Monday, January 14, 2013

Massa knows "facts and figures" of coal mining

Ad-Express/Iowegian- 26 February 1999
By Ethel Lira, Contributing Writer
  Frank Massa is one of the last living coal mine owner/operators to be found in Appanoose County. Born in Turin, Italy, on June 19, 1913, his father, Domnick Massa, migrated to this area later that same year with Frank and his mother following in April 1915. The family settled in the small mining town of Jerome and until Frank and his late wife, Jessie, moved to Centerville in 1957 to a site on which he still resides, the Massas resided in the Jerome community.
  Domnick Massa was a miner by profession and in 1939 he joined with John (Red) Padavon, Gale Wilson and John Presbyherio, all of Numa, to open what was known locally as the New Gladstone Mine. (The Old Gladstone mine was closed in1913.)  Working in the underground bituminous coal mines in Appanoose County from 1913 through the closure of the last pony mine in the area is the Massa legacy.
  Frank Massa attended and graduated from the 8th grade in the Jerome School system. Summers and other vacation periods found him performing a variety of casual jobs that were available in that rural area.
  Massa recalls each of his teachers with fondness. During his eight years of formal training they included, Willis Warnick, Janet Cathcart, Gladys Wailes, Mary Morrison, Ruth Wordell, Mrs. Moody and his final year in 8th grade was Harold Main.  He credits these individuals for giving him a very strong base in his educational years. While reading was not his best subject, but did excel in arithmetic. His teachers would often tell him, "I know you can read or you couldn't get your arithmetic problems." In Massa's words, "But I slaughtered the English language."
  Until about two weeks prior to his entering his first year of schooling, Massa did not speak the American language. He learned it from a playmate, living in his neighborhood who started school at the same time. Italian was spoken in his home. Since schools did not employ teachers for the instructing of bilingual languages during those early days, it was up to the students themselves to "learn" the meaning and pronunciation of the words they were hearing and using in the classroom.  Quite often they learned the "unacceptable" words first, having no idea as to the meaning, and it would frequently bring them a sharp rap across the knuckles from their elders.
  During this "high" time, Jerome boasted a drug store, railroad depot, bank, KP hall and three to four grocery stores.  Some of the owners were Frank Thomas, W. Warnick, James Haught and Bill Hawkins.  Many were the same names and individuals who ranked high in the mining hierarchy.
  Massa summed up his education, as still "learning. "We were taught the basics and no nonsense was allowed in or out of the classroom itself. We had to pay attention and we sure learned to have more sense than to take dope," he said.  His career and livelihood mandated that he read and figure. The use of politically correct English was not something that one really worried much about. "if you said the wrong words, or called some the wrong name, you soon learned that it was not worth it," Massa replied. Many disagreements were settled in the middle of the street and he chuckled, "that lesson was not one that you easily forgot in those days."
  Lots of kids, boys especially, did not go on to high school in this period because they were needed to work and help support the family. Work was scarce in the early 1900's through the 30's and ever;y penny was needed. "But we had good times too, neighborhood sports, ball games, gatherings, celebrations wee our social outings and everyone got involved in some way or another as a family .... we had lots of good times," Frank recalled.
  As a young man, Massa played a lot of both softball and baseball and was a member of the teams a well as being "drafted" to fill in for other teams throughout the surrounding areas. His principal positions were as catcher, short stop and third baseman, but he did have a game or so as pitcher and, much  to his amazement, he had a very good strike-out record. "But I wasn't real good at that," Frank remembered.
  "One of my fellow players from the Mystic area was Mike Kruzich who once struck out 17 players straight while in the Mystic Junior League., I sure wasn't that good." Other pitchers he remembers were Mike Kopatich, a fast ball thrower, and Philip Micetich, a curve ball pitcher who "could wrap a ball around the batter's neck."  Ledio Susin was one of the younger players he recalls and "Boy, was he good."
   Another strong memory for Massa is one summer when he was 19 years of age. An early edition of today's state lottery was being held in one of the grocery stores. People were asked to take a chance on a name and punch from a board. After the punches had all been sold, the main stamp was removed to ascertain the winner. Massa paid 29 cents for a chance and picked the name of Isabelle, after Isabelle Presbyterio. No one pa more than 29 cents but some did pay less. Twenty-nine cents was a goodly amount in those times (circa 1932). He hit the jackpot because when the winning tab was removed the name of Isabelle was the winner. The prize was a shotgun that he still has in his possession .. a big prize for the times.
  At the age of 16, Massa took a full time job in the Walnut Creek Coal Mine, then owned by gentlemen Dooley, Gillaspie, (2) Hawkins and Purdy, followed by a series of work in small mines in which he "earned his daily bread." Some of these mines carried the names of Laneville (a McConville operation), Garfield and a return stint at Walnut Creek.
  In 1956 he bought out his father's interest in the New Gladstone Coal Mine and remained there until it permanently closed in 1971. Throughout his working career, he had a variety of positions in and around the mines. He dug coal by hand, drove ponies pulling loaded and empty coal cars to entry ways, laid track, set props, checked and weighed tonnage the miners dug, loaded, etc.  Until his marriage (as was common during this period of our country's development, his earnings all went into the family cache for its communal use.
  Massa relates that when he was married in 1937, he had a total of $40 in his pocket and he was considered to have a "good start."
  While the mines furnished the major portion of their living expenses, during the slack summer months when coal was not required for heat and energy in a great demand, Massa often found himself working for local farmers; as a carpenter's helper; and later worked with a plumber and learned the overall basis of that much needed trade as the homesteads, both town and country, were becoming more modernized. One summer season found him employed as a groundskeeper/maintenance person at the local country club.
  Since coal mining was the mainstay of the community "tabs" were run from the close of the mines in the spring/summer months until they could get back to work in the fall, when the demand for coal increased. The mines and railroad wee the life blood of the community and, until the 1937 era when unemployment compensation became available to unemployed workers, money was very scarce.
  Since his retirement after 32 years of actual coal mining work, he has "dabbled" in many things. Today, he can often be found at the 18-80 Club on the Centerville square visiting with old friends and new ones. He still enjoys dancing (but not as much as he used to), travel and just visiting. He was one of the miners that gathered in 1991 to remember and record days when coal mining was in its hey-day in Appanoose County and a video of that meeting, together with a video of "The Last Pony Mine" filmed on actual location at the New Gladstone Mine, can be found at the Appanoose County Historical building. Massa, together with Dohyle, Wayne Arbogast and John Cathcart were owners of this mining operation when the video was shot.
  He enjoys reminiscing and has so much factual knowledge of the mining industry from the early to mid 1900's.  Coal mining as it was then known has passed into history, although there are members of mining families that still reside locally. So many do not have the "facts and figures" on this industry that he does.  Others are primarily widows of the miners/operators and owners and their experiences are along a different line.  Many of their memories would overlap, bt it is the story told by those who actually worked in the underground "places" assigned to them and who witnessed many of the tragedies, that can still relate to those of us who have followed "the real feel."
  Since retiring, Massa has made five trips back to Italy to visit with cousins still living there and he talks to them via the telephone weekly or monthly just to "keep in touch."
  Massa is one of the county's most ardent supporters of a good basic understanding through through education and the everyday use of common sense. Even the the 20's and 30's, this was offered to those who would pay attention. Although not learned in the formal classrooms that we find today in every school district, the underground miners of yesterday in our region had to know a lot of engineering skills, as well as environmental know-how, to prevent and escape the disasters that were found too often underground. 
  The lay of the coal, the air in the mines, the knowledge of how coal would/could break when being dug by hand or cut with the mining machines, these were all necessary facts and knowledge that was ingrained into each and every miner's being ... if they were to survive.
  With the passing of time, all things change. Today, books, charts and computers provide much of the above knowledge for all types of industry. But the basic need for reading, writing and arithmetic still prevail. Appanoose County once excelled in this segment of "common sense" as is attested by the fact that we had/have so many locals who have truly succeeded in making "a difference."

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