From Mules to Nuclear Power
If you want to understand some of the tremendous changes that took place in the last century, you need only look at the lives of Sharon residents Betty and Ernie Horkey. When he was young, Ernie worked in the coal mines, where the power to move the coal was provided by mules. In his later years, he machined parts for the first nuclear submarine.
Betty is part of a family whose roots were planted in Mercer County nearly two hundred years ago. Her great-great grandmother, Mary Haddock Swogger, was born in 1800, and is buried in Sandy Lake Cemetery. Mary’s son, Joseph Swogger, fought in the Civil war.
Ernie, on the other hand, is the son of a Hungarian immigrant who came to America in 1904, when he was just 17 years old. He came after barely surviving an epidemic. The trick was not so much to survive the illness, but to survive the cure.”
“My father and two brothers were sick,” Ernie said. “A doctor came and told them to drink a bottle of something down. The ones who drank it died. The doctor’s way of stopping the epidemic was to poison the ones who got sick. My father threw it away.”
Ernie’s father came to Mercer County where he worked in the small “country” coal mines. He raised his family in a town that is now just a vanishing memory – the town named Number Five Mine. That town and the mine it depended upon were on Route 208, just west of where the Prime Outlets are today.
Betty grew up in the same town. She and Ernie knew each other most of their lives. Her father was also a miner. Without electricity until about 1937, their families got most of their food essentially as mankind had for thousands of years – by growing, picking, and hunting their own.
“We lived in a duplex,” Ernie said. “Grandfather had four rooms on his side, we had four rooms on ours. We had three acres of ground and raised most of our own food. We raised our own chickens and pigs. We would hunt rabbits, and my mother would can them. In the fall it was beautiful with the canning jars on the shelves, full of plums, peppers, pears, berries, and other fruit and vegetables.”
Betty said her family had a lot of help from her grandparents. “They had a farm in Sandy Lake. They had a big garden, and would butcher pigs. We never went hungry.”
Ernie’s and Betty’s fathers were both instrumental in organizing labor unions at the mines.
“I wasn’t very old – about eight,” Betty said, “but I remember a few incidents. One time someone shot into the home of one of the men who were against the union. My father had nothing to do with it, but I remember vividly the sheriff coming to our house to check out his guns.”
“The guy whose window got shot out, he had an older car.” Ernie said. “He was in management, and he decided to go to work, to be a strike breaker. He got to the corner, and the men took his car and just rolled it right over. He was lucky he got out alive.”
Betty’s father also helped organize the unions and Sharon Steel, and was active in politics.
“My father was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” she said. “To him, FDR was the king because he did so much for the working man. My brother and sister and I, in our later years, we’d vote for whomever we thought was the best. And every time I did I’d think that my father must be turning over in his grave. We all said if a jackass ran on the Democratic ticker, my dad would vote for him.”
On his 18th birthday, Ernie started working in the mines.
“The first mine I went into,” he said, “was Number 2 Mine. I think it was 65 feet deep. Number 5 Mine was a little deeper, I think 85 feet. There was a shaft going down, with two cages – one going up, the other going down. They’d pull the coal up and dump it into gondola railroad cars. The railroad took it to Sharon Steel. I also worked in slope mines that were dug into hillsides.”
It was a different world, where unlikely animals were heroes.
“A rat is your friend in a mine,” Ernie said. “My Dad had told me if you were in danger, a rat will warn you. Once I was sitting there eating and a rat came in front of me, sat up, looked at the roof of the mine and made a funny squeak. I looked up and there was a piece of draw slate right above me. I moved my bucket and I got my pick. I just touched it and a 150 lb rock smashed down where I had been sitting.”
Rats weren’t the only animals Ernie respected in the mines.
“The mules lived right down there in the mines,” he said. “They were well trained. There were hills in the mines, up and down. The mules knew they could pull maybe three empty cars up the hill. The driver thought maybe he could hook an extra one on, but the mule could hear the extra bump. He’d take a beating, but he wouldn’t go until that last car was unhooked. The saying dumb as a mule doesn’t make any sense. The mules were very smart. They knew how much they could pull.”
Ernie said it took him three years before he saw the light – that is, the realization that he did not want to work in the mines. He went to work at Westinghouse.
“A guy asked me if I thought I’d like it there,” Ernie said. “There was a nice glass window, a water fountain, a bathroom over there. I said I came out of the coal mines, no light all day long. Compared to that this is heaven.”
The employment staff asked Ernie what kind of work work he would like to do at Westinghouse.
“I told them I had a friend who works in the tank shop. I’m not afraid of work because I was a coal miner. I could chip and grind. He said your IQ is a lot better than that. He said how would you like to wind coil? I must have been able to, because you’re supposed to be on probation for six weeks. Three weeks after I started, the boss said to me, ‘Ernie, you’ve done so well, we’re going to put you on standard time.’ But eight months later I was laid off because of a shortage of some kind of wire. I never went back.”
Then he went to work as a machinist at Cooper-Bessemer in Grove City, which was only about five miles from his home.
When the mines closed down in the late 1930s, Betty’s father worked for the WPA. In 1940 he got a job at Westinghouse where he worked until he retired.
“The country band Alabama has a song about the father working for the WPA and buying a car,” Betty said. “Whenever I hear it, I think of my father. When he got a job at Westinghouse, we were rich! He bought a car and a new refrigerator.”
In 1942 Ernie went into the navy. While in training, his ears were perforated by the noise from large-caliber gunfire, so he was never assigned to a ship. After the war, he went back to work at Cooper-Bessemer.
While Ernie was in the navy, Betty attended high school in Grove City. She also worked with the Farm Security Administration in the Meadville office.
“When I graduated from Grove City High School in 1944, I worked at Westinghouse until the end of the war. Then I got laid off. I worked a short time at the voter registration office in the basement of the Mercer County Courthouse.
After Ernie and Betty were married in 1947, Ernie took advantage of the GI Bill to become an expert auto body man. That led to a job at DeForest Buick in Sharon and a new hobby – restoring antique cars. One Model A Ford he restored in the mid-1950s took first place out of 1000 cars in competitions at Hershey and Dearborn.
About 1952 Ernie left DeForest to work at Mecomatic in Brookfield. That’s where he worked on parts for the first nuclear submarine. After Mecomatic, he worked at Sharon Steel for fifteen years until he retired in 1984.
Betty loved to play baseball and basketball when she was young, and has been an avid Pirates fan all her life. But when asked what’s the most interesting thing she has done, Betty replied without hesitation: “Raising four children.”
The Horkeys have one son, Martin, and three daughters: Michele Means, Arlene Horkey, and Marsha Hubciz. They also have four grandchildren and one three-year-old great grandson – for whom Betty baby sits three times a week.
Their home bears witness to their active lives. There are many pictures of their family, and the walls display some of Ernie’s hunting and fishing trophies, including two deer heads and a beautiful 22 lb turkey with a nine inch beard.
“We ate the turkey right here at the table in front of it,” Betty said. “Our daughters Michele and Arlene put a blindfold on it so it couldn’t see us eating it.”
Ernie passed away on January 12, 2009. He is buried in the Garden of Valor in America’s Cemetery.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007