“Incidents of a by-gone age” – A description of life in the Coal Region before the Civil War

In the autumn of 1931, a reporter from the Millersburg Sentinel sat down with Catherine Myers in her daughter’s home in Lykens to talk about the old days… the really old days.

At the time of the interview, Myers was 91-years-old and still going strong. The reporter, F. Park Campbell, dutifully reported that Myers had “been in good health and has eaten all kinds of food and drinks coffee.” But this woman’s recollections of the past were the main reason that Campbell traveled to Lykens to interview her amid the Great Depression’s worsening grip on Williams Valley.

wiconisco-creek
An early scene along the Wiconisco Creek in Williams Valley

Catherine Romberger was born on March 5, 1840 to Samuel and Elizabeth Romberger in Porter Township, Schuylkill County and grew up in the slowly industrializing mining region of Williams Valley. At a young age, her mother died and Romberger bounced from household to household, gradually learning the skills required to keep a household running in a largely wild, rural landscape in the 1840s and early 1850s. This is the time period she describes in her interview with the Sentinel reporter in 1931:

We had no electric lights then and there were very few lamps. We used candles and pine knots and we also had a form we called a toad in which we poured lard. A wick of cotton was placed in the lard and this made a feeble light. Very few people had matches in those days but to start a fire we had two stones, called ‘fire stones,’ which, when struck together produced sparks. These sparks ignited punk wood from which fire was kindled. People did no have stoves when I was a youngster but did their cooking and baking in a big fireplace. In one corner of the fireplace was an offset where pine knots were placed and lighted. By this light we could sit and spin. We made most of the cloth used in our clothes and did all of our own clothes making. In cooking, pots were suspended over the fire in the fireplace and our frying pans were equipped with three long legs so that they could be placed over the fire.

There were no washboards in my early days and our washes looked and were clean, too. Clothes were soaked in wood ashes or lye and then boiled. Having no clothes pins, the clothes were hung across poles to dry, after they had been thoroughly boiled and rinsed several times. Very few people in our section had irons, so, when the wash was finally dry, after two days of handling, we folded it up, placed the pieces on chair and sat upon them, which gave the clothes the only ironing they received at our house.

We had coffee, ever since I can remember, and candy, mostly stick candy, black sugar, and black molasses. The sugar was dark brown but we called it black and I never saw white sugar until after the Civil War. We made apple butter and dried fruits but jelly making and canning was unknown to my mothers and I knew nothing of fruit jars and jelly glasses until after the war. People just started to keep house after the war.

There are no hard times now. Why, people don’t know what hard times are. Of course everybody was poor then and no one knew better. We had no carpets on the floor and ran barefoot until Christmas, no matter what the weather was like. Our shoes were of calf skin, made by hand, and very serviceable. There were no fine shoes then. Many of our meals were of mush and milk or potatoes and milk. We did not know anything about Thanksgiving Day and much less, roast turkey, because we were not equipped to do roasting. Men worked for 50 cents a day, during harvesting and hay making, and they worked hard, as there was no machinery.

We girls and the women wore calico dresses for our best and were mighty proud to be the owner of one. I never saw a silk dress until after the war, but I have one now.

Whiskey in those days sold for three cents a drink, which was about the cheapest article on the market.

Sunday school was conducted then about the same as today. We had Sunday school picnics, too, and we had good times. The superintendent would arrange a lot of stick candy on a couple of boards and we would line up, march by the boards and each child could take two sticks of candy. When this was over, the superintendent left us do as we pleased.

At Christmas time we had molasses cake, cookies, and pies to eat and everybody had a jolly time but no gifts were exchanged.

Most of the country in the Lykens and Williams Valleys was timberland and the chief method of transportation was on foot. The nearest doctor to Lykens was at Tremont or Pine Grove. We walked every place we wanted to go and while we had very things to amuse us, we had substantial food and usually good health. No newspaper came to our house when I was a young girl, in fact, I did not know much about newspapers until after the war.

In 1856, she married George Myers, a farmer from Wiconisco Township who later took up work in the mines of the Lykens Valley Coal Company in Bear Gap.

“When the Civil War broke out, the young couple had three children,” Campbell reported, “but the father enlisted for three months’ service with the Pennsylvania troops.” Myers had enlisted with the local militia company in the 10th Pennsylvania Infantry in the excitement of 1861. He later served with the 173rd Pennsylvania from November 1862 through August 1863. While he was away, Catherine Myers had a fourth child.

Wiconisco 1874
A scene at the mines of the Lykens Valley Coal Company shortly after the Civil War.

When her husband returned from war, he again took up work in the mines of Wiconisco and their family grew rapidly to include a total of 11 children. F. Parker Campbell told the rest of her story in the Sentinel:

Mr. Myers died 39 years and after his death his widow kept the home going until 26 years ago… Mrs. Myers [has] 32 grandchildren, 54 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren…

She is a staunch Republican and during the fall primaries voted for her grandson Arthur E. Myers, who was subsequently elected a county poor director. She has not been out of the house since the primaries. 

Mrs. Myers usually retired at 9 o’clock and is up at 7 next morning. While unable to write, she reads quite a bit, her favorite newspaper being the “National Tribune,” published in Washington. She was 13-years-old when the first post office was opened at Wiconisco and remembers the first postmaster, Henry Schaffer. At that time the Wiconisco post office also served Lykens residents. 

She speaks entertainingly of the days in Lykens and Williams Valleys when there were no railroads, the early days of the Lykens mines and many other incidents of a by-gone age. Mrs. Myers has never been outside of the State of Pennsylvania but in late years has visited relatives and friends in the nearby counties, traveling by automobile…

Catherine Romberger Myers passed away in October 1933 at the age of 93.

Her recollection provides us with something that’s fairly rare in the history of Williams Valley: recollections of the difficult early days from the perspective of a woman. In her lifetime, she watched Williams Valley go from barely tamed wilderness to industrialized towns, the arrival of the railroad, the desolation of the 1877 mine fire, the advent of the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, a horrific world war, and the development of radio. Despite not seeing much of the world outside Pennsylvania’s Williams Valley, she watched an incredible amount of life play out before her in her hometown.


Featured Image: Miners’ houses in Williams Valley shortly after the Civil War.

This story was accessed through Newspapers.com from the West Schuylkill Herald of Tower City, PA, January 15, 1932. Additionally, there is some confusion as to whether or not she was born in 1840 or 1842. Census records in the 1850s and 1860s record her as being born in 1842, but 20th century documents put it in 1840. 

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2 thoughts on ““Incidents of a by-gone age” – A description of life in the Coal Region before the Civil War

  1. Catherine Romberger Myers and her husband George are among my great-great-great grandparents. Thanks for bringing a name on the family tree to life.

    Robert A. Hand

    Liked by 1 person

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