Archive for Thursday, October 12, 2006

Program digs into coal-mining history

October 12, 2006

Married to a military man for 26 years, Leavenworth resident Joy Kozak understands the important role the military has played in building and sustaining Leavenworth County.

But, Kozak says, there's another way-of-life that people often overlook in the history of Leavenworth and Lansing - coal mining.

Kozak's father-in-law, Nickolas Kozak, left Poland in the mid-1910s to escape conscription into the Polish army.

He moved to Leavenworth, where his sister and brother-in-law had settled earlier.

A trained carpenter, he couldn't speak English, and therefore couldn't land a woodworking job.

He later found work at the Home Mine and Riverside Mine - two of seven coal mines in the Leavenworth-Lansing area.

Joy Kozak said her father-in-law's life in Leavenworth was markedly different from his native land.

"Back in Poland, he was the mayor's son, but he was the coal miner here," she said.

In the beginning, Nickolas Kozak earned 11 cents an hour and worked 12 hours a day, six days a week - in dangerous and cold conditions.

"These people were made out of iron," Joy Kozak said. "I so admire them. And when they told stories, it wasn't for sympathy. It was how life was."

Joy Kozak has set out to tell those stories.

Although she never met Nickolas Kozak - he died in 1937 - the history lives on in the tales he told other family members, including Joy's husband, Frank, whom she married in 1953. He died in 1979.

Last year, she donated her father-in-law's maps, lunch pails and carbide lamps and caps to the Leavenworth County Historical Society.

She will use the artifacts to relate her family's history to the public during her presentation, "Coal Miner's Daughter-in-Law," at 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Heritage Center, 109 Delaware, Leavenworth.



Joy Kozak said mining got its start in Leavenworth County in 1859, thanks to Maj. F. Hawn, who started the Leavenworth Coal Mining Co.

"He thought this would be a great way of helping Fort Leavenworth to become self-sufficient and a good promotion for him," Kozak said. "His dream never really came through."

Wars and funding stood in his way, and it wasn't until 1872 that coal mining really took off in Leavenworth County, Kozak said.

That year, Leavenworth banker Lucien Scott and John Carr, a native of England, teamed up. They launched the Home Mine and Riverside Mine, both of which employed Nickolas Kozak.

Other prospectors followed - including the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing - and business boomed at the seven coal mines until the 1930s.

But with the rising popularity of cleaner-burning fuels such as gasoline, diesel and natural gas, the demand for coal waned.

In 1947, the state penitentiary's coal mine became the last to close.


Joy Kozak's presentation will highlight the life of the miner.

"These guys worked really hard," she said.

Her husband, whom she calls 'Doc,' told her he once visited the mine with his father.

"Doc said he was never so scared in all his life, and he wasn't a man easily afraid," she said.

Two weeks before the visit, a coal miner had been beheaded when he went beyond the edge of the elevator shaft.

"This was not anything that my husband wanted to repeat. So here he is, hanging on to Grandpa's pants. He wasn't getting anywhere close to the edge of that thing," Kozak said.

She said education fared highly on the family's list of priorities.

Her father-in-law knew he had to learn English, so he found a teacher in the mines.

Nickolas Kozak met a miner who would trade a dill pickle for a lesson at lunch every day, providing him an opportunity to learn a new language.

"That was how he earned his first English lessons," she said. "We have so much and we complain about everything now. They had so little and didn't complain about very much then. They looked at America as the land of opportunity."

Eventually, her father-in-law left the mines and returned to his first vocation - carpentry and cabinetmaking.


Joy Kozak said vestiges of the area's coal mining history remain.

For example, Kozak said, more than 60 percent of the men who built St. Casimir Catholic Church in Leavenworth were miners.

The men worked on the church often until midnight - and many by the light of their carbide mining lamps and caps - until its completion in 1894.

Kozak said there might be other remnants of the industry in the form of miles of honeycombed mining shafts far below the streets some Leavenworth residents navigate daily.

"They're at least 800 feet down, which is at least 80 stories up, so you're not in danger of your house falling into a mine hole," she said.

Kozak said she hoped sharing her family's stories would help others learn more about the people who built Leavenworth County and the struggles they overcame.

"It's a window on a different time in history," she said. "It's good to remember that."


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