Connellsville native writes novel on coal, coke industry

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Residents of the Connellsville area, especially those interested in the history of the coal and coke industry or who enjoy a murder mystery, may be interested in a new novel by Connellsville native Jim Oglethorpe.

“Leisenring No. 1,” by Oglethorpe, 63, a 1972 Penn State graduate, is a work of fiction based on the history of the mines and coke ovens that were the basis of the area's economy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

It was a time when immigrants came to the area, mostly from Europe, to work 10-hour days, 6 days a week, for low wages. For the most part, these were men who left Europe to find what they hoped would be a better life in America. Because they knew little of the language and did not have much education, they found themselves locked into jobs that literally worked them to death.

Oglethorpe, who now lives in Florida with his wife, Jean, a Falls Church, Va., native and also a Penn State graduate, based his book on research from various resources, including the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, and the Virtual Museum of Coal Mining in Western Pennsylvania by Raymond A. Washlanski.

Most of the characters, including the hero, Joe Zajac, are fictional.

“Some of the characters have their roots in real people,” Oglethorpe said. “Joe Zajac shares many traits with my old college roommate, Joe Wrubleski.”

Others, including, H.C. Frick and Thomas Lynch, who was president of the Frick Coke Company, are based on the real men, but are not biographically accurate.

The novel begins with the discovery of a skull in a coke oven in August 1900 and follows the investigation by Zajac, a Frick investigator, as he works to solve several murders in the background of labor unrest.

It also offers a picture of life in Connellsville and the surroundings in a time before the automobile. The reader will become hungry and thirsty as Zajac and the other characters frequent the local restaurants and bars, even as they choke on the clouds of gases expelled into the hot summer air from the thousands of coke ovens in the area.

“My target audience starts with anyone whose relatives lived in and around the old Connellsville coal field,” he said. “I think they will enjoy that the story is set in a world we learned about from our parents and grandparents. After that, I hope that anyone who enjoys a good murder story would enjoy the read.”

Oglethorpe says he fondly remembers growing up in Connellsville.

“I couldn't think of a better place to have grown up than Connellsville in the 1950s and ‘60s,” he said via email. “In a word, a kid's life was ‘carefree.' We roamed around on our own, played in the woods, rode bikes, hung at the playground and were generally left to our own devices. I have many fond memories of those days.”

He still has relatives in the Connellsville area and around Western Pennsylvania.

After graduation following four years at the main campus of Penn State in State College with a business degree, Oglethorpe moved to Knoxville, Tenn., with his wife. They have two daughters. He now lives in Florida.

His book is available at The Book Case, 809 Blackstone Rd., Connellsville. It is also available on in paperback and as an eBook.

Oglethorpe has begun research for a second Joe Zajac story set in the mountains, that starts with a death at a lumber mill.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-626-3538.

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