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Transcript of interview with Mike Hornick, June 9, 1992, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: Mike, tell me about where your parents came from, why they came to the United States?
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MH: My father came from Czechoslovakia; well, of course my mother came from Czechoslovakia also, but they apparently didn't know each other when they were in Czechoslovakia. My mother was probably about five years old when her parents brought her here. My father was about -- I'd say close to 17 years old when he came here, but he just felt there was a whole lot better life for him here in the United States than what it was in their country because his family were farmers and they didn't have really enough ground there really to support a large family on what ground they did have. Then, farm land if they worked it it was generally overworked. They didn't have your fertilizers and things like that you have nowadays so they just couldn't support a family like that. So, he came from a place called Habutha? in Czechoslovakia. He had two sisters; he left two sisters in the old country. There was another sister who came to Baerwick, Pennsylvania. When she came there, I don't know, but she did come to --

Q: Where did he come to and what did he find?
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MH: He came here to Elkhorn. Apparently some of the friends from Elkhorn had written back to the old country and told him this would be a good place to live and a good place to work, a whole lot better than what he was used to there. So I think that's where the decision came in that he come to this country. Just from what friends had told him.

Q: Tell me how he came to work in coal mining.
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MH: That was probably about the only thing that was left for them to do once they got here is coal mining. The coal operators were looking for coal miners, and they were looking for immigrant miners. They were good workers, hard workers, they worked at a lower wage than what the native born people here would work for, and they just liked the country here. Then I guess a lot of them were encouraged to come to this country by people that came and worked awhile and then went back to Europe to bring some of their family over here. They could depend on that person giving them the truth more so than what they could a labor agent that was sent to the old country to recruit the people. So, which one he was recruited by, I don't know but anyway he did wind up here in McDowell County.

Q: Did he find a better life here?
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MH: I think he did, yes. I think it was altogether different from what he had in the old country. I know that he would send clothes and stuff like that back to some of his family in the old country after he was here. He would send clothes and whatever other items that he could pick up and mail back to them. He would go ahead and do that. Seeing what they needed and what they could use.

Q: Tell me about the community of eastern Europeans, Czechoslovakians and Russians that were here?
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MH: Generally, here in Gary we had communities where the people, say the Czechoslovakians lived in one section of the community. Maybe another community down the road here you would have Italians living there. Then another place you'd have Spanish people. Then up at Thorpe, up in that area you had quite a number of Hungarian people. They lived in these communities where language wouldn't be a barrier. In other words, they can speak to each other. They would also, as they got letters from home, from the old country, they would share the letters with each other as to what was going on back in their countries there. They would write back to the people there and communication was just a little bit better you know where they lived in the community together like that with the people speaking their language there.
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The Polish people lived in one area and maybe the Czechoslovakians lived in another area, or the Yugoslavs or the Croatians, they would live in another area. But the language that was generally spoken around the coal fields was a mixture of Polish, Russian, Yugoslavian, Czechoslovakian, and the Slavic languages. It was just a mixture of that. Of course Italian and Hungarian language and the Spanish it was a little bit different.

Q: Tell me how all these Europeans and the native whites related and worked with the blacks who were also ??
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MH: Really, as far as getting along with the people here, all of them when you went underground and worked together underground, all of you were the same. In other words, you get in the dark coal mine, black is black for everybody. Once you got that coal dust on your face, you were black just like anybody else. But it was quite a bit more difficult when it came to language between the native born people and the immigrants. It was a whole lot easier for the native born to learn the immigrants' language than what it was for the immigrant to learn the English language because you can use a sentence in English I mean a word in a sentence in English. In one sentence that word will mean one thing; you can put that same word in another sentence and it would be exactly opposite.
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So, I know that up where we lived we'd have the blacks passing right by the house and the blacks would stop and talk to my grandmother in Czechoslovakian, not fluently but enough to make themselves understood because they had learned enough Czechoslovakian that they could carry on language with a man they worked with. The immigrant miner now would get in quite a bit of trouble around the coal mines though because the young, English speaking miners they would teach the immigrant curse words, instead of words that they were supposed to learn and then the boss would come around and he would talk to the immigrant there and the immigrant would start lashing in at the boss with a bunch of curse words. He didn't know what he was saying. So it would get him in a lot of trouble, but these young English speaking miners they got a kick of that.

Q: Were opportunities as open for immigrant miners as for other?
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MH: I would say that they were, yes. Now, for awhile some of the immigrants felt like they were discriminated against, but that really wasn't true down here in the coal fields as I know it. The opportunities were there. Some of the better foremen that we had around the coal mines was the old immigrant miner. He made a good foreman. He was real safety conscious. He believed in production and whenever he talked to his people they would work for them. Probably worked a whole lot better for the immigrant foreman than what they would for an English speaking or a native foreman. He was able to get along with these people a whole lot better, so the production was up with him working.

Q: Let's go back to your parents a little bit. Tell me the story about your parents' wedding in 1917.
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MH: I'll tell you her wedding -- of course I wasn't there. From what they told me, my mother was 15 years when she got married. She really didn't want to get married, but it was a thing that was arranged by the family. So usually before the wedding now the groom and the best man would always come to the house and they would ask the father of the house for the bride's hand in marriage, you know. But the best man and the groom would always come there. And then once they decided on the marriage, or were engaged, the groom would wear a flower on his hat that the bride would give him and he would wear that until the day he got married. But he'd carry that flower in his hat and wear that.
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When they got married now the groom bought the bride a pair of white boots, and the bride wore those boots during her marriage and then she would generally put those boots away. They was supposed to have been saved and kept until she passed away and then she was supposed to be buried with those boots. A lot of the brides say they were supposed to wear the boots to church, but they didn't want to wear them out so they would just bring them to church with them to show the people that they did have a pair of white boots that they got for their wedding, you know.

Q: There's a photograph of their wedding. What does that show about your parents?
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MH: You could look at the photograph and you could tell that my mother wasn't too happy on it, but there was one fellow on the side of the photograph who looked pretty happy because he was holding the bottle. The picture was taken. There wasn't enough room around the house there to take a picture so they took the picture down in front of the mine office. Had the wedding party down in front of the mine office, and if you can look real close at that picture, you can see a mine car in the background. Now that's something you wouldn't find at one of these studios now that you would go with wedding pictures. But then the wedding generally it lasted for two or three days, the dancing, the eating and all of that. It lasted for three or four days until everybody got tired of this and they gave up, and all the food was eaten, you know. Then they'd go home then.


Q: Mike, tell me how it came to be that your father's name was changed?
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MH: ... My father's name originally was Vazily Hornyak. This is the same thing happened so many of the immigrant miners around. The payroll clerk could not pronounce the name, so he changed the name then, the last name instead of Hornyak, he changed to Hornick, H-O-R-N-I-C-K. And his first name which was Vazily, he changed it to Wash, W-A-S-H. So that's the name he went under from then on as far as the coal company records were concerned. Now the church records, they still carry it as Vizaly Hornyak, but the company records they were all Wash Hornick.

Q: There were enough Russians and Czechoslovakian miners to sustain a church, Orthodox church? Tell me about the church.
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MH: Yes. I really didn't attend the church that much, the Orthodox Church because we moved over here to Gary. We did have a church here at Gary, Orthodox church at Gary also. My father and parents they did attend that church, grandparents and all. But they would have different programs, like Christmas time they'd have a traveling narrative. My father usually traveled then with the priest and they'd have the youngsters, they would carry kind of a crib and go to house to house on Christmas Eve and of course they celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th. They kept the Orthodox Christmas.

Q: Let me ask you about Gary then. ... I guess that's kind of an unfair question. Tell me what your remembrances were of what life in Gary was like? Was it a dark, dirty place? Was it a town like we ... Tell me about Gary.
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MH: Gary at one time, it was one of the finest coal camps in the coal mining area, and we did have our schools here, schools for the blacks, and schools for the whites. We had theater building with movies, a pool room and bowling alleys. We had a dance hall. We had our company store here, barber shops and restaurants and everything right down in the community building down there. It was a good place to live. I mean the company store you can go to the company and they had just about any item that you would need; they would have it there. They had the best materials there. I mean, best suits. They'd have a tailor come in. He'd measure you up for a suit and they'd go ahead and you'd get your suit there and they had dresses for the ladies.
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They had the best shoes that you could buy, hats and all of that. They often told about, said these old immigrant miners, they would come down and they would order their burial suit, so they'd have a suit to be buried in. They'd order with two pairs of pants. I don't know why they needed two pairs of pants for a burial suit. But that's the way they would order their suits, you know. But they had a good line of clothes and good line of meats and groceries and all of that that the store would have there.

Q: Now when you were in high school you worked for the store. Tell me about that.
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MH: I worked for the store; I did not work for the company store. I worked for a private store, which was in the community. What we would do is we would go deliver groceries to that house each day and would bring it in on a truck, carry the groceries into the house, set down at the table, write the order down in the book, whatever the lady had ordered. We'd write it down in our grocery book of what we delivered to her. Then we would sit there and she would give us a order for the next. She'd order her bread, meat, groceries, whatever she needed and we'd write that down. Then we'd bring that the next day and go through the same procedure.
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The company store, you didn't have to go to the company store if you didn't want to because we had a company store in each community and the clerk that the company store would go from house to house each morning and take the order. Then that evening they would fill that order and they would send it, let the truck driver bring the order to your house. And they would charge those groceries to you at that -- I mean charge it to your account; then that was deducted from your pay statement. You'd pay for your groceries.

Q: Mike, what was it like to live in a town where every part of life practically was part of the company?
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MH: I couldn't see where it made any difference. I mean, the company owned the houses and I didn't have to worry about, if my steps had rotted off the house out there. I didn't have to worry about going down to the lumber yard and getting some lumber and fixing those steps because all I did was call the, or talk to the superintendent and he would have the carpenters come up there and they'd put you in a new pair of steps. Or if you had a water line that was broken to your house, they'd send a plumber up there and he'd replace the water line for you. And if the roof was leaking, he'd patch the roof to keep it from leaking.
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So they took care of you; they also took care of painting your house for you. About every five years they'd come around, they'd put a coat of paint on that house for you. Scrape the paint; scrape the house and put paint on it. And they did that just about every five years, so your house was always painted and kept in good repair.

Q: But did you ever have the sense that your life was controlled, that you weren't free, since this was the land of the free?
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MH: I guess in a kind of a sense you would have, sense of the word, you would have some of that, that the company actually dominated the worker himself, but really you had a lot of freedom in the coal camps. They didn't want to see the union come in cause actually here at Gary we had our own independent union.


Q: Mike tell me what in your view were some of the good things about living in a company town?
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MH: Well, the good things about living in a company town was we did have good schools; we did have the grocery stores so we could get quality merchandise at and the prices insofar as the company store and compared to private stores there was very little difference in the prices that you'd pay at the company store and the private store. A lot of the stories that you get is that the company store would gouge you on your prices to make up for loss at the mine, but I can't say that I've ever seen that here.
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At Christmas time at the company store, when you went in and bought your groceries, you got a ticket for a purchase there and then on Christmas Eve they had a drawing at the company store for baskets of groceries. They had some kind of special toys, maybe a bicycle or special wagon or something like that. They would draw so that some kid in the community would win that wagon or bicycle. Then on Christmas morning, about 9 o'clock in the morning, you went down to the company store and everybody was lined up out in front of the company store and you went in and they had Santa Claus there and you would get your Christmas treats. You'd get a bag of hard candy and an apple and orange and popcorn ball.
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Then the old man who'd went down with you, someone out of the family went with you, if it was your father, they always gave him a cigar and a calendar to use for the next year. But all during the Christmas season you had Santa Claus that walked around that company store there all the time you know. Of course, you had somebody dressed up like Santa Claus there, and I know one time a little ol' kid in there said, 'Mom, I don't know what's wrong with that Santa Claus, but', he said, 'he smells just like Grandpa does when he drinks his whiskey.' Of course Santa Claus always had a bottle of whiskey back in the ware room and he'd always slip back there and get him a drink while he was in the store all day long, you know.

Q: Let me ask you another question about blacks and whites. Tell me about how in the morning you would go to your separate schools and --
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MH: We had separate schools for the blacks and the whites. And we'd pass each other on the sidewalks. The blacks would be going in one direction going to the school, and the whites would be coming in another direction going there. But then that evening, after school was over, all of us would meet down on the playground down there. We'd have our ball games or play whatever we wanted to. We all played together down there and we got along real good with each other; all of us did.

Q: Why do you think blacks and whites got together better at the company stores than they did in so many other places apparently, company towns?
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MH: Company towns? The reason they got along a whole lot better. The people worked together. We lived together. I mean, up where I lived where my grandmother and mother lived now we lived in the first house on that hill. Then from there on out where maybe the next twenty hours, we had blacks living. Then at the other end, we had whites living there. We were passing by each other all the time. They would look after us and we'd look after them. .. A lot of my friends where I worked with them, I mean where I played with them there, I'd go to their house. I'd sit down at their table with them and sit right there and eat with them just like I would if I was eating at the house. They'd do the same thing when they came to our house.
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Then they would have the blacks usually raised a whole lot of sugar cane up on the mountain. They'd make molasses. This was a thing that usually would go way up into nights, and we'd go up there and the old horse would be drawing the cane mill. He'd be pulling a cane meal around while they were squeezing the juice out of the cane. Then we'd go ahead and -- they'd go ahead and put it in their pans and they'd cook it all night long there and keep it skimmed off. We'd sit there and a kid would sit there and chew on that sugar cane. Then when that molasses was done, man that molasses made good taffy candy. We'd have some taffy pulls and stuff like that. This was just some of the things that they did there.
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If we got ready to kill hogs. Course everybody raised their own meat and had their cows and everything in the community. Get ready to kill hogs now. Blacks and whites would all get together and they'd do their butchering there while they had all their equipment set up. Their scalding barrels and have their platform for scrapping their hogs and their pole for raising a hog up and all that. If they were doing some hog killing, all of them would just get together there and they'd go ahead and kill their hogs. Then cut up their meat, salt it down and preserve it you know. It was just a community thing, and everybody worked together on it.

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Hornick Interview