September 1, 2008

Redstone Graduate, Miner’s Son Writes on Bygone Era

By Judy Kroeger

Bob Menarcheck grew up in the coal mining patch town of Filbert, the son of a miner. His father and brothers worked in the mines, but Ignatius Menarcheck did not want his youngest son to follow suit.

"My father insisted that I went to school," he said.

However, Bob Menarcheck did spend one day in a coal mine.

"When my father retired, I spent one day in Robena. When he retired, he was a mine foreman at Robena," he said.

The younger Menarcheck has recently published his first novel, about the early 20th-century coal and coke era.

Bob Menarcheck graduated from Redstone High School in 1953 and from California State Teachers College and West Virginia University. He served in the U.S. Army and was recalled during the Berlin Crisis. He became an educator in Ohio and retired from Canton City Schools as a high school principal in 1995. He later taught at Stark State College.

The North Canton, Ohio, resident combined his love of history with his upbringing to create his first novel, "Ridge Valley: Living Life in a Coal Mining Town."

He said he has always wanted to write a novel. He spent four years on research, but started researching and "sharpening my skills" even earlier. When he retired from education, he promised himself, "I'm going to do this. I'm having such fun with this."

Bob Menarcheck is considering writing a second novel this winter. He has learned the secret of authorship.

"If you want to be successful, you have to sit down every day and write," he said.

Born in 1935, he remembers the turmoil involved in forming unions to protect mine workers' rights.

"It was a tough life," he recalled.

The earlier and often futile struggles to unionize attracted him.

Bob Menarcheck has set his novel in the fictional town of Ridge Valley, well before his birth. The novel opens in the summer of 1919 and concludes in the fall of 1923. He has set it in the Connellsville Coke Region, which stretched from Latrobe in Westmoreland County to the West Virginia border in Fayette County and produced pure coal that was burned into coke in huge beehive- shaped brick ovens throughout the region. The coke was an integral part of steel-making and propelled the industrial revolution.

"Ridge Valley" tells the story of a mining town. Founded in the early 1900s, the Ridge Valley mine was worked by hundreds of European immigrants to extract its treasure.

Bob Menarcheck tells the story of young patch residents John, Jerry, Bull and Corky. The four teenage boys are propelled into adulthood after a tragic explosion at the Ridge Valley mine.

Not all miners who moved to the Connellsville Coke Region came from Europe. Bob Menarcheck includes the story of African-American men and women who moved north for better opportunity.

Leroy Johnson and his father come to Pennsylvania from Carbon Hill, Ala., along with others recruited to work the Connellsville Coke Region mines. Leroy and John become friends as the novel progresses.

Bob Menarcheck tells the story of the patch through the eyes of John, Jerry, Bull, Corky and Leroy. Their personal struggles reflect the larger issues of the fictional town and of miners throughout the Connellsville Coal and Coke Region during the years of its greatest production.

Bob Menarcheck depicts the difficulty of life in a company town, with miners tied to the company store by being paid in scrip rather than cash. The scrip can only be used in the company store, which creates an effective monopoly. He depicts the workers' struggle for union recognition and a check weighman to ensure they are not being cheated on the amount of coal they extract.

They face the dictatorial control of the coal barons who control the region. The miners go on strike and face the industrialists who use their power to hire their private coal and iron police force to destroy any unionization. John finds himself directly involved in the clash between the miners and the coal barons.

Bob Menarcheck's self-published novel has provoked a variety of reactions.

"Some who have read it are very pleased, others at the disasters in the beginning, they get upset. The story I tell is very intense. It's definitely a novel for adults," he said.

The hardcover book is available at the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority office for $25 or online for $28.50 for hard cover and $17.99 for soft cover. The soft-cover book is only available through Menarcheck's Web site. He will sign copies by request.

Menarcheck will be at the Coal and Coke Heritage Music Festival at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, on Sept. 27 signing copies of his book. For more information, call the campus at 724-430-4100.

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