keep it that way. We are 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, the land of the Steelers and right now, the Penguins, a flightless bird and a hockey team. In the weeks ahead, I will tell some secrets that should have stayed that way, but I'll do my best to assign fake names to protect the guilty.

Being from Smock, I thought a blog was a fairly large creature made of raspberry jelly that ate people and cars. But, people from Smock do not care much whether they're right or wrong. They are a town looking for an audience, a cold beer, and a good place to plant a tree stand for this fall's deer hunting season.

This week's blog is brought to you by Mike and Mary's Store. If you can't find it at Mike and Mary's, then you probably can do without it.