Friday, September 1, 2017

For Labor Day 2017: Text of Presentation "Our Families in the Battle of Homestead"

The text of a presentation on August 26, 2017 at the Pump House, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Homestead, Pennsylvania.
                                   Our Families in the Battle of Homestead: 
                         Weaving Folklore into the Warp of Historical Fiction

                                                        by Trilby Busch

This afternoon I am here to talk about the crafting of historical fiction, the imaginative recreation of a time and place that sets invented characters in the context of historical events. In the subtitle of this talk, I have used the metaphor of the loom—the weaving together of interwoven threads of various colors and textures to create a whole fabric.  People read historical fiction because it humanizes events that are distant not only in time, but in emotional immediacy. I am also here to talk about the importance of oral history in contextualizing recorded history. The blending of solid historical research with stories handed down by those who lived through that time and place in history can make the dry bones of facts into a living organism.

My book about the Homestead Strike of 1892 was many years in the making. The story of the strike can be told in many ways and from many perspectives—and indeed has been in many books, articles, and documentaries. I chose the format of the historical novel because I wanted to tell the story from the inside, from multiple perspectives—the workers, the townspeople, company management, even the Pinkertons. A fictional narrative concerns little people swept up by big events, not just the stories of the main players like Frick and Carnegie. 

I used to tell my students that good historical fiction is a painless way to learn history.  Take, for example, The Killer Angels, Michael Schara’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Even though I read accounts of the battle and toured the battlefield, reading the novel allowed me to experience the battle along with the characters. One of the most vivid and memorable narratives in the novel involves Lt. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s inspired leadership in holding off repeated Confederate attacks on Little Round Top. The emotion evoked by reading about the brilliant and courageous countercharge of his 20th Maine Regiment is what has burned this battle-changing event into my memory.  History books could not do that for me.

History is not the past, but the recorded past, and the recorded past is what historical novels are built around. When I decided to write the novel some 15 years ago, I began by reading every book or article on the strike that I could find. I read contemporary eyewitness accounts and tried to build their accounts into the narrative, especially the section on the battle itself. Those eyewitnesses are long gone.  All we have are their stories, some written down in interviews or in history books, others handed down via oral history.  The latter is how I came to develop a fascination with the strike.  

We are here today to talk about the 1892 Homestead Strike and Battle, which took place on this very site 125 summers ago.  Descendants of workers who were present at the battle are here to tell their family stories. But before they do, I’d like to tell you some of mine—specifically, how my father’s recounting of the story of his grandfather’s death in the Homestead Works in September 1892 eventually became the impetus for me to write Darkness Visible.

I could not have written the book and we would not be here today if it had not been for my dad’s love of storytelling.  My father, Edward Busch, was born in the house at 1415 Hays Street in Homestead on March 11, 1907, during one of the worst floods in Pittsburgh history. He was the third child and only son of George W. Busch, superintendent of the machine shop at the Homestead Works, and Annie Edwards Busch. One especially memorable story about his early childhood in this house was about hearing the sound of the workers’ boots going down the hill for the morning shift at the mill, in the dark, in silence (over a mile).  And then, twelve hours later, they had to trudge up that same hill, exhausted, to their homes.

Dad was eminently qualified to be keeper of the family tales. For one, he had an excellent memory. He loved the theater, loved acting and directing.  Moreover, he majored in history at Pitt while working night shift at the machine shop. (This in his memoir “Full of Sound and Fury”)  After graduating from Pitt in 1929 and fin.ding that no teaching jobs were available—but librarian positions were—Dad enrolled in the Columbia University College of Library Science, earning his MLS in 1931.  He returned to find a job in the Munhall schools as librarian, science teacher, and drama coach at Woodlawn Avenue School.  He married Frances Katilius in 1940, and started G. Edward Busch Productions, a touring children’s theater company, in order to pay for the house they were building on James Street in Munhall.  

Although Dad didn’t like library work much, preferring action in the classroom, fortunately for me, he put his training as an archivist to work in organizing the family photos. He wrote the” who, what, where, when” on the backs of family photos, something that very few people do.  How many old photos are pretty much worthless because we don’t know the context in which they were taken?  Dad’s annotations ensured that future generations would know the significance of our old family photos.  (Example, City League Champs. See "City League Champs, 1895")

As a child, I loved hearing all Dad’s stories—how he met my mother, his road trips Out West in the 1930s, the time Honus Wagner came to dinner, how he hated being bat boy for the mill baseball teams, how he watched crews hastily bury victims of the 1917 Spanish flu epidemic in the Homestead cemetery at night, the only one of his family in the house on 21st Street who was not sick with the flu.

But he had two favorite stories, two stories that seemed to define Busch family history for him: a story of immigration and the story of John Paul Busch’s death during the Homestead Strike. (Weissenstadt. Civic brewery, Army, Navy, Gunboat Hale Battle of Mobile Bay. Read these stories at "150 Years: Retracing John Paul's Footsteps" and "Damn the Torpedoes!")

And so my grandfather and great-grandfather became minor characters in the book. But I needed to find central characters, characters that would be critical to presenting a vivid and moving narrative of the strike and battle from the workers’ point of view. For this, once again I turned to my father’s stories, this time, the ones about his mother’s father-- John Edwards, a Welsh immigrant. In the 1970s, after my daughter Ceridwen was born on Easter Sunday—exactly 100 years after my grandmother’s birth on Easter Sunday, I embarked on a quest to find my Welsh relatives. There wasn’t much to go on. Dad told the stories about his drunken grandfather Edwards, a grandfather who abandoned his mother and her brother Jesse to the cold care of an “orphan asylum” after their mother’s death.

Dad remembered that his mother used to get letters from her maternal grandmother from Rose Cottage in a village in North Wales called, as he remembered it, “Farenkysilt.”  Thanks to Vivian Jones, a Welsh-speaking Congregational minister, I figured out that this was indeed Froncysyllte, and a trip to the village in 1988 confirmed it. 

I have never found my Welsh relatives, but I did meet many Welsh people during my search, and one family became key to researching the book in Wales—the Morrises of Maenclochog in southwest Wales. I met Emyr Morris through Channel Cymru, a chat room in 1996, during the early days of socializing via the internet. In 2003 Emyr, a native speaker of Welsh, was kind enough to take me around the valleys of South Wales, the places and landscapes I was planning to use as the background for my Welsh characters. When I found that a big mine disaster occurred at the Park Slip mine in August of 1892, I knew that I had to work that into the book. 

Emyr and I went Ton du, the mining village by Park Slip and wandered around park where the slip used to be. We walked all over the park, but couldn’t find the monument to the disaster where the entrance to the slip was.  Finally we gave up and went to a nearby pub.  We found it--the only marker to this disaster that killed over a hundred miners was a small mining car with “Parc Slip 1892” painted on it. As in Homestead, all record of that industrial site had been obliterated. As in Homestead, the industrial site had been converted into something very different—in that case, a public park with walking and biking paths.

I don’t want to give that impression that my father’s stories were the only ones I used in the book. As I mentioned, my cousin’s husband Phil Krepps told me my grandfather’s story of John Paul learning how to fire boilers in the Weissenstadt civic brewery.   

Another important story came through Jack Fix, referred to me through the St. David’s Society of Pittsburgh. Jack’s father taught in the Munhall schools, but more importantly, his grandfather, William Williams, was the superintendent of Open Hearth #2 during the strike. Jack retold Williams’ story of how he and his family were trapped inside their house in the First Ward during the battle, while bullets occasionally whizzed by outside. He also related how Williams, who was working in the steel industry in Wales, was recruited by the Carnegie Company to oversee the building and operation of their new state-of-the-art open hearth. Most importantly, Jack told me how Potter, the mill superintendent, called Williams into his office and tried to bribe him to manage the restarting of the mill boilers after the strike—a bribe that Williams refused, saying, “I have to live in this town.”

This story dovetails perfectly with my family’s story about John Paul being hired to start boilers in the Works when the company was resuming operations during the strike. These stories show how desperate the company was to find skilled workers to fire the many boilers required to run the equipment and machinery of the mill—and how desperate many unemployed workers were to find a job to support themselves and their dependents during these hard times for labor.  

Although my mother’s parents did not come to Homestead until the 19-teens, my mother contributed to my understanding of what the town was like in the smoky days when the area on the western end of the riverfront was still residential, before the First Ward was eradicated by the expansion of the mill in the 1930s. After my dad died, my mother, Frances Katilius Busch, told stories about his family that I had not heard before.

One incident that she was particularly irate about concerned the gold watch my father had inherited from his father. It was presented to Grandpa Busch upon his retirement by the workers of the machine shop.  The men acquired a preowned watch from a local jewelry store (Katilius?) and had it engraved to honor his work in the machine shop. What my mother found upsetting and mean is that while the workers dipped into their pockets to present this retirement gift, the stingy company gave him nothing for his long and faithful service to it.

I’d like to tell you about two documents that I found only recently—documents that contribute to my understanding of the stories my father told about his grandfathers. The first I got on a tip from an historian in Frostburg, Maryland, where John Edwards moved when he married his second wife, Harriet. According to affidavits in official records of the case in the Circuit Court of Allegany County, Maryland, this is what happened:

John B. and Harriet Edwards were living as subtenants in the Varnum House, a 55-room hotel and office building owned by Union Mining in Mount Savage, Maryland.  While John was at work as a blacksmith for the mining company, one Daniel Houck, a former sheriff and then-agent for Union, busted into the Edwards's quarters and demanded that Harriet vacate the premises. When she refused, he threatened to arrest her and throw her in jail. He badgered her until her resistance crumbled, and she fled, leaving supper on the table and all of their belongings behind. Houck then locked up their rooms and refused to let them in to retrieve any of their possessions. 

They were locked out for a couple of weeks with only the clothes on their backs. During that time they were forced to find somewhere else to live. When they finally were allowed to take back their belongings, they found that some had been stolen or damaged. Their suit asked for $500 in damages from Union for the expense of having to find new lodgings and replacing household goods and clothing.

The court documents end with a page declaring "case dismissed," meaning that the case never went to trial and Union settled out of court. This outcome is amazing to me. Mining companies in the Appalachian coalfields at this time had extraordinary power and resources, controlling the lives of their workers in so many appalling ways—like company-owned houses and stores, and undue influence over local law enforcement.

Discovery of this lawsuit gave me new respect for the ancestor that I hitherto had thought of largely as a pathetic drunk.  I visited his grave in Mount Savage Cemetery outside of Frostburg and sang to him the hymn my dad said was his favorite, “Oh, How I Love Jesus!”

The other document is even more relevant to the book and the story of John Paul’s death in the Works. It’s the coroner’s report on his death on September 14th, 1892, which consists of three parts: The testimony of mill doctor E.E. Stribler (obviously not a native speaker of English), my grandfather's brother, John Paul Busch, Jr., and "Wm. H. McBroom, Chief of Police for Steel Wrks."

Dr. Stribler says that he was called to attend to John Paul Bush [sic] after he suffered burns in a gas explosion on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th. Stribler sent John to West Penn Hospital for treatment. Six days later, the family moved John to their home in East Liberty, where he died four days later. John's son simply states that John was burned in the Homestead Works and that on the Saturday following the incident,  he was brought home from the hospital to 625 Achilles Street (no longer in existence), where he died on Sept. 14th.

The sworn statements of Stribler and John, Jr. are pretty much in line with the family story. However, McBroom's testimony is where the story gets interesting: "deceased told me that he was injured by the gas exploding near the boilers. . . Another man was present but I did not know his name. Dr Wible [the 'Stribler' of the first part?] examined Deceased and sent him to the West Penn Hosp. Gas was turned on and he [John] threw a piece of lighted waste, causing the explosion." End of statement.

I had to read McBroom's statement several times before the full force of his allegations sunk in. McBroom is claiming that the gas was turned on (although we don't know where or by whom) and that John threw a piece of burning trash (although we don't know what it was, why it was on fire, nor why he threw it), and that therefore, John was responsible for his own death. Instead of the result of industrial sabotage, his death was an accident, and one mostly his own fault.

A look at the coroner’s report on the deaths of two workers killed during the battle shows a similar victim’s culpability for their own demise. Silas Wain and Thomas Weldon were in “unlawful assembly” on company property and therefore bore responsibility for being killed---Wain by others in “unlawful assembly” and Weldon by Pinkertons who were only doing the righteous business of protecting company property.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared the personhood of corporations in which political spending is equated with an individual’s First Amendment protected speech. This is nothing new. Money talks, and it always has.

Even though I was born and raised in the Steel Valley, I can’t recall ever studying the strike in school or discussing it with classmates or other local residents. People simply didn’t talk about it.  The descendants of those who replaced the strikers--myself included--understandably did not dwell on what happened to those who were blacklisted after the strike.  Everyone, unionist or scab, got the message of the strike's outcome:  Don't mess with H.C Frick and Carnegie Steel, for you will lose.  

In those days, as now, property rights were held sacred in the United States.  Those who own property can rely on the government at all levels-- local, state, and federal-- to send in troops to "restore order" in labor disputes, as they have countless times before and after the 1892 strike.

Over and over again in labor history we see the upholding of corporate rights over individual rights, and Homestead was no exception. It’s an indication of the deep trauma of the events that took place here in the summer of 1892 that this is the first time these stories will be told publicly in the intervening 125 years. 

Thanks to my daughters Ceridwen and Morwenna for help with editing. TB