Life in coal mining town recalled at Charles reunion

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 8:36 p.m.

About 200 people gathered for a reunion of natives of the small village of Charles Saturday at the Seward fire hall.

A former mining town in southeastern Indiana County, Charles had its start in 1914 with the construction of workers' homes just north of the Conemaugh River. The town grew to about 1,000 people at the height of its expansion. The main enterprise was coal production at the Diamond Smokeless Mine.

There are about 120 people living in Charles today, according to Joseph Sank of Cumberland, Md., a native of the village who has researched its history. He shared with fellow reunion attendees some of his knowledge about life and coal mining in the small town as he presented a DVD featuring donated photos from the town's past.

According to Sank's research, the town was named for Charles Owen, the chief stockholder of the company that owned the mine.

Ed Knapic, 79, of Robinson has many fond memories of his early childhood growing up in Charles.

“I was born in Charles in the sixth house in the first row of houses coming from Seward,” Knapic said as he pointed out the dwelling in an old photo of the town displayed at the reunion.

“I went to the white school for four years, from first to fourth grades,” Knapic said. “We played a lot of marbles out in the street. We swam in Cramer's Dam. That's where I learned to swim. There was a big rock and the older boys would throw you in.”

On a dare, Knapic noted, he and other young boys would swipe some coal.

“There was a pile of coal at the railroad track by the Imperial Coal mine. We'd climb it and throw the big lumps of coal off. On a dare, we would take the coal and put it in the furnace at home. When our parents found out we got our butts warmed.”

Knapic said his family left Charles in 1944 when he was 10 years old to relocate 12 miles away in Twin Rocks. He lived and worked in Ohio after high school, and he returned to his native area in the middle of the 1950s.

Joseph Lonesky, 78, and Mike Yaworski, 75, recalled their childhood entertainment was playing in the street with neighborhood children, walking the railroad tracks and, sometimes, hitching a ride on a train.

“The train would stop to pick up water. We'd hop the train. It would go 15 or 20 mph,” Lonesky said.

Yaworski added that it was common for the boys to get a ride on the train, hanging on to the ladder.

“They would slow down at Charles and let us jump off,” Yaworski said. “All of the boys did that. The girls didn't. They'd walk back.”

Andrea Casper McCune, 67, of El Paso, Texas, was recognized as one of those who traveled the longest distance to attend the reunion.

McCune said she has two sisters living in Johnstown and that her family had relocated to the nearby city prior to her 13th birthday.

“We went to the little white school with the pot belly stove,” McCune said. “We also went to the Robinson school, Wehrum, and I went to United (high school) for seventh grade.”

She also recalled attending Mass at the local Catholic church.

“Father Jerome came from St. Vincent for Sunday Mass,” McCune said. “It was early Mass and we would go before breakfast. We had a list at the back of church. Everyone signed up to take Father Jerome home for breakfast.”

Margaret Franklin grew up in Charles and attended Armagh High School in the 1940s. At her mother's urging, she took a job working in the Charles store during her teenage years.

“The store manager asked if I wanted a job,” she recalled. “I had seven brothers in the service and my mother said, ‘You better take the job.'”

Franklin had become friends with Janet Rengh, a 1957 United High School graduate who was born and raised in Charles. They volunteered together at Holy Family Catholic Church.

Franklin asked Rengh to help her find the owner of a 1955 United High School class ring she obtained when her mother passed away.

Franklin said that her mother, Anna Busony, had found the ring years before her death in 1964 and discussed finding its owner with her.

“She asked me to find the owner,” Franklin said. “I had the ring for 49 years. I had no idea who it belonged to. I thought the initials were ‘RG.' Janet and I looked at the initials closely and saw it was ‘VRG.' Janet thought it was Vernon Griffith.”

Rengh learned that Griffith's wife, Mary, had lost the ring and she was not sure where she had lost it.

“I have no idea where my mom found it,” Franklin said. “Mary lived a couple houses down. Maybe she lost it on the road.”

At the suggestion of Rengh, a reunion organizer, Franklin brought the ring to the event and returned it to Vernon Griffith, who was pleased to have it back.

Ann Furman was recognized as the oldest, continuous living resident of Charles.

“I was born there in 1920 and I still live there,” Furman said. “I stayed in Charles because of the small community and family atmosphere.”

Furman remembered playing in the streets and walking to the school together with other neighborhood children. At age 19 she worked in the Charles store.

Rengh said she and other friends decided to have the reunion since several years had passed since the last community gathering. Prior reunions were held in 2002 and 2005.

“We decided we're all getting older,” Rengh said. “We talked about getting together. We thought summer would be good.”

Rengh said that a future reunion may be planned.

Debbie Black is a freelance writer.

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