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Anthracite carving


Been trying to remember the name of a town in Pennsylvania I passed
through - maybe 1960 or thereabouts in time - until I finally got it
today (I think), a place called Ashland, appropriately, a smallish
one of the dozens of small coal mining towns through that part of the
country - most of them stunned by having suddenly become superfluous,
extinct, surplus to requirements. Ghost towns, still populated
though, by the formerly busy and gainfully employed citizens - living
dead, you might say, all their businesses shuttered, the jobs gone.
The notable exception in this place, Ashland, was their local
attraction, a coal museum. In a dimly lit wooden building on the
barren main street, the Coal Museum - the building might have once
been a bustling small department store in the town’s heyday. I walked
on creaky wooden floors between wooden-framed showcases lining the
walls and free-standing glass-faced cabinets on the floor, filled
with the most amazing examples of what people can do with carved
coal. It’s well over fifty years since I saw the place, so many
things forgotten. But some are remembered - one, a ladies folding fan
such as one might have seen made of carved ivory, but in this case of
dozens of thin, ornately shaped and pierced slats or leaves (what
would you call those bits that make up a folding fan, petals maybe?)
Anyway - there it was - one among hundreds and hundreds of equally
improbable objects - pie crimpers, ornate models of famous
cathedrals, bas-reliefs of landscapes - all very well done, with fine
detail and polished surfaces. I have no idea if that fan was
practical or mdd for show - it seemed as though it would be fragile
if actually used. I came away from that museum with the sense that
the art of carving anthracite was a near-universal pastime in that
place, once upon a time. The feeling of it kept oscillating between
two feelings in my mind - That art might have been something done out
of real love and deep connection with the stuff of their daily lives,
a very highly evolved folk art - or as some kind of almost demented
frantic struggle to stay sane in a dark and constrained existence.
Almost like concentration camp art. It wasn’t a happy time in that
town. Maybe every one of those towns had similar displays, testaments
to the burning creativity in every human soul. I was just passing
through and didn’t get to know the area well. Anyway - that museum
provided one job for the one person who sat near the entrance to
collect the very small entry fee. Of any other employee, a janitor,
for example, there was no sign. A decidedly dusty feel to the place.
I was the only visitor and my presence seemed almost a surprise to
the attendant. Whatever beauty may be found in the art of carving
anthracite, to see it I must overcome the mood of deep sadness I took
away with me from that collection in Ashland. It seeped into me the
way the smell of woodsmoke stays in your clothes Anybody know
about that place? That museum? I wonder what has become of it all?