Where Are The Coal Miner's Daughters?
July 6, 2010 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about growing up in a small town in the 50s: I'm looking for books, articles, memoirs, interviews, etc that describe or detail growing up in a single industry town in American Rust Belt the late 50s. Ideally I'm looking for stories in places like Braddock or Centralia, mill or mine towns located in the Central Pennsylvania-ish area.

I'd like to find out about the slang, political causes, popular music, church attendance rates, social clubs, and even more basic stuff like where do people go to buy bread and where did they buy it from and what did it look like? Would there be a Supermarket in town? Out of town? Stuff like that. Pretty much the only thing I've got a handle on is the fashion, everything else I'll need sources for.
posted by The Whelk to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
One state over, but The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a story about growing up in a working-class town in that era and I recall it being rich in detail about family and small-town life..
posted by essexjan at 7:35 AM on July 6, 2010

Why don't you check out the Johnstown Area Heritage Association? They exist precisely to preserve this kind of stuff. They tend to focus on further in the past in their advertisements, but I bet they could give you tons of resources. I grew up in this area, so if you have questions, just MeMail me.
posted by unannihilated at 7:54 AM on July 6, 2010

I should clarify, the book I listed above is a memoir.
posted by essexjan at 8:02 AM on July 6, 2010

I can connect you with family members who lived or grew up in Beaver Falls, PA, a small mill town on the Ohio River. My mother was one of 18 children in a large Catholic family and they all have long memories.

If you're up for a drive it's kind of shocking how much is still the same; most of the Social Clubs are intact and most of the restaurants have been there for at least six or seven decades, run by the same people or their offspring. The people are disarmingly friendly and proud of their town. I also believe there is a historical society that would be happy to fill you in.
posted by Alison at 8:10 AM on July 6, 2010

You want 1950's middle-America? Try Bill Bryson's "Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid".
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:14 AM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission has a treasure trove of archives, both online and offline. Coal and Coal Miners is one topic. You might also be able to contact an archivist at the State Museum (your success may vary; hours and staff have been cut way, way back). WITF-TV, the public television station in Central Pa., used to do a series called "Our Town" ("Our Town: Hershey", "Our Town: Millersville", etc.), which is available in many libraries in Central Pa.; perhaps an inter-library loan is in order? These programs feature contemporary and historical accounts of various towns in the area. And while I can't believe I'm recommending this... you could do worse than a day-trip to Knoebels, which has a tiny (but photographable!) Anthracite Museum. Don't blame me if you pig out on the absolutely awesome park food. Virtual Museum of Coal Mining (Google find; I haven't looked through it).
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:24 AM on July 6, 2010

Even though this is across the country from where you're looking, Sometimes a Great Notion is a classic in this regard.
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 AM on July 6, 2010

More south central than you might want, but...memories of York, Pa.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:10 AM on July 6, 2010

Sort of a tangent, but if race relations interest you, check out H. L. Gates' Colored People about growing up in small town West Virginia during the 50s and 60s.
posted by eafarris at 10:52 AM on July 6, 2010

I haven't read it myself, and I am ideologically opposed to much of this woman's entire existence, and cannot actually believe I am going to recommend it (how's that for a disclaimer?), BUT I have heard good things about Lynne Cheney's memoir of growing up in Casper, Wyoming in the '40s and '50s. My father grew up with her in Casper (they were schoolmates through college), and he said she really nails a lot of the period detail and the unique character of Casper as a boom town in a very isolated state.

I don't know how heavy on the nostalgia/ideology it is, but it might at least be worth a look from the library or to pick up used, in case you're not thrilled about contributing royalties to the Cheney family.
posted by scody at 11:03 AM on July 6, 2010

See also the Coal and Coke Heritage Center, the Knox Mine disaster and Coal Speak.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:27 PM on July 6, 2010

If humor (and its exaggerations) are OK, check out Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd. It's a memoir of his 1950s boyhood in an Indiana steel mill town.
posted by Quietgal at 3:31 PM on July 6, 2010

NOT small town exactly, but Annie Dillard's An American Childhood is a pretty well written account of growing up in '50s Pittsburgh and some of those childhood memory small town touches here and there.
posted by ifjuly at 7:58 PM on July 6, 2010

I just began reading John Updike's memoir, Self-Consciousness. The first chapter is packed with details about growing up in Shillington, Pa.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:14 AM on July 8, 2010

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