The Next Page: 'Mike and Annie'

Bob Dvorchak's family history celebrates working-class life in the New World


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

One tidbit at a time, I had gathered information about my family history for years. The idea was to create a central repository as a reference for those of us who knew parts of the story or for those who knew nothing of the story at all.

But something remarkable happened when the saga -- told in words and illustrated with photos gleaned from family albums -- appeared in a book I recently self-published. Tracing my relatives' footsteps was like meeting them again for the first time.

The story involves long journeys that began with a first step, plot twists, struggle, hard work, perseverance and ultimately the small triumphs that lift the most common of people to uncommon achievements, set against the context of what was happening in the Old Country and America's Industrial Age.

How else to explain peasants who came from rural villages nobody ever heard of, crossed the ocean in the belly of a steamship, toiled at digging out and purifying the coal required to make steel, and then pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to buy a humble homestead and earn their slice of the American dream in a single generation?

Be advised, publishing a family saga requires an enormous amount of effort. It took me longer to pull it together and write it than it did for my grandparents to pull up roots and start a new life with the opportunities only America can offer. But schooled in the belief that anything is possible if you're willing to work for it, I never lost sight of the fact that my immigrant grandparents could barely read or write English and that I traveled the world to write stories for a living.

The story is a slice of Americana, one that resonates with so many ethnic groups. It's part of the great wave of immigration from the late 19th century to places in and around Pittsburgh. And it's one story among tens of thousands of those who came from a land now known as the democratic republic of Slovakia.

If narratives are penned about industrialists such as Henry W. Oliver, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, the labor force that built the empires of coal and steel should have its version told too. It's the best heirloom a family can have.

This particular story starts with the 1901 wedding day portrait of Michael Joseph and Anna Bendik Dvorchak, who came from the same region of Slovakia but never would have met if they hadn't been drawn to the Fayette County community of Oliver. Like scores of other places in the coal region, it was a patch of houses built around a coal mine, a bank of coke ovens and a company store.

The portrait was refurbished because the color had faded. My grandfather died five years before I was born, and I was in the first grade when my grandmother died in 1956. Restoring the portrait was a way of restoring our memory of them.

Family members are seldom thought of as characters in a book. But believe me, there were quite a few characters in the family narrative. Consider the eldest of their nine children.

He was Michael Joseph Dvorchak Jr., who died in 1953 at the age of 49. My only memory of Uncle Mike, as I knew him, was when he was lying in a casket at his sister's house. The family history fills in the blanks.

Uncle Mike was born in 1903 in Oliver. No, not in nearby Uniontown Hospital. But in the patch house. A severely curved spine plagued him at birth, and as he grew older, it looked like his torso was missing from between his shoulders and his legs. At the time, when stereotypes about immigrants were rampant, he could have been derisively called a Dumb Patch Hunky. No matter. He was the first member of the family to be born a U.S. citizen, and there was value in his new nationality.

When his parents scraped together their hard-earned pennies and opened a butcher shop in Uniontown, Uncle Mike moved out of Oliver with them. And he accompanied them again when they sold the shop to buy a farm 5 miles north of Uniontown. The date on the deed is Aug. 24, 1914. It's no longer a working farm, but 100 years later, the land remains a family possession.

Like all of his younger siblings, Uncle Mike tilled the soil. Despite the birth defect, he hitched the workhorses, Bill and Prince, to the plow. In addition to milking cows by hand, he tended the chickens and the hogs.

Formal education came from a one-room schoolhouse in Keisterville, another patch of houses surrounding a coal mine and bank of coke ovens. He had to walk 5 miles to school. Remarkably, it was uphill, both ways.

But Uncle Mike had a natural curiosity for learning. To bring the outside world to the farm, he bought an early radio receiver that relied on cat whiskers to bring in the KDKA signal. He also bought a chemistry set and taught himself the science of how things change.

Chemistry made all the difference. About the time he was 21, Uncle Mike got a job in Uniontown at the Richmond Radiator Co., which everybody called The Enamel Plant. His job was to bond a white enamel coating onto bathtubs made of cast iron.

According to family lore, Uncle Mike boosted the company fortunes in a big way. He figured out a way, through the combination of molecules, to add a permanent color to the white enamel. That way, customers had a choice of buying a bathtub that was a color other than white. He actually improved the simple luxury of taking a bath.

Sales skyrocketed, and the company offered Uncle Mike a big bonus. He turned it down. He figured the company was paying him a salary when he developed the process, so the financial rewards belonged in the company coffers.

The front end of that story is validated. Tucked away in a family album was a copy of a full-page ad that Richmond Radiator placed in six national trade publications in 1949. The name is spelled wrong, but the ad hails Uncle Mike as a master mixer. The people he worked for were proud of him and acknowledged his contributions to the firm.

Mike's brother, Steve, was also born in Oliver, was raised on the farm and later worked at The Enamel Plant. He was promoted to the company's factory in Monaca. Throughout his life, Uncle Steve always spoke in Slovak when he went to confession.

Uncle Mike's headstone is in the Uniontown cemetery of St. Mary of the Nativity Roman Catholic Church, which at one time was the largest Slovak parish in southwestern Pennsylvania. He is buried next to his parents, whose names are chiseled in stone. The grandchildren of those brave pioneers now have grandchildren of their own, and their story always should be remembered.

As for research, I didn't find anything useful through ancestry.com. My material came from listening to the stories of aunts and uncles, researching the steamship passenger lists kept in the New York Public Library in Manhattan, locating obituaries and grave sites, pestering the good folks at the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association for spellings and locations and searching the web for all kinds of tidbits.

For example, if you know what to look for, a Google search can produce an image and the history of the SS Oldenburg, which my grandmother took across the Atlantic Ocean by herself before her 18th birthday.

Any number of websites can provide the tools necessary to self-publish a book. On the recommendation of childhood friend, I used BookSmart software that can be downloaded for free at blurb.com. To view my book for free and without obligation, go to the website and click on the tab marked "bookstore." Type the title "Mike and Annie" into the search box and click on "preview." For best results in viewing the book, click on the tab for full screen at the lower right corner.

Their road wasn't paved with gold. It wasn't paved at all. But they blazed a trail that led to a better life for themselves and those who followed. The best way to say thank you -- dakujem in Slovak -- was to tell their story.

Bob Dvorchak (bdvorchak@msn.com) was a journalist for 46 years, including 17 with the Post-Gazette. He now writes on his own.


Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here