Dorothy Patch–A Bit of Americana

The following article, written by Richard Gazarik, first appeared in The Tribune-Review in the 1978. My comments appear in gray boxes.

If you drive along Route 981, past St. Vincent College toward Latrobe, you might miss Dorothy Patch.

From the road, Dorothy doesn’t look like you’d be missing much. All that sits there are two rows of old but well-kept houses and gardens leftover from another age–an age when immigrants worked in the nearby coal mines in the Latrobe area. An age when people lived a lot simpler because they had less. An age when people were a lot closer in spirit and the nearest thing to a modern convenience was a galvanized wash tub. It was an age when English was a foreign language. And when people did speak English, it was punctuated with smatterings of Polish and Slavic.

Dorothy now has three rows of homes, including freestanding homes, mobile homes, and one modular home. They range in condition from well-kept to abandoned.

But Dorothy Patch deserves a little more scrutiny.

In that little area live a group of people who are very clannish and fiercely independent. They are survivors and descendants of survivors. Dorothy Patch is a monument. A monument to the people who live there now and who lived there 50 years ago. It is a monument to the hard working immigrants who helped build the industrial might of America.

This is a story about two families. One that stayed in the patch and one that left but who are still very much part of that age.

Dorothy Patch was one of the many coal patches, or company towns as they were more commonly known, that were built in the area during the latter part of the 19th Century and early part of the 20th.

Labor was in short supply when the mines, owned by Henry Clay Frick, started up. When the industrial growth of Western Pennsylvania soared, coal was in great demand for the hungry furnaces of the area steel mills.

The immigrants from eastern Europe came to Westmoreland County by train and disembarked in South Greensburg, then called Halftown. Groups of newly arrived immigrants were sent to one of the mining patches. Most of them were uneducated. Many never saw the light of day as they worked from sunrise to sunset in the coal mines.

Dorothy Patch, along with places like Whitney, Baggaley, Brenizer, Marguerite, and Beatty, sprang up overnight. Coal mining didn’t take on importance until the late 19th Century. Prior to that time, most people used wood for heating homes and for cooking.

In 1877, the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded operations between Greensburg and the Rainey Yards in Uniontown. Derry became a major railroad center.

The Pittsburgh Coal Seam, which had an average thickness of eight inches, varied from 50 to 200 feet below the surface. When American Coal and Coke Co. opened two plants in 1904, coal had become king. In 1904, a mine in Baggaley employed 372 persons and mined 252,172 tons of coal. Dorothy employed 281 miners and produced 399,620 tons of coal that year.

Mike and Mary Horwat don’t live in the patch anymore. They live in a house on a hill across from the road from Route 981. But they can look down at the patch everyday and still visit relatives there often.

Mr. and Mrs. Horwat are a quiet, gracious couples who still retain many of the old customs and habits they picked up when they lived in Dorothy. A visitor to their home is greeted with a pot of steaming coffee and a large tray of poppy seed rolls with the admonition, “Eat, eat. Be at home.”

Mike was born in the patch in 1901. In 1915, he went to work in the mines which were located about a quarter of a mile from his home.

Mike, who looks younger than 77, recalls many fond memories of growing up in the patch despite the hard times he and his wife have been through.

“I loved living there,” he said. “It was great. We all had to work. People had their own cows, chickens and even hogs. I don’t know how some of them managed. There was no water. No electricity. Even after we got married in 1932, we didn’t have any electricity.

“Everybody helped each other. All were foreigners. You were related to many of the people because a lot of folks came from the same village in eastern Europe.”

Most of the people in Dorothy in the early years were Polish and Slovak. There were a few Italians and one black family, Mike recalls.

Mike worked in the mines for 12 years and earned about $4 a day. When one mine would close, he would have to walk to the nearest mine to find other work. When things got slow in the mines, a watchman from the coal company would come to the houses in Dorothy around midnight and bang on the sides of the houses with a stick and announce: “No work today. Coal cars didn’t come in.”

That meant a respite from another day of grueling, back breaking work in the mines and a chance to get some extra sleep.

Most of the residents in Dorothy were Catholic and the priest was the nearest thing the residents had to a community leader. People would kneel and kiss the priest’s hand when he approached as a sign of respect. The local priest would come around to each house once a year and bless each home. He also served as a doctor, philosopher, marriage counselor, and translator. He also saw to the education and religious instruction of the children. People in the patch took their religion seriously. Every day was a Sunday for the women of Dorothy. Just after sunrise each day, groups of women wearing babushkas would trudge up the hill to St. Vincent for early mass. On every mantel was a picture of the Madonna on one side and a picture of John L. Lewis on the other.

At least one family, the Zavadas, attended St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic church in Bradenville.

Mike said the patch was a real melting pot of nationalities. On Saturday night, residents would march up and down the patch singing songs. Others would sit on the porch and men would play violins and accordians [sic].

The beer man used to come … [text lost] … said, “We’d drink until midnight and then everybody had to go to bed because my mother had to scrub the floor for Sunday morning.”

Mike worked in the mines six days a week. When he decided to get married, he got two days off from work. Weddings were a major social event in patch towns.

At Mike’s wedding, friends brought 100 quarts of moonshine, which he said tasted like kerosene…

…and all the ladies came to his house to bake pastries and bread. The music was supplied by an old victrola and all it took to get everybody to polka was a few drinks. Then somebody would go out and kill a few chickens to cook for this special occasion.

Everybody went to the weddings. Members of the wedding party would go around to each house carrying flowers and candy. They would make a little speech at each stop and invite people to the celebration.

“My brother and a friend were still dancing the next day. They danced all night and used oil lamps for light. Big weddings in those days used to last at least three days. Toward evening, gypsies would come around and play the violin and sing.”

It’s unclear if the “gypsies” mentioned here were Irish Travelers–who still have a presence in the area–or Roma.

Mike and Mary said life has been good to them despite all the hardships they have known. They have four sons, two daughters, and 13 grandchildren. They are married 46 years.

“When I got married, I had a little money saved up. We went to Jeannette and got three rooms of furniture. I told the man at the store that I’d give him $300 cash money. He said he couldn’t sell it that cheap. Hell, he said the stove alone cost $125. Well, I was going down the elevator and he called me back and said it was a deal. Times were tough for everybody.”

Mr. Horwat modestly refers to $300 as a “little money saved up,” but consider that he only earned $4 a day in the mines.

Funerals were also a major social function.

Mike said everybody in the patch would attend the funeral mass of the deceased and then march off to the cemetery where everybody would have a good cry and sing sad songs.

“Some people would get a band and march from Dorothy up to St. Vincent then march back to the patch and there’d be a big lunch and lots of drinking and a few toasts to the recently departed.”

Mary Horwat is a friendly, soft-spoken woman who still cleans her house every day, a carryover from her life in the patch.

“Women had a lot of work to do in those days,” she said. “Women worked like a horse. My mother had boarders and had to get up in the morning to cook for them. After 6 a.m. Sunday mass you could see my mother in the kitchen boiling coffee.”

Mary said breakfast usually consisted of hot coffee, pork, and bread with bacon grease smeared all over it.

People who lived in the patch were rugged. They worked hard and played hard. Entertainment for the men was playing baseball in the summer and shooting craps and playing cards in the old coke ovens during the cold winter months.

When Mike and Mary begin recalling their days in the patch, they started talking about people they once knew. Names of people long dead are remembered. They only talk about the good times they had. Even the hard times are recalled with little traces of bitterness.

They both recall fondly how everybody looked after everybody else.

“If anything happened to someone, you’d help each other,” he said. “Many a man came to my mother’s house and said, ‘Come Mrs. Horwat. My missus is having a baby.’ You went. You didn’t give no excuses. You didn’t ask no questions

“As soon as a neighbor didn’t see my mother in the morning, she’d be over to see what happened. They’d come and milk the cows, make breakfast, and help get the kids off to school.”

But sometimes this helpfulness was carried a little too far.

One day, a neighbor found cigarettes in the Horwat mailbox. Mary remembers a neighbor woman hollering at her saying: “Mary, Mary. Something I got to tell you. Richard and Jimmy (two of her sons) are smoking.”

In 1941, Mike and Mary bought a house on Frick Avenue overlooking the patch because they wanted to get away from the floods that threaten the patch every winter and spring. Many of their relatives still live there. Mary used to go down there every day and visit.

The patch is still highly prone to flooding. This past year was particularly harsh.

When the Horwats do visit in the patch, there is one person they always stop and visit.

Mrs. Julie Revitsky is an indomitable woman. She has lived in the patch for nearly 40 years. She still lives there with her husband Edward and their nine children ranging in age from 22 to 8.

Mrs. Revitsky, known to my children as “Miss Julie,” still lives in the patch. She is one the kindest people I’ve ever known.

Mrs. Revitsky, who is a niece to Mike and Mary, lives in a modest red brick home at the end of Dorothy Patch. Her home is the newest in the patch and sticks out like a sore thumb among the other wooden frame houses along the road.

Most of the homes are similar in design because they were all once company houses. It wasn’t until after WW II that the houses were sold to the individual residents.

Mrs. Revistsky remembers studying by oil lamp in the evenings when she was a little girl and also remembers her mother gossiping at the water pump at the other end of the patch. No one had modern plumbing in those days and the only way to get water to wash or cook with was to haul it in buckets down the street. The water pump, which is still there, was the local gathering place to catch up on all the local news.

The water pump is now gone.

Mrs. Revitsky is a proud woman who has known her share of hard times. She has learned to take the good with the bad and runs her family with the same kind of strict discipline with which she was raised. She speaks in a soft voice that is almost melodic but can turn stern when she wants to stress a point or give her children an order. She talks about the tough times in the patch with a certain detachment that conveys to the visitor that she is not looking for sympathy or trying to outdo the other person in hard luck stories. Rather, she talks of living in a coal patch very matter-of-factly.

The patch seems to have an attraction for people who lived there and moved away. The residents, and even the former residents, remember the closeness. Mrs. Revitsky said it was a feeling that even outsiders could sense and made them feel unwelcome at times.

“I can remember a young man from another patch came to court a girl and the guys in Dorothy would chase him out.”

And there was the derision which outsiders held for people who lived in Dorothy.

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s on nearby Solomon’s Temple Ridge. At that time, “patch kids” were still generally looked down upon. I’m not sure if the stigma persists. (Very few people I meet seem to even be aware that a place called Dorothy Patch even exists.)

“When we were building our house, a man from the bank came by and asked why we wanted to build a house here. I asked him if he ever lived in a coal patch. He said no. Well, I realized I couldn’t explain it to him then … [text lost] … People who have moved away still come back from time to time.”

The birthing of the Zavada quadruplets some 30 years ago, brought Dorothy into national news. In the days before fertility drugs, that have made multiple births not quite as rare, the four babies born to Mr. and Mrs. Zavada brought national media scurrying to the quiet little patch.

The “Zavada quads” received a great deal of media attention, which apparently made their lives difficult at times.

In the summer, the mornings are quiet in Dorothy. A few women hang out their clothes to dry. A couple of kids play in the street. A few of the older residents sit on their front porches. Later in the day, Dorothy’s only road is turned into a baseball diamond. In the fall, it becomes a football field.

Nobody can understand the pride and independence of the people who live in Dorothy Patch until an outsider comes up against it. The people of Dorothy are ready to band together at a moment’s notice whenever they feel they are being slighted. Several years ago, Unity Township installed a sewer interceptor in the patch. The construction firm which did the work tore up their only road and left it in horrible condition with deep, muddy ruts that froze and made the road impassible for cars.

The roads are still generally in very poor condition, due mostly to the tremendous amounts of water that floods the patch, as mentioned above.

Mrs. Revitsky and Tom Hanz, who is the unofficial mayor of the patch, rallied the residents and put public pressure on the township to get the road repaired. It was fixed the next day.

Then residents got the Greater Latrobe School District to provide bus service for students in the patch so they wouldn’t have to be exposed to traffic along Route 981.

Unfortunately, schoolchildren now wait for the bus at the edge of Route 981. Children from another nearby patch, Saint Vincent Shaft, wait for their busses on the side of busy Route 30.

Now they are gearing up for the biggest battle yet. Unity Township is installing sewer lines in the township and the residents are ready to fight and stop it. They argue that the tap-in fees and assessments will be so high that they’ll cost more than the homes did when they were first purchased.

Unity Township says the matter is settled. Sewers will be installed.

But Mrs. Revitsky and some of her neighbors are advising people, “Don’t make any bets.”

The residents of Dorothy Patch lost this battle and have lost many more since this article was written. Flooding is a constant struggle and the township seems to pay little attention.

A feature of the neighborhood that isn’t discussed in the article is the remarkable ecological diversity for such a small location. The patch is bordered at two ends by marshes and also has wooded areas, a creek, and, until very recently, farmland. As a result, it is home to a thriving bird population.

Although the tight-knit community culture described in this article has largely been lost, many of the residents are remarkably generous and helpful, especially in times of crisis. I will forever be grateful for the kindness shown by our neighbors, especially as it’s been directed to our children.