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Red Onion reunion possibly the last for Hempfield coal mining village

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Fred Breeze, a lifelong resident of Haydenville, also known as Red Onion, sits on the front porch of his  home in the Hempfield village on Thursday, July 30, 2015.
Alexandria Polanosky | Trib Total Media
Fred Breeze, a lifelong resident of Haydenville, also known as Red Onion, sits on the front porch of his home in the Hempfield village on Thursday, July 30, 2015.

For 38 years, current and former residents of Red Onion — the nickname for the Hempfield coal mining village of Haydenville — gathered to reminisce with family and friends.

The tradition could come to an end this weekend if the reunion isn't taken over by folks under retirement age, one of its organizers said.

“I don't think any of the younger generation is going to take it on,” said Fred Breeze, 74, a lifelong Haydenville resident who has been chairman of the 12-member reunion committee since 1993.

“I've been chairman so long, it's time to pass the torch,” Breeze said. “I will help them get started, but after that, they are going to have to do it.”

About 135 people are expected at this year's reunion, which will be held Sunday afternoon at the SNPJ Lodge 223 on Keystone Avenue. That's an increase from the 100 who gathered for the last reunion in 2012.

“They just come to socialize. One of them, who grew up here, is coming all the way from Arizona. We used to have people coming back from Florida, California and Nevada,” said Breeze. He and a handful of others have attended all 11 of the reunions since they began in 1977.

The reunions started with a half-dozen Red Onion boys who got together in 1972. Initially, the reunions were held at five-year intervals until 1990, when the organizers decided to gather once every three years because some of the original residents were getting older, Breeze said.

Haydenville, which has no official boundaries, is a community along Route 119, abutting South Greensburg. It's bordered by Jacks Run and Hunter and Keystone roads and the railroad overpass above Route 119, Breeze said.

As legend has it, its odd nickname came from the red onions that immigrants pulled from their gardens, fashioned into braids and hung to dry from front porches, filling the air with their pungent smell.

Another version of the story is that a woman dropped an armful of groceries as she stepped off a trolley car, scattering red onions onto the ground, Breeze said.

Or it could have come from the red oxide paint that residents used to paint their homes, on the orders of the coal company that owned them, said Breeze, who grew up in a company home and later bought one.

The town was a thriving coal mining community in the early 1900s built around two mines — Greensburg No. 1 and 2 mines, which became Keystone No. 1 and 2 mines when the Keystone Coal & Coke Co. purchased them, according to a coal mining history compiled by Raymond A. Washlaski.

The Greensburg Coal Company, owned by Coulter & Huff, established a mine in the 1870s on what were the eastern outskirts of Greensburg, along the Southwest Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The company opened its Greensburg No. 1 Mine in 1881 near Broad Street and 10 coke ovens and a brickyard. More than 50 double houses for workers were built on Broad, Poplar and Elm streets to house the mine's 82 workers at the time, according to Washlaski.

“It was a vibrant community. We had three company stores and a tavern,” Breeze said.

The remnants of the mines, which were served by the Southwest Branch, are visible in the coal refuse piles along Keystone Avenue.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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