In My Grandfather's Footsteps
The search for the grandfather I never knew
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1977 | Pageton, West Virginia
I never knew my grandfather. He died 18 year before I was born. Until recently I knew nothing about him. My father only spoke of him twice in my memory. Both times my father had too much to drink and was crying. The words he spoke gave me the impression that my grandfather had commited suicide. And so I never asked about my grandfather for fear of upsetting my father. My father died in 1967. In the 1970's the mini-series "Roots" brought my curiosity back to the surface. Who was this man that upset my father so much? Did he actually commit suicide? What kind of person was he? Where did he come from?
I knew the date of his death. So my first step in finding my grandfather was to go to the Rutgers Alexander Library in New Brunswick and look up the local newspaper on micro film for his obituary. What a shock that was! There on the FRONT PAGE of The Daily Home News was a story about my grandfather. He hadn't committed suicide. It was all a tragic accident! The whole family was out for a Sunday drive on a beautiful day. It was July 26, 1926. They were on their way to Hadley Field, where the first night airmail long distance service took place July 1, 1925. Charles Lindbergh used this field prior to his 1927 world famous transatlantic flight. I can remember as a kid my uncle driving me to that same air field to watch the planes take off and land. On the way to the air field a funny noise caught the attention of my grandfather. They stopped the car. When my grandfather leaned out to look for a possible flat tire, the door popped open. He landed on his head. He was briefly revived with water from a nearby pastor's water pump and taken to the hospital. There they put a bandage on his head and sent him home to bed. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage. My father was 11 years old. He witnessed the whole thing.
Now my curiosity was peaking. I asked my mother for information. My father was born in Pageton, West Virginia. This town is so small you cannot find it on a map. She suggested that I contact an elderly couple in Pageton, West Virginia, Anna and Johnnie Valach. They were childhood friends of my father. In 1977 I sent them a letter asking for any information about my grandfather. They invited us to come down and see the mining area where my grandfather lived and worked.
This was the beginning of my journey of discovery.
Episode (2) The Walk Begins
Episode (2) The Walk Begins
1977 and 1992 | Pageton, West Virginia
Arrangements were made with Anna and Johnny Valach (childhood friends of my father) to visit with them in July, 1977 in Pageton, West Virgina. They took us on a tour of the area including the coal mine where my grandfather worked. It poured rain almost the entire day that we were with them. I attempted to take photos, and movies with my super 8mm movie camera as well as do some audio recording. It was a running battle trying to take photos and movies in the drenching rain. The Valach's told us stories of my ancestors. We thought that one day would be enough. We were young and naive. Geneaology was new to us. It was discouraging not knowing how to go about doing any research. Remember, this was before computers and the internet. We tried some mailings. But after a long wait, we pretty much came up empty. To make matters worst, our spirits dropped upon returning home. The movies came out too dark. I wasn't happy with the quality of the photos. The audio recordings took patience to listen to. So interest in my family genealogy went into hibernation.
In the mid 1980's video cameras came on the market. Eventually we were able to purchase one. The idea of going back to Pageton, West Virginia became an exciting possibility. The video camera could provide a quality video recording with sound. This was something I could show to my siblings and relatives. I had gained more experience with better quality film cameras as well. So in April, 1992 we returned to Pageton, West Virginia and the Valach's.
Over the years we had kept in touch with them and became good friends. By now the two mile road was blocked by a locked gate. In order to get to the site of the coal mine, Johnny and I would have to walk. Johnny was a coal miner for 50 years and suffered from black lung disease. The beginning of the road is uphill at close to a 45 degree angle. This 77 year old man with black lung disease led me up this steep trail breathing heavily and wheezing. I kept thinking that my friend is going to die before my eyes, and it will be all my fault. What I later found out was that walking this two mile trail was a common practice for Johnny. As soon as the trail leveled out he was fine. In my haste to join Johnny on this walk, I left behind at the house an old photo of my grandfather.
It was taken in front of a brick wall. Johnny and Anna insisted that it was taken in front of the Motor Barn in the mining area. I wanted to see if I could find the spot where the photo had been taken. But without the photo in front of me that spot would remain a mystery. To make matters worst I neglected to bring an extra battery for the video camera. So I could not do as much taping as I had wanted. It was very disappointing.
When it came time to leave for home, I drove down to the entrance of the trail for one last look and to show Eleanor. To our surprise the gate was open. In the distance someone was playing a familiar song on their stereo, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by John Denver. All the signs were telling us that something special was about to happen. Taking advantage of the opportunity to show Eleanor the mining area, I drove the two miles one last time. As we neared the mine area, the threat of rain was rapidly increasing.
Episode (3) There it is!
Episode (3) There it is!
1992 | Pageton, West Virginia
It was Monday, April 20, 1992. Yesterday was Easter Sunday. At 10:00am we pulled away from Anna and Johnny's house, waving a tearful goodbye. At the end of the driveway I could turn left or right. If I turned right we would head home, never knowing what could have been. But I didn't turn right. I turned left, back towards the entrance to the two mile road. I wanted to show Eleanor where Johnny and I had started our walk. There wasn't much to see. Why did I turn left? Maybe down deep I didn't want to leave. Once we pulled off the road, it was Eleanor who noticed that the gate was open. Why did we hear at that exact moment the sounds of a familiar John Denver song drifting through the air? The title of the song is "Take me home, Country Roads". A house that no longer exists was at the end of that road, the house that my grandfather and his family lived in before moving to New Jersey. So we listened to the song and headed down that country road. Was it a coincidence? Was it fate? Or was the spirit of my grandfather calling me home? All I know is that it felt right. It was something we had to do.
As we approached the mine area, the threat of rain was increasing. Due to previous rains and muddy conditions, I had to park the car about 50 yards from the motor barn and walk the rest of the way. Eleanor had to stay in the car. It would be just me and my emotions. I had my grandfather's photo with me. I narrowed it's possible location down to two sites that mirrored what was in the photo, a brick column on the left and marble column on the right. One site was too narrow. The remaining site seemed to match the photo.
Photo of wall, 1993
But I just wasn't convinced. The height of the lower stone wall was much higher in the photograph than the wall in front of me. I videotaped it anyway and moved inside to film the interior of the motor barn. The sound of rain drops began to make a drumbeat on what remained of the metal corrugated roof. At that exact moment for no apparent reason my video camera stopped working. Why did my video camera stop working? I never had a problem with it before. The battery was fine. The video tape did not need to be changed. Why is this happening to me? Why did it have to start raining now? Why am I having such bad luck? I had no choice but to make my way back to the car. There I began to study the old photograph in more detail, looking for some telltale marking on the wall that would verify the location as authentic. Oddly enough, just above my grandfather's head in the photo was a brick with a distinctive "T'" mark on it.
So I returned to the wall, counted the rows of bricks to where the "T" brick should be.
"There it is! This is the spot! I can't believe it!" Those were the words that came out of my mouth. My grandfather stood here 81 years ago and put his hat on the stone ledge that my hand was resting on. I stood there, stunned....the luckiest guy on the face of the planet!
Episode (4) The Gates of Time
Episode (4) The Gates of Time
1992 | Pageton West Virginia
As I stood there in the rain staring at the wall, it felt like the gates of time had opened up. The present became the past, and the past became the present. Eventually I came to my senses, took some photos and returned to the car. It was time to go home. As we made our way back out, we came across a worker in a bulldozer. We introduced ourselves and told him of the brick and my grandfather. The bulldozer operator's name was Cecil Colombo. He said that the motor barn was scheduled to be torn down shortly. "I know the Valachs" he said. "I will save that "T" brick and give it to them".
On our way home we detoured to Colonial Williamsburg. At that time, Eleanor was a Reading Specialist with the Edison Township Board of Education. Reading was her business. So stopping at a book store at Market Square in Williamsburg was inevitable. There we stumbled across a book on genealogy. A book of instructions for finding ancestors found its way into our hands. That's when it all began. Time let go of my grandfather and began giving him to me in exhilarating bits and pieces. By the time we were again settled in at home sweet home, I had already decided that my next project was to find out as much as I could about my grandfather along with his family and record it on video tape in the form of a documentary. I didn't know it at the time, but that documentary would take take the next five years to produce. The final product would be a two part video lasting a total of 4 hours 15 minutes. I had never done anything like that before. But it was something I had to do.
Not long after we left Pageton, West Virginia, Anna Valach called and said that Johnny visited the motor barn and found something for me. On one of the walls in some cement, someone had written their name. My grandmother's maiden name was Julia Satmary. The name in the cement was "Birt Satmary". He was my grandmother's nephew. The cement had been fresh when the motor barn was almost completed. A marble plaque on the building identified the date of completion, 1911. I now understood why there was a height difference in the stone portion of the motor barn wall between the old photograph and the present day wall. At the time, the building was still under construction. My grandfather was standing on what was left of the stone mason's scaffolding. Using my grandfather's known height of 5 foot 5 inches, I was able to figure the height difference in the stone wall to be about 30 inches. That is just about the depth required to get a foundation below the frost line in the southern latitude of West Virginia. My grandfather's photograph had been taken before the foundation was backfilled. Anna Valach said that Johnny had chiseled the cement signature off the wall in several pieces and was saving it for me. That signature in cement along with the prized "T" brick guaranteed that we would make a return trip to Pageton, West Virginia in 1993. However, Anna and Johnny said that they didn't know anyone named Cecil Colombo. The fate of the "T" brick was in doubt. We would have to wait a year to find out.
Episode (5) The Handwriting on the Wall
Episode (5) The Handwriting on the Wall
1992 and 1993 | Pageton, West Virginia
The anticipation of our next visit to Pageton, West Virginia increased over the next year as more information flowed in from Johnny and Anna Valach. I couldn't wait to see the Birt Satmary "Handwriting on the Wall" souvenir that was waiting for me. The fate of the "T" brick was still in doubt. Since we left, Johnny had walked back down the two mile road and confirmed that the motor barn was still standing. I had described to him the location of the brick. On his last visit, he did notice a missing brick taken out of one of the walls. Could that have been Cecil Colombo? Johnny and Anna didn't know anyone named Cecil Colombo. No one came forward with the brick. Could it still be there? The answer would have to wait until our next visit.
Even more amazing was the latest news. Johnny had managed to get his hands on the door knob assembly from the front door of my grandfather's house. He even had the original key. The house was owned by the coal mining company. There was coal underneath the house. Years after my grandfather and his family left Pageton, the coal company began mining for any remnants of coal in the area. So the house was completely dismantled and sold intact including everything... fixtures, windows, wood framing....everything. Johnny knew the person who bought it. That's how he got his hands on that doorknob. It was just unbelievable! It was as if the floodgates had opened up!
In the meantime, Eleanor and I traveled to the branches of the National Archives in Philadelphia and New York. The Peabody Museum in Salem Massachusetts yielded a record and photograph of the ship that my grandfather came over on in 1901, the S.S. Hannover. I had already began producing the video documentary that I called "In My Grandfather's Footsteps".
When we arrived in Pageton in 1993, I was finally able to lay my eyes on two gifts that were made possible by the handiwork of our good friend, Johnny Valach: First was the Birt Satmary signature that Johnny had chiseled off a wall in the motor barn. The other was the 100 year old doorknob to my grandfather's front door. The following are excerpts from my video documentary showing the "Handwriting on the Wall" and "The Doorknob to History". Please excuse the poor quality of the video. I had to video tape the sequences off my television screen using a camcorder. "Handwriting on the Wall":
The other was the doorknob assembly from the front door of my grandfather's house:
The next day Johnny and I drove down to the entrance of the two mile road. It was a glorious day! For once it wasn't raining. Near the top of the road where it leveled off, I paused to admire the beauty of the scenery around Pageton. Johnny had a paper bag with him that contained a hammer and chisel. If the "T" brick was still there, he planned to chisel it out of the wall and give it to me. It was good day for a walk.
Episode (6) The Sound of Silence
Episode (6) The Sound of Silence
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 | Pageton West Virginia
On the way to the motor barn I stopped to pick some wild raspberries, something I used to do as a child back home before a housing development replaced the farm field across the street from our house. I had forgotten how good freshly picked berries tasted. Johnny told me about the the coal mines he worked at over the years: Page Coal & Coke, Jenkinjones and Black Wolf. For his 50 years of coal mining he received a gold pin on his wristwatch to go along with his black lung disease. I asked him "What was the most coal you dug in one day?" The answer is in the following excerpt from my video documentary. Keep in mind that coal is so light, it will float on water. He was paid less than 25 cents a ton.
As we approached the front of the motor barn, fate would throw one more moment of suspense at me. The location of the "T" brick was hidden by a leafy vine that had crawled up the wall since my last visit. The following excerpt records the moment:
Johnny pulled out his hammer and chisel and began analyzing where he should start. Meanwhile I explored the surrounding area. A short distance away was the remains of a bunker-like concrete building with a large rusty metal tank. Inside was another surprise, the actual opening to the coal mine. After the coal ran out, the mine entrance was partially filled in. The silence in there was broken only by the crunch of pebbles under my shoes as I tried to follow in my grandfather's footsteps. The following is an excerpt:
Johnny was able to chisel out the "T" brick and presented it to me in memory of my grandfather. After that visit, Eleanor and I returned again and again....1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997. We visited other areas like the exhibition mine in Pocahontas, Virginia where my grandfather worked when he first arrived in 1901. There was not much to see at the Pageton mining area anymore. After our 1993 visit, the motor barn was torn down and the area bulldozed. All that remains is a grassy meadow. It scares me to think how close I came to missing this opportunity. There is much more to the story. But it would bore anyone but those connected by blood to Lajos Kover, Coal Miner. Now it was up to me to complete the video documentary. I always thought that it would end with a view of my grandfather's gravestone. One day we visited the cemetery to film the segment. I had brought along a piece of coal that I picked up near the coal mine in West Virginia. The plan was to pan the surrounding area and lead up to the gravestone with me placing the piece of coal on top. I taped the sequence about six times and was not satisfied. On the final try I got it right. At that very moment a shaft of sunlight fell upon my grandfather's gravestone illuminating his name. The shadow of a lone Tiger Lily slowly caressed "Lajos". That magical moment lasted maybe 60 seconds before the shaft of light disappeared.
But that was only a lead-in to the final closing sequence. I made my final tribute to Lajos Kover by placing his name on a wall of honor.
Johnny Valach died December 1, 2003 at the age of 88. Anna Valach died January 8, 2006 at the age of 92. They both loved receiving postcards from us while on our travels. We loved them both. The video documentary was dedicated to both of them. For those of you who are interested, the bestseller book "October Sky: A Memoir" (also called "Rocket Boys: A Memoir") by Homer Hickam Jr. and the motion picture film "October Sky" based on the book, are a good portrayal of what it was like in the West Virginia coal fields. As a matter of fact the true story portrayed in the film took place in Coalwood, West Virginia. Coalwood is located not far from Pageton, West Virginia. Homer Hickam, the son of a coal miner, later became a NASA rocket scientist and writer.
1993 | Pageton West Virginia, Edison, New Jersey and Ellis Island
Here are some final excerpts from my documentary "In My Grandfather's Footsteps".
This excerpt has to do with the tragic death of a young coal miner at the Pageton Coal mine in 1938. The coal miner was Mike Valach, the brother of our friend Johnny Valach.
I end this blog with an excerpt from the beginning of my documentary. It is my interpretation of what it may have been like for my grandfather, Lajos Kover, to leave home in Hungary and sail for the coal fields of Pocahontas, Virginia in 1901 at the age of 18. Due to size limitations by YouTube, I could not include the entire sequence.