2015 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 2

Into the Coal Patch

By Jennifer Donovan

Taking a closer look at a northeastern Pennsylvania coal town that experts describe as "frozen in time."

What is archaeology anyway? How about anthropology? Indiana Jones comes to mind, digging up cursed Egyptian tombs.

Bode Morin
Bode Morin uses his industrial archaeology degrees from Tech to bring a 19th century coal miners' village back to life.

But for Bode Morin—who earned a PhD in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology and an MS in Industrial Archaeology at Michigan Tech—and Kim Barton, who got her BS in Anthropology from Tech in 2013, it's all about the present, and how the culture of the past impacts people living today. Morin runs Eckley Coal Miners' Village, a preserved industrial mining village in northeastern Pennsylvania. By happenstance, Eckley Village turned out to be where Barton landed as an Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement/Volunteers in Service to America (OSMRE/VISTA) volunteer, in coordination with the Appalachian Coal Country Team.

"It was a surprising coincidence," says Morin. Barton's name was one on a list of several potential OSMRE/ VISTA volunteers offered to Eckley. But he didn't hire her because of their Michigan Tech connection. "Kim came from a mining community (in Kentucky) and partially grew up there," he explains. "She went to college in a historic mining community. She studied mining and its cultural implications. She was a perfect fit for the job."

Barton had ranked Eckley Coal Miners' Village at the top of her list of preferred sites. "My background is in mining, and my senior thesis was on mining policy in Ontario and how it affects the First Nations people there," she says. "I understand the cultural implications of the mining industry, and I wanted to explore ways to use that part of my education."

Horses

A Village Frozen in Time

Eckley calls itself  "a village frozen in time." It was founded in 1854, a planned "coal patch town" like so many others built by mining companies in remote rural areas to house their employees close to the mine sites. Many of the miners and their families who lived in Eckley were immigrants who went to work in the mines and saved money to buy land, planning to return to the farming life they had known in Europe. But the company towns ensnared them. Living in company houses, shopping in company stores, most of them never managed to escape the poverty and hard-ship of mining village life.

Today, Eckley is what Morin calls "a living museum." Tenants live in its houses, and volunteers from surrounding communities—often in 19th century dress—show visitors around its original grounds and 110 original buildings: Immaculate Conception Church (built in 1861), slate pickers' cramped houses, the company store. They present programs that bring to life the working conditions; employment practices; and the social, economic, and cultural life of the coal mining community.

And there are plenty of visitors. Located in the Pocono Mountains, twenty-five miles from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and just two hours from New York and Philadelphia, Eckley is a convenient destination for the half a million people who live in the region and travelers on two nearby interstates. "We've put up a lot of signs," says Morin. But the village is more than a tourist attraction, at least to Morin and Barton.

Eckley Village
Coal miners and their families lived in these houses built by the mining company in the mid-19th century. Today, volunteers from surrounding communities dress in period garments and stroll or ride horses through the streets of Eckley Village.

The Past Informs the Future

"It's important for us to know our past in order to prepare for the future," Morin explains. "Coal fueled the early stages of America's industrial revolution. The technology changed the fabric of society. It's important to protect, preserve, and study it." Barton agrees. "This job let me put anthropology to work," she says. "I was helping people connect with their heritage." Eckley brings to life the difficulties early immigrants faced—struggles that low-income Americans still face, Barton points out.

"It's important for us to know our past in order to prepare for the future."Bode Morin

The local community's support of the coal miners' village surprised and delighted Bar ton. "Watching people respond to their own specific cultural history and heritage was so inspiring," she says. Barton's year of OSMRE/ VISTA service is over now. She's taken a job as a grants specialist with the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan in Kalamazoo. She's not sure what her future holds, but she's sure it will involve nonprofit work, possibly in environmental awareness, a special love of hers. Morin continues to direct Eckley Coal Miners' Village for the State of Pennsylvania, committed to helping people connect with their history and understand "how we got here." "Besides," he says, "it's so cool."


A Master's Program With Its Feet On the Ground

There are more ways to earn a master's degree than sitting in class, working on your advisor's research, and writing a thesis. Michigan Tech, known for its dynamic Peace Corps Master's International program, is the only university in the country to offer a master's degree through the Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows program for returning Peace Corps volunteers. Tech is also the first university in the country to partner with the OSMRE/VISTA to wrap volunteer service and course work into a master's degree.

Kim Barton
Kim Barton '13.

Although Tech alumna Kim Barton worked at Eckley Coal Miners' Village as an OSMRE/ VISTA volunteer, she wasn't in Michigan Tech's program. Rhianna Williams was. She spent her year of VISTA service working with the OSMRE/ VISTA Western Hardrock Watershed Team in Colorado, and last summer, she finished her master's degree at Tech— the first graduate of the University's OSMRE/VISTA master's program.

Both OSMRE/VISTA master's degree students and Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows receive a tuition break, said Blair Orr, a professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science and director of the two master's programs. Students in both programs typically spend a year on campus, a year as a VISTA volunteer, and a semester back on campus to complete their master's degree, Orr said.

In Tech's OSMRE/VISTA and Peace Corps Fellows programs, students can earn master's degrees in applied ecology, biological sciences, civil engineering, environmental and energy policy, environmental engineering, forestry, geology, or industrial archaeology.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.