Jacob Guydish was born in Slovakia or some nearby region in 1881. The turbulent politics of the turf — swallowed, spat out and reconstituted repeatedly by greater powers — pulverized any records we could likely use to determine his hometown or his parents’ names.
His dad immigrated to the United States somewhere between 1881 and 1886. He settled in Sheppton, Pa, working in the coal mines. After a few years, his dad had saved enough money to send for his wife Mary and their sons, Jacob and an older brother whose name we don’t know.
The reunion never happened. They arrived to find the patriarch had died in a mine accident, his dream of bringing his family to a new hope paid for with his life. He did, however, apparently leave behind more than many miners could will to their heirs: A house.
Mary took on boarders, coal miners, to feed her family. She did their laundry. Her older son went to work in the mines. He was killed in an accident at the age of 19. Mary remarried and had more children
Jacob Guydish dropped out of school in second grade. His mother objected to education, vowing no child would be smarter than she was. He went to work in the mines in 1900, and married Mary Hudock around 1901. They eventually moved from Sheppton to West Hazleton and had 10 children before Mary died in 1927 during childbirth.
Blessed with the ability to do some basic math despite his lack of education, Jacob Guydish was promoted to foreman, allowing him to make enough money to buy a plot of land and build a large brick house among many smaller, clapboard abodes. Like his mother, he both lived in it and rented rooms out to borders who gathered in a single large dining room for meals.
He crammed a two-door garage and a one-floor bungalow into the backyard, and eventually added a work space above the garage where he fashioned jewelry (it later became an apartment for rent). When he built his home, he included a small grocery store on the east side of the first floor, but abandoned the enterprise during the Depression (it reopened later under outside management). He bought a truck and opened a hauling business run mostly by elder sons while he worked in the mines.
His affluence showed not only in the size of the house and outbuildings, but in the fact that he was among the first on his street to have a telephone and a car, a Packard.
Like so many miners toiling in such abject conditions, Jacob became a full-blown drunk around his retirment at age 67. He sold his house to his son and eventually moved into a little three-room boarding area on the second floor. My sister recounts visiting his place as young girl and watching him put an egg in a glass of whiskey and gulp it down.
My mother recounts how he would come downstairs where she and Jacob Jr. lived, pour himself a whiskey and put pepper in it. When Jacob Sr. complained about my mother’s cooking, insisting it was never as good as his late wife’s, she says she once shot back “Were you drinking whiskey with pepper then?”
That was my grandfather. He died January 10, 1958, eight months and 18 days after I was born. He was, by all accounts, a skinflint. There were no Christmas trees or presents in my dad’s childhood home. New clothes were almost as scarce. Mom tells the time dad turned to her and promised he would never treat his wife and kids that way. He kept that promise.
Yet despite his flaws, Jacob Guydish Sr. — and the father he may never have met — created a family that grew and spread, imbuing them with a work ethic and moral compass that has served my extended family well.
There are no kingmakers or earthshakers in the clan launched by my unknown great grandfather’s bold and brief contribution to the “American Experiment,” but his decision to sail here has sent ripples through the fabric of this nation, from coast to coast. It created everything from entrepreneurs and store clerks to psychologists, bank executives, teachers, PhDs, and yes, a journalist.
And every scrap of that bountiful contribution to this country started in a coal mine.
The announcement, at long last, of a U.S. Postal stamp commemorating coal miners is both a moment of pride and a moment of shame. The latter because it took so long.
The former because there are millions of Americans who have histories completely entwined with the black diamond veins our ancestors drained. We know the sacrifice that gave each generation a better life. We have coal dust in our blood, and cannot help but pass it on.
For us, this is not just a stamp.
It is the stamp.