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Follow the Coal

A Visit with Oreste Leombruno

By Maureen Crockett

Oreste Leombruno
Oreste Leombruno followed the fortunes of the coal industry across West Virginia for 65 years. He is shown here in an underground mine. Photographer, date, and location unknown.


Thousands of successful Italian-Americans live in West Virginia today because their ancestors immigrated here to work long, arduous hours in our coal mines for meager wages. The Leombrunos of Randolph County are such a family.

Oreste Leombruno has not forgotten his heritage. He heard the stories and remembers the tragic and desperate times, as his ancestors worked to establish themselves in the New World. He has lived a long life himself and has traveled in their footsteps, following the coal and digging and scraping a living out of these hills.

I visited Oreste recently at his well-appointed home in Elkins. He offered my husband, Bill, and me glasses of his homemade wines: red or white. “There’s no additives, no junk,” he tells us. We chose white, sipped, then sat back to listen.

Oreste told us rock-hard tales of coal mining and of his family’s struggle to make a life in West Virginia. The first to arrive was Oreste’s grandfather, Antonio, who left his wife, Maria, behind in a small village 70 miles southeast of Rome. In the late 1800's, Antonio made the long Atlantic crossing.

According to a family history written by Wilma Leombruno, Antonio’s 17-year-old son, Concezio, followed in 1900, with $21 in his pocket. When the two heard about coke oven jobs in West Virginia, they came to see whether life would be good here. They settled in Douglas, Tucker County, where they lived in bachelor shanties. They pulled hot coke from the Davis Coal & Coke Company’s burning ovens, making $1.50 a day. They later worked for the same company at Harding and Coalton, both in Randolph County.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.