In 1983 the Human Studies Film Archives received a collection of amateur films documenting coal mining and home life in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania—a way of life no longer lived. We had a name of the person who created the film, Benjamin Harrison Hay. And that was all.
Come 2012 we know much more thanks to the research of Father Elijah Bremer (priest/historian, adjunct instructor, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, Johnstown, Pennsylvania) who has now published a book, The Great Chance: James B. Neale and the Anthracite Industry’s Forgotten Experiment on this remarkable community that no longer exists. Still, we may not know the inner most thoughts of the inhabitants of Buck Run, in the Foster Township approximately 4 miles west of Minersville Borough and 1 mile east of Minersville Exit off Interstate 81 but we do know that this “kaleidoscope of fascinating” images have the power to profoundly move people.
Created by two 1896 graduates of Yale, Buck Run was an anthracite company town built for the operators, manager, and employees of the Buck Run Coal Company (1902-1950). James Neale set about to create an idyllic town for the benefit of his workers with a new school, a health clinic, running water, electricity, steam heat and more enlightened amenties. The only remnant of the town that remains is Neale’s mansion which was slated to be demolished by the township. Benjamin Harrison Hay was the general manager and vice president of the company who was also Neale’s brother-in-law.
|James Neale Mansion|
Photo courtesy of Fr. Elijah Bremer
On a more personal note, one of my audience members (80+ years old) met the video with tears--she identified her father in a shot that panned over the miners faces. A student of mine helped create a 17 minute synopsis of the film (with full credits given to Hay & the SI) set to music. Overall, it has been very well received. Every US History II class I teach gets to see Ben Hay's film!”
Although it is true that we cannot “see the world in their heads” we can learn about the world around them through these personal films that survived when so many others have not. Although, “we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories”, we can, because we, like them, are defined by and define the place in which we inhabit, identify through our longings and imaginations with “the soul of a place” long gone.