A child listens while pages turn. He studies pictures as literacy begins on his mother’s knee. He was three or four years old. It wasn’t the first book read to him, for that happened well before memory. And it wouldn’t be the last. For little did he know that as he grew older, books would grow with him.
As for children’s books, I wasn’t fond of Br’er Rabbit stories, they didn’t make sense. “Hansel and Gretel” rather frightened me—children left in a forest only to fall to the hands of a wretched old woman. And really, Hansel, didn’t it occur that breadcrumbs trailed behind might get eaten? “Three Little Pigs” seemed too obvious on successive readings, but we read on. I admired Goldilocks’ insistence on getting things just right. She did after all get her fill of porridge, took a nap, and escaped unharmed. “Old Mother Hubbard,” “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” were all fun stories to hear.
But the book I loved best was Two Little Miners. It spoke to me—most likely since both grandfathers were coal miners, as were a bunch of uncles. And so was Dad. He operated mobile equipment, like bulldozers, shovels, and loaders outside the mines. On special occasions, Mom packed an extra lunch bucket when I went to work with him. If the day was nice, I played in freshly bulldozed dirt. If it rained, I stayed in his pickup watching droplets become streams that wiggled down the windshield.
We lived in the remnant of a forgotten town called Elk Coal. Most pronounced it El-ko. Elk Coal, you ask? It’s located halfway between Kanaskat and Kangley, pressed against the foothills of the Cascades. The coal mine for which the town was named closed in 1953, the year I was born. The shabby village fell further from grace as miners left. Our family moved there from Selleck, one week before my first birthday. The next day my sister, Jeanmarie, was born. They called us Irish twins.
My earliest childhood memories belong to Elk Coal. Further north was Hiawatha, where Dad was born in the same house where his parents still lived. Sometimes my grandfather, Tony Kombol, babysat me. An errant dynamite coal mine blast 30 years prior left him nearly blind with a face freckled purple from embedded coal dust. Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck. She was Barry’s first-grade teacher and beloved by every school kid she taught.
Our home was a stone’s throw from Durham, where Mom was raised. It was once a company town. Many of its residents were her uncles who worked in the coal mines and aunts who performed the many mundane chores that make a small town livable.
Her Uncle Jonas and Aunt Maggie managed the large brick building called the Durham hotel. It was really a boarding house for single miners. Twenty or more homes, built in rows along the hillside, housed most of Durham’s 70 to 80 residents. Some even worked the Elk Coal mines across the street.
Durham was fully deserted by the 1950s, but Elk Coal, situated on a county road, survived. Durham’s impressive coal slag piles still dominated the landscape. Its crumbling company houses were a source of lumber salvaged by Dad. After he disassembled boards in the driveway, we scoured the gravel with horseshoe magnets picking up rusty nails.
We lived in a four-room home my folks bought from Benj Whitehouse in late June 1954. He’d been a coal miner in nearby Durham. He built the house in 1930. Its two bedrooms, one bath, and two porches spanned 952 square feet, and cost my folks $3,000. Our yard bordered scrub woodlands on one side and a rundown farm on the other. That’s where Anne Pearson, our babysitter, lived.
Rare was the day when kids our age visited, as none lived in Elk Coal. Sometimes cousins would drop by, or maybe the Kahne boys—for their mother, Pat Hunt, had grown up there. Two older kids, Billy and Dickie St. Clair, occasionally came by. They lived next door to my Kombol grandparents half a mile up the road. When Barry started school, Jeanmarie and I, a year and a day apart, became fast friends.
Two hundred feet south of our home lay the Elk Coal gas station and grocery. It was a tiny clue this village was once something more than a name. Aileen (Pearson) Gregovich ran the store which served ice cream cones, had a penny candy counter, and carried basic canned and dry grocery goods. Behind the cash register, one caught glimpse of a bedroom filled with musical instruments. A decade later, I learned the young man who studied music in that room was Aileen’s son, Bob Estby, Enumclaw’s choir director. He too was a product of Selleck and Elk Coal.
In my sophomore year at Enumclaw High, a chess team was established with Mr. Estby as coach. Curiously, he didn’t play chess. Practice was hosted in his classroom each day after school. Every few weeks, he drove our five-boy team to matches played throughout the region. For three years Bob was my mentor and coach. Amazingly, he kept our chess team’s trophies for 40 years after we left school. When Mr. Estby passed away, his daughter gave me those trophies.
The secluded nature of Elk Coal made for limited social lives. The store was the brightest star on the horizon and a two-minute walk from home. With pennies found atop the dryer, Jeanmarie and I walked there for candy. We envied older kids who bought soda pop with nickels. In that innocent time, Mom didn’t mind her three and four-year-olds, pennies in hand, wandering about unattended. We napped together in separate cribs, those of a wooden-slat, jail-bar-style of the 1950s. When one awoke, we’d call across the tiny room to the other. Soon we were chattering about. Best of friends we were, for Barry was at school and Dana not yet born.
In the era before preschool, Jeanmarie and I played on our backyard swing set, hoping for visitors. We sometimes saw an aunt or grandmother. Desperate for excitement one day I hid on the back floorboard of Aunt Nola’s sedan after she visited with Mom. I figured she was headed to Grandma’s and therein lay my escape. Instead, she drove along to Mariani’s Goat Ranch. Nola parked and went to buy eggs and visit. I emerged from her car surprised we weren’t at Grandma’s, so drifted down the road with the vague idea of waking home. I was picked by an adult who recognized me and promptly delivered me the mile and a half back to Mom. It was that kind of place.
Each month a novel source of entertainment arrived. That’s when the King County mobile library made its round to our secluded hamlet. The Bookmobile parked on the gravel strip across from our house where the road was widest. Stepping anxiously through the side door, one entered a bus filled with books, any of which you could pick up and take home. With Mom or Grandma in tow, we examined colorful covers then checked out volumes at the rear exit. Upon its returned, we exchanged our previous cache for new selections. Once checked out, Two Little Miners through purchase or gift became part of our family’s library.
The Little Golden Book had a thin hard binding. Its child-sized pages were treasured art to these young eyes. The story by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Richard Scarry was published in 1949. Earlier books like, Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny had a rhythm and style. Nearly 70 years after Brown’s tragic death at age 42, they still sold by the thousands.
Two Little Miners was Richard Scarry’s first illustration. In subsequent years he wrote or drew more than 300 stories. His sales eventually soared to several hundred million copies worldwide. Typical of Scarry’s drawings was their emphasis on action with precise detail in depicting everyday life. Two Little Miners tells the tale of coal miners and their hard work underground. The story’s happy ending was reason enough to have it read again and again. Memories of the book are warmly juxtaposed with Sunday evenings watching the Wonderful World of Disney in our cozy living room.
We moved to Enumclaw in December 1958. Kindergarten wasn’t available in Elk Coal, so I joined Mrs. Todnam’s class in January, halfway through the school year. Many of the classmates I met that first day of school graduated with me twelve years later.
Enumclaw was The Land of Oz compared to Elk Coal. My eyes were opened and the world brightened. We’d left the dreary and arrived in a real town. Our neighborhood had stately churches with steeples that reached towards the sky. Paved streets, grass medians, and concrete sidewalks outlined blocks of well-kept homes. Front yards boasted rhododendrons with flowers that bloomed in spring. A thriving downtown with stores, cafes, and a movie theater was but a five-minute walk from home.
Kids were everywhere—at school, in back yards, and throughout the neighborhood. Our isolated existence in Elk Coal faded in memory. Enumclaw became my town and playing with kids my passion.
While Mom still read books to us at bedtime, my interests stretched well beyond fairy tales on printed pages. There was football to be played and baseballs to be thrown; skates to be rolled and bicycles to ride. There were streets to walk and alleys to explore. But mostly there were boys everywhere.
Jeanmarie was crushed when I dumped her for their companionship. Oh, we still bathed together on Saturday night and stayed inside on rainy days playing board games or listening to records. But once I stepped outside the backdoor my focus changed. No longer was Jeannie my best friend and faithful companion with whom we would one day live together like two little miners. My world was now messing around with other boys. In some ways, I’m not entirely convinced she ever fully forgave me.
My walk to the clean brick school building was five blocks away. At Byron Kibler Elementary we were taught under the “see Dick run – look, Jane, look” method. It’s called sight-reading and its efficacy I’ll leave to others. For me it was agonizingly slow, but apparently did the trick for learn to read I did.
There was even a modern library four blocks from our Franklin Street home. Alas, it was largely ignored as sporting fields beckoned. Though I had a library card and could search index cards to find books, my dreams of being shortstop for the Detroit Tigers placed reading them firmly on the back burner. How much the newspaper’s sports section and baseball box scores advanced my reading skills is substantial. Comic books, particularly the Archie and the Superman series became my primary sources of literature outside of school.
It wasn’t until junior high—when paperbacks like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Mysterious Island captured my imagination—that I was first drawn to printed pages without pictures or batting averages. I also became an avid reader of magazines starting with Boys Life, migrating through MAD to Sports Illustrated, before graduating to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mom’s purchase of a complete, multi-volume, Collier’s Encyclopedia provided free reign for our inquisitive spirits. It also made school reports much easier to complete, with fewer trips to the library.
More advanced volumes like All Quiet on the Western Front and Hiroshima followed. High school introduced captivating novels like A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, plus Lord of the Flies, 1984, and several others.
I’ll be forever thankful to our senior English teacher, Bill Hawk. That spring semester, he recited the entirety of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet out loud to the class. It was almost like being back on Mom’s knee. College years were consumed with textbooks and assigned readings, so pleasure reading faded. After graduation, the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Maugham, and Austen beckoned. Eventually, my reading tastes evolved towards nonfiction particularly history, biography, politics, and culture.
Decades passed, I married, and we raised three boys of our own. Stories at bedtime became an evening ritual. New children’s books were bought. Some of the old folk and fairy tale books were recycled from Mom to me.
One day I found the crayon-riddled, torn copy of Two Little Miners. Foggy memories sifted back. The old copy was beyond redemption, but the rise of online book-buying made finding a replacement a cinch. The used copy arrived. Fingering its worn pages released unexpected emotions. The story endured: two little miners black as coal, scrubbed clean in wooden bathtubs, sit down to dinner. Arising the next morning their lives of mining coal are told in exquisite detail, concluding with baths and supper on the table. Though most pages were black and white, the ones in color are striking.
It’s funny how childhood memories seize the mind of a fully grown man. My thoughts turned to Elk Coal. I toured the world’s vast web seeking evidence to confirm youthful recollections. ‘Elk Coal’ was typed in the Google search box and up popped … nothing! I tried Elko and Elco—still zilch. I scoured all manner of keywords generating little better than Elk Plains, Elk River, or Big Elk. There were no links that even mentioned Elk Coal, Washington. It seemed like an important part of my childhood didn’t exist outside of memories.
“If it isn’t digital it didn’t happen,” is a fashionable view of today’s world. Following the French Revolution, a dramatist attributed to Napoleon the slogan, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” I felt the same way.
How could the curious people of Planet Earth enjoy full and fruitful lives knowing nothing of Elk Coal’s heritage? Being an amateur historian, the answer was easy—I’d write its history. Like any coal miner, I dug deep underground, excavated newspaper stories, and unearthed ancient mine reports. I was in the fortunate position of having access to source documents allowing the narrative to be told. I submitted “Elk Coal: Forgotten Coal Mining Town,” to HistoryLink.org where it was published in May 2010. Today, if you query Google regarding Elk Coal, several references now populate the list.
The link below tells the story of that faded outpost where four of my first five years were lived. For me it’s the place where literacy began … in Elk Coal with Two Little Miners.