By Grete Floryshak
History and Geography Teacher
I love exploring local history with my freshman classes. We are fortunate to live in northeastern Pennsylvania, especially when it comes to learning about economic and labor history, because of local sites like Eckley Miners’ Village as well as people who have preserved the details of their lives for future generations.
The ninth graders learn about kids their age in a historical context. Presidents and wars are important facets of our past, but so are the ordinary people just trying to go about their lives. Comparing themselves to a nineteenth century breaker boy (coal sorter), who was sometimes as young as six years old, or a garment worker, who was often a teen girl working six twelve-hour shifts a week, gives new perspective to the relative ease of our lives now.
MMI was an integral part of one of the most important industries northeastern Pennsylvania has ever fostered: anthracite coal mining. If not for mining, there may not have been an MMI. Eckley and Sophia Coxe founded our school for the express purpose of giving miners’ sons a foot in the door to a less backbreaking and more financially rewarding career than the toil their fathers had faced. Many early MMI graduates went on to college to studying engineering, often at Lehigh University.
Our class watches The Molly Maguires to see a recreation of what it looked like underground and in the town of Eckley. Because most of the movie was filmed on site at Eckley, Paramount hired many local residents as extras. Several of my students have fathers or uncles who played breaker boys in the movie.
We read about immigration patterns, company towns, and women’s work. We compare mining to two other major industries of the late nineteenth century: garment making and meatpacking. All were jobs predominantly filled by working class immigrants. The family economy included an essential role for each member, from father and mother to son and daughter. All were expected to contribute in whatever way they could, often having to give up their chance for education in order to do so.
Our class also reads excerpts from a manuscript by a local miner named George DeGerolamo who started as a breaker boy, was promoted to mule driver, and eventually gained the coveted title of miner. The MMI library has many excellent resources about our local history. One of the most popular choices by freshman students is Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. She was drawn to learn more about our area like many of us are, through researching the stories of older family members who lived right here in our area.
After all of this preparation, we visit Eckley Miners’ Village to step into the houses where miners boarded, to the company store where they paid for their own work supplies, and to the churches where they worshipped.
Studying local history ignites student interest and pride for our hometowns and the hardworking people who lived here before us.