First Interview, May 29, 1997:Harvan Home | Photo Exhibition | Oral History | Historical Essay | Credits
Childood, Youth and Family, 1921-1941
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Dublin: This is Tom Dublin and it's the twenty-ninth of May, and I'm with George Harvan at 307 West Patterson Street in Lansford, [Pennsylvania] beginning a series of interviews about his growing up, his coming to photography, and his photographic career over the years. So, George, why don't you tell me when you were born?
Harvan: At that time.
Dublin: Tell me a little bit about your father.
Harvan: My father's name was Andrew. He came to this country right after World War I. He was married at the time. He came with my mother, and my three older sisters who were born in Czechoslovakia. When they came to this country, a lot of the immigrants migrated to the coal fields to find work. He came to Lansford and started to work in the coal mines. He worked at the Greenwood Colliery right from the beginning, Number Ten Colliery.
Dublin:And where in Czechoslovakia had he come from?
Harvan:There was a small town call Kudloce, K-u-d-l-o-c-e, something like that. It's near Bratislava. It's close to the Austria-Hungary border. They had more ties to that region than to the East Czechs, you know, to the Moravians or the Bohemians. In fact, a lot of the people in Lansford came from that village. I guess it was familiarity, so that when they came here they came from that village, almost to another village.
Harvan: Oh yes, the first time.
Dublin: The whole group of five.
Harvan: No, no, I wasn't born yet.
Dublin: The rest of the family.
Harvan: Oh, I'm sorry. The five, yeah, the five. When they came here, my father started to work in the mines. In 1920, he was in a very violent explosion. His buddy was killed. They were firing a shot, I guess it was the manway they were firing from, and his buddy was out in the chute, exposed more to the blast, and my father was behind some timbers. His buddy was just blown away. My father was so badly injured, they never thought he would live. He had thousands and thousands of black and blue marks all through his body, just from the force of the blast. It was like a tattoo, where the coal dirt had blown into his skin. He never liked the mines after that. He didn't feel comfortable in there. The accident happened in '20. And in 1921 I was born, and the following year he decided he didn't want to mine anymore, so he packed up the whole familywife, four kids, I was one year oldand went back to Czechoslovakia. He had saved a few bucks from mining and through compensation from being injured, with the little bit he had, he always wanted to own a little inn. So we went back to Czechoslovakia, and he had a chance to buy a little inn, and he bought it.
Dublin: He bought the inn in the town that you had mentioned, where he had come from?
Harvan: Yes, in that area. It was in that same area. And he was having a grand time. They would have dances there, and my mother was doing all the work, cooking, and the kids were helping. Julia, at the time, was probably about ten, eleven. Margaret was about eight. Now Rose was about four. There was about three years difference between the three girls. They remembered the time very well. They remembered Czechoslovakia and they often commented that I was a big kid. I was pretty big when I was born, and they said I would plonk down in the middle of one of those dirt streets in Czechoslovakia and they couldn't get me up. So, after being there about a year, my mother didn't like it. My mother didn't like it at all. She probably didn't like all that was going on in the inn and all the work.
Dublin: What was your mother's name again?
Harvan: My mother's name was Anna
Sabol. Her father had come to this country and he worked down south
somewhere. It was in North Carolina, and he earned a lot of money. With
the money saved, he decided to go back to Czechoslovakia and buy a house
and start a business. But when he got off the train and was walking
down a road, he was waylaid and was murderedwhen he still had the
money on his person.
Dublin: So you went back and forth across the Atlantic twice before you were about one and a half.
Harvan: Two years old, yeah. In fact, we still have the trunk up in the attic that they used to move all their clothes from Czechoslovakia to here. It was a big steamer trunk. But you can imagine, not having that much money and all that, and then the passage must have been kind of difficult in those days, with four kids, six people.
Dublin: So he must have saved a fair amount of money to be able to afford the return passage and then to buy this inn?
Harvan: Yeah, sure, he must have. But, a lot of those people were very thrifty. They did save money and they lived simplyhow they did it, I don't know. But they did make two passages across the Atlantic. I don't know much about it because I was too young. But my sisters didRosewho became a photographer often mentioned how the Captain liked her, and they'd get a lot of favors. She got extra food.
Dublin: Do you think the family went over and back in steerage or do you think you went in a cabin?
Harvan: I don't know. It's hard to say.
Dublin: One thing that's interesting about this story is that it sounds like, from your description of your father's accident, that he was already a miner, which would seem to me to be unusual.
Harvan: No, he wasn't a miner. The fellow who was killed was a minerhe was his buddy. He was his helper. And I guess the miners took more chances. Not more chances, but they expose themselves to more dangers, than his buddy, he was probably an older man. My father was able to get behind a timber. It probably saved his life. He didn't get the full force of the blast.
Dublin: Do you sense that he was recovering for quite a while after that accident?
Harvan: Yes, he did recover a long time. I imagine, in those days, they didn't have that much unemployment money coming in, you did it all on your own.
Dublin: It sounds like you think the company made some sort of payment to him as compensation.
Harvan: I think so. They did.
Dublin: Now when the family came back to Lansford, did he return to the mines?
Harvan: Yes, he did. He came back and started to work in Number 10, and eventually became a contract miner, too. He worked there until he retired when he was sixty-five. Of course he had black lung real bad then, too. But he worked through the years, through all the good and bad times. He never did anything else. That's all he did was contract mining. My father had two other brothers in Czechoslovakia at the timeMike and JohnMike was next to him, and John was the youngest in the family. He brought both of them over to this country. They married here. They lived with my parents until they got married. My mother took care of themthey boarded with her. They also worked in the mines, and raised families here in Lansford. Mike had about five or six kids, and John had four boysno girls.
Dublin: Do you have memories of yourself with these uncles when you were young?
Harvan: Oh, sure. In fact, John used to always cut my hair. Well, when you visit from one mining family to another, the first thing they do when you come into a house is they give you a shot, a shot of whiskey. Also, my father made wine, and he'd bring some wine for guests. This one particular time I remember my father gave John a little bit too much to drink, and then he started cutting my hair. Well, he made a mess of it. The next day, he remembered he had to cut my hair, and he come down. My mother said, "Why are you here John"" He said, "Well, I have to cut George's hair." "You cut it yesterday." Well, in the meantime, after he cut my hair, my mother had to recut it and had to take it all off! John was the family barber. Mike was a little different than my father or John. He was very quiet, never spoke very much. He almost always seemed like he was mad at somebody. But it was just his wayhe was all right.
Dublin: So what was your father like as you were growing up?
Harvan: Well, he never much bothered with the rest of us. He stayed more or less to himself. He did try to educate himself. He read a lot, and he would buy different periodicals. Of course, they also had the Slovak books. He did learn how to speak English. In time, he also learned how to write. All on his own. My mother never really learned how to write. Toward the latter part of her life, she would try to read the daily paper, but she never really learned how to write. But in time she could pick out things in the newspaper. When I was growing up, my parents only spoke Slovak among themselves. Margaret was more of the home type of personshe spoke Slovak very well. Julia never did. When she got out of high school, she went to New York and she never came back to live in Lansford. My parents never encouraged us to speak Slovak at home. They felt we should speak English and learn the customs hereand get an education here. So they encouraged us to speak English in home. But when they talked among themselves, it was always in Slovak.
Dublin: And what church did they and you attend?
"Rose, what would have happened to us if we would have stayed in Europe and never came back to the United States?" She said, "George, Hitler would have killed your father, or somebody would have killed him because he was always finding something to rebel about." So when it came time tothe church had the practice then to take money off your pay-check for church duesand my father didn't like that. He didn't like that at all. He thought that was something that they shouldn't do. So he had it out with the priest, and the priest insisted on taking it out, so my father said, well, I'm not going to go to church. So what the priest was saying was that if you're a member of the congregation, we're going to do this. We're going to take this out of your pay.
Dublin: And so he said, "You're not."
Harvan: That's right. This kind of devastated my mother, because she wanted to go to church. And she would go. After a while, I don't think he paid dues into the church.
Dublin: So in some ways, she might have felt not welcome there because he was making this stand.
Dublin: And were you confirmed?
Harvan: Yes, we had to go after school. In fact, Sister Methodiaremember her? She was the one that taught me. She taught everybody in town.
Dublin: Was she the principal of this school, or just a teacher there?
Harvan: She was just a teacher. But it seemed everybody my age, who went to St. Michael's, was taught by her. She lived to be almost a hundred.
Dublin: But she just taught you in the after-school program?
Harvan: Right, yeah, it was after school. And that's why we were never reallylike some Catholic families who observed a lot of things, the ceremonies of the church and things like that. My fatherhe just broke away. I don't know if he ever went to church again. I don't remember him ever going to church.
Dublin: So when you were confirmed, your mother would have been there.
Harvan: Yeah, she was there. They had a priest by the name of Father Lisitskywho was very strict, he was almost dictatorial in his dealings with the people, and my father didn't get along, that's all.
Dublin: So your father resented that kind of authority.
Harvan: That's right. And that's just the type of a person he was.
Dublin: He probably felt he had enough of that kind of authority from the mine already.
Harvan: Yeah, either that, or maybe just his make-up, too. He was a strong union man. He believed in the union very strongly, but other than that, he never went out... trying to organize people or things like that. But I think he realized that the union was a good thing for the minersin those days, it was a good thing.
Dublin: So did you ever go into a mine when you were very young? Did he take you in? What's your first memory of being in a mine?
Harvan: Actually, the first memory of me being in a mine was after I come out of the service, and I went down into the mines to take pictures for the coal company. The only other experience I had in the mine was when I was growing up ten, eleven years oldI did have to pick coal and fill the coal bin up. We would go up Courtwright Street, all the way up to the top of the mountain, practically where Philip Ginter discovered coal, where the vein outcropped on Sharp Mountain.
Dublin: Now is that actually in Summit Hill?
Harvan: Well, I don't think it was in Summit Hill. It was just here southeast of Lansford Sharp Mountain. There was places where a small vein would outcrop, and if you could find these veins, you could mine the coal. Pig it out, crack it, put it in bags, put it in a wheelbarrow, haul it down Courtwright Street, and dump it into the coal bin of this house, right here where we're sitting nowright underneath us.
Dublin: So how old would you have been when you did that?
Harvan: Well, I was in high school. I was twelve years old, thirteen maybe. My job was to fill the coal bin every summer. I mean, it had to be filled right up the rafters. I couldn't get another piece of coal in there.
Dublin: And did your family basically get all of its coal that way?
Harvan: Yeah, that's how we heated our house, and I had to make sure there was no slate along with the coalit had to be all coal. If ever a piece of slate got caught in the grates and they couldn't rake the stove, I would get it! But I was pretty good at that. I knew what slate was, and what coal was.
Dublin: Did your sisters ever do that, too, or just you, as the boy?
Harvan: They picked coal, but they didn't go up to the veins. They went down to the R.R. track, where the coal would spill off the trains, and they would pick it up there. My buddy was a fellow by the name of Bill "Bozo" Krycirik, from down here on Snyder Avenue, about four years older than I was. He was kind of a physical specimen. He had big musclesa health nut. The first thing he did in the morning, in the summer, was to take his shirt off. He had this coal hole up on the mountain, and he would let me work along the fringes of it. We were down about twelve or fifteen feet on the pitch. He would carry the coal up for me, and I would crack it and put it in bins. He kinda took me under his wing, and I was his buddy. He would get two or three times more coal than I would, since he was bigger, strong, and knew more about it. He would also sell coal. After he would fill his coal bin, then he would contact the people in the neighborhood. Some of the widowshe would sell a bag of coal for a quarter.
Dublin: So would you normally take burlap bags up there?
Harvan: Yes, we used burlap bags to hold the coal. We would have screens, hammers, picks, etc. and everything elseto crack and screen the coal. We would never take the real small coal, it would go through the screens. We only took what mostly was the size of a chestnut type, or an egg coal. That's all we would takethe rest we would leave up there.
Dublin: And you had some sort of a hammer? A sledge?
Harvan: Oh yeah, we had big hammers for the big lumps. And then the smaller hammer to break it down to the smaller pieces. There was no sense in taking the fine coal you couldn't burn itso we left it up there. We only took what we could use. It was good coal because it came right out of a veinsolid vein.
Dublin: So you did this in the summer?
Dublin: And about how much time in the summer would it take to eventually do this?
Harvan: It was every morning all through high school. My fatherhe was kinda strict. If it was raining and I couldn't get up to screen the coal, when it was too bad he would have other things for you to do. When huckleberry season came in, and the blackberry season come inhe handed you the can and he said, "Look, go pick huckleberries." So, all summer, every morning was taken up, either with coal, huckleberries, or blackberries, or later on, mushrooms, or whatever it was. But you had to go out. You couldn't sit around. You couldn't sleep until ten or eleven o'clock, that's for sure.
Dublin: And would you say that was probably common for other kids your age? Other families?
Harvan: I would say so. As I think about it, though, some of the other kids didn't have it quite so tough. I think there was a little more leeway in certain things they did. But, I guess it didn't hurt.
Dublin: It certainly got you a bit familiar with mining, in a way.
Harvan: Yeah, and the discipline, too. As far as you had to do certain things, and that was it. But then my afternoons were my own. I would come home after dumping the coal, and my mother would pour water into an old wooden tub where I would wash. We had a bathroom at the time, she would still pour water into the old tub. I was about ten or eleven when we had a bathroom put in upstairs. Up until that time we had an outhouse in the back, we had running water but we didn't have a bathroomwhen my father remodeled the house and he put in the bathroom.
Dublin: Now this is a two-family house?
Harvan: Yes, it is. We lived here, right where we're sitting. This home, at one time, was a single house. And it's a very old house, because all of the beams underneath, there's no nails in them. They're all mortised. It belonged to a Frederick Evans, who was an engineer for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. And at that time, on the 1870 map, there's only one house in this block, and that's this house. Later on, it was made into two houses. When my father bought the property, he made it into two houses and then when he was remodeling and all that, he put a bathroom in the other side, and they rented the other side out. That's where I live nowon the other side.
Dublin: And this half-house has how many bedrooms upstairs?
Harvan: Three bedrooms and a bath. Three small bedrooms and a bath, and an attic. And, of course, the basement. And the same thing on the other side. The three girls shared one bedroom and my mother and father shared one, and I hadbeing the boyhad the other. I knew a lot of times, if my mother would be sick or something like that, my father would use a bed next to me, we had two beds therein the same bedroom. Julia graduated from Lansford High Margaret also graduated, and so did Rose, and I graduated. And just as soon as Julia graduated, she went off to New Yorkwent to Greenwich Village and never came backstayed there until she died.
Dublin: What kind of work did she do in New York when she first went there?
Harvan: Oh, she was a pretty good artist. She had an artistic bentthere was something thereshe worked in factories and places where she hand-painted ties and scarves. She did some design work. Then she married a fellow by the name of Marvel, Frankie Marvel, and they had three children. He practically drank himself to deathdied an alcoholic. She lived alone, and when she was sixty-seven, one of her friends found her, she had died in her little apartment in Greenwich village. It wasn't much. One summer I went down to see her, and I couldn't believe the small place she was living in. I tried to get her to come back to Lansford, but there was no way she was going to come back here. She got so used to the city and the way people lived and she was not ready to come back herenever did. The only time she came back was when I buried her here.
Dublin: What about your second sister?
. . . When Rose was in high school, she also had to work. So, during the evenings and during her vacations junior and senior yearshe got a job with Dr. Breslin hereat Lansford with our dentist. He kind of liked her, so he said, "You can be my assistant. If I need something, you can hand it to me." Things of that nature. She did that for a couple years, but as soon as she got out of high school, she also wasn't going to stay in town, and left.
She didn't want . . . my parents to know where she wasshe was just nineteen or twenty years old. She would write a personal letter like she was writing it from New York City, and send it to somebody in New York. She would say, "I'm doing this in New York." It wasn't very often, but every now and then, my mother would mention getting a letter from Rose.
Then they came back, and that documentary was called "Lights Out in Europe." It's still available, I imagine, someplace. Then the following year, that was 1941, just before we got into the war, they decided to do a movie in Mexico, and I think you saw some of those pictures. That film was called "A Forgotten Village," written by John Steinbeck. John Steinbeck also wrote the script. Rose did the still pictures, and Herbert and his crew did the documentary film, which is still available. I have a couple books here.
When we were growing up, we had a lot of big families around here a lot of ethnic families, mostly Slovak, Polish. And I would go up on Ridge Street and we'd play. At night we'd play all kinds of games or just hang out. And we used to play right in front of the house where Alexander Campbell lived and John Jones lived. Alexander Campbell was the one who was hanged for the murder of John Jones, and we actually played right in front of their homes, because they lived across the street from each other. We were living in this kind of historical place, as far as the Molly Maguires were concerned, and we never even knew it. Like I said, we had a lot of big families around here. And we all had nicknames. Everybody had a nickname. I was called Joe-Joe, I was called Sheriff. And we had Dula, and Moony, and Tilly, and Bunser. They're practically all gone now.
Dublin: Did a lot of those kids go into the mines?
Harvan: No, because we were about the age whenwe got out of high schoolthe mines were not hiringbut then the war broke out, and you went into the service. If you were in the mines and were drafted, you got your job when you came back. They gave your job back. I never went into the mines because when I got out of high school, I couldn't get a job in the mines. I couldn't get a job anywhere. Every week I would go downRoosevelt had initiated the Civilian Conservation Corpsa program set up for youth to get them off the streets and put them into camps to do some goodplanting trees or building roads or whatever. Every week we had to go down to Jim Thorpe, which was Mauch Chunk at the time, and sign up. If you missed a week, they would take you off the list. So you had to bum a ride down there, or get a ride somehow, and sign up every week.
Dublin: And this was just a waiting list?
Harvan: A waiting list, yeah. They would try to take the people who they felt were more deserving, so when your turn came up, they called you and I signed up for a six month period. I spent two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, that was my employment. We got a dollar a day, thirty dollars a month. You kept eight dollars and twenty-two dollars went home. And that twenty-two dollars was a big help to my parents at home. You're talking '38, '39well, '39 . . .
Dublin: Your father wasn't working much in the mines?
Harvan: No. No one was. They were just making it. The mines at that time were pretty well finished. The only thing that really rejuvenated mining was the second World War. That was just an interlude, and the rest was just a carry-over from the '39s and '40s into the '47s, or '55s or '56s, and '57s. But that's how I got into the CC's.
Dublin: Where did you do your work? Were you living at home and doing it around here?
Harvan: Oh, no. They packed you off and they put you on a train and they send you to a camp. They sent me down to Waynesboro, PA. It's west of Gettysburg, but more on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. There was two camps there. There was a forestry camp, and a SCS camp, which was a soil conservation camp. I was in the soil conservation camp. We went out to different farmers who needed terraces made, or maybe they had blocked off a pasture for cattleand we'd put up a fence. It was real hard work,
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