Editor’s note: The following story is part of an occasional series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
There was a time, when the coal mine was still in operation, that residents of Palmer didn’t need to leave the patch.
They had it all right there: a school, a store, a post office, a tavern, a church. The doctor made his rounds. The men made a short trek to work.
Longtime locals remember the small riverside community was a good place to grow up, to settle down and to raise a family.
Third generation Palmer resident Lou “L.C.” Otto contends that it still is.
The 29-year-old has spent most of his life in the patch, where he bought a house five years ago and recently began a family.
“It’s just amazing what this place was at one point. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Otto, who serves as chief of the town’s Adah Volunteer Fire Department. “Where else would a boy want to grow up at, where you can get muddy and dirty, play in the creek (and) in the woods.”
Tom Karpency has lived in Palmer for 71 years.
He attended Palmer Grade School through eighth grade while his father worked the mine. He recalls 25 to 30 kids in each classroom, midday lunch breaks at home and spending much of his time outside as an adolescent in the 1950s.
“When I was a kid, we’d play baseball all summer. Everybody stayed out until it was dark. It was a good life. The coal mine shut down and people started drifting away,” he said.
In the decades following the mine’s closure in 1957, many left, some returned and several were there all along.
Louise Manchas moved to the patch that year at age 25 and newly married. Now at 85, she still resides in the River Street home where she raised four children in a safe and friendly community.
“I think it’s nice. I really think it’s a beautiful patch and a good place to raise a family. A long time ago, we’d go sit on our front porch and gab until two in the morning, laughing and talking,” said Manchas.
“I never wanted to go anywhere. I always wanted to live here. It’s a safe place.”
A proud past
The community of Palmer isn’t laid out like the coal patch towns that dot the Fayette County landscape.
One of its long narrow streets begins in one township and ends in another, with the bulk of the patch located in German Township and a few properties extending across the Antram Run boundary into Luzerne Township to the north.
Situated on the banks of the Monongahela River, the small town is divided between an upper and a lower section, “the hill” and “the bottom,” connected by Palmer Road running north and south through the community.
While many surrounding patches sit atop the hills and in the valleys of western Fayette County, Palmer is planted on the waterfront, which was integral to the town’s coal mining operation.
Palmer Mine opened in 1908, a venture of the H.C. Frick Coke Co. And its location on the river allowed for a large coal dock operation that was built in the late 1920s.
For nearly 50 years, Palmer was home to a community of coal miners and homemakers raising large families in duplex company houses with white picket fences. Men walked to the mine for their shift, children attended Palmer Grade School on the hill, families attended Sunday mass at the Catholic church.
Like many residents of the patch, Paul Zvolenski, 74, traces his heritage to Eastern European laborers who sought work in the coalfields. His grandparents settled in Palmer around 1910 after immigrating the U.S.
“They didn’t have anything when they came over,” said Patty Zvolenski, Paul’s wife. “My grandmother told me all she came over with was a sewing machine. People that lived here had big families — 6, 7, 8 kids — and lived in four-room houses.”
The boom times came to a halt when U.S. Steel closed the mine in June 1957 having produced 16 million tons of high-grade metallurgical coal for civilian and defense use. That’s when the town began to change.
Residents moved away to chase other work. The company store closed, as did the school. Gone is the 100-foot-tall coal tipple, the miners’ bath house, the docks where ships would load coal to transport it up and down the Mon.
“It’s sad to see that because I think my children missed out on a lot,” said Karpency, whose daughter and three sons were raised in a version of Palmer that very little resembled the town in which he grew up.
“I think they’re going to miss out on something that’s never going to be there again. It’ll never be the same.”
A changing of the guard
Once at the center of community was St. Albert Catholic Church, a parish dating to 1922.
“It was jam packed every Sunday,” said Otto. “It would take an hour to get back to your car because you had to stop and talk to everybody.”
Louise Manchas remembers when her senior citizen community group, the Palmer Pioneers, met regularly in the St. Albert basement hall, socializing and playing darts.
“We didn’t do nothing to make money, we just enjoyed ourselves,” she said. “I felt bad (when it closed) because it was right up here, that’s where we got to see everybody. They had 9 a.m. Sunday service.”
In a money-saving consolidation effort, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg closed the church in 2008, forcing Palmer’s Catholic residents to travel to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Masontown for Sunday services.
A town that once had three churches of three different denominations is now down to one. The Palmer Community Presbyterian Church remains in operation as the patch’s lone worship hall with a small congregation.
“Closing the Catholic church took a lot out of the community,” Otto said.
The closure forced the community focus to shift to one of the patch’s last remaining operations, the Adah Volunteer Fire Department, which has served the areas of Palmer, Adah, Ralph, Hibbs and Gates since 1937, responding to emergency calls and holding social events.
“The fire hall has been backbone of town for many years,” said Otto, holding Easter egg hunts, trick-or-treat nights and breakfast with Santa events annually for the children of Palmer and the surrounding communities.
“We stopped having those activities for a few years because no one would show up. But we recently started them up again with the new generation of kids,” Otto said, referring to new children of the patch that have come along after people Otto’s age have chosen to remain and start families in Palmer.
The department’s hog roast, held annually for upwards of 40 years, is the bash of the summer, attracting anywhere from 100 to 150 people, Otto estimates. “It’s when the community gets together and everyone from surrounding communities comes down. People drive from all over to come here, and you can’t find a parking spot.”
Former Adah fire chief and longtime Palmer resident Calvin Masters Jr. compiled volumes of pictorial histories of the town, local mines and surrounding communities until his death in 2011. Described by Otto as having “the most pride in the patch,” Masters willed the scrapbooks to the fire department to safeguard the town’s history.
A new patch
At the height of the coal era, more than 500 houses stood in the town, said Otto. He and Karpency figure between the hill and the bottom, less than 100 remain. Population has dwindled from about 1,000 to just 200, Karpency added.
That’s the demographic of all coal patch towns, Otto said. But one thing that has helped the otherwise sleepy town remain vibrant during warm weather months, he said, is its proximity to the waterfront.
In a town with development stunted by surrounding State Game Lands and little economic opportunity, the saving grace is the riverfront property being bought by out-of-towners to use as vacation homes and summer recreation on the river.
“We’ve had a little renaissance due to the riverfront. It’s our driving force. Half of the bottom summer homes are out-of-towners. The housing market is better here than other patch towns,” said Otto, who also serves as a German Township supervisor.
As a result, Palmer turns into a resort town in summer, enlivened with boating, swimming and deck parties. It’s common to see residents driving golf carts through the town’s narrow streets.
“It’s the only place in the world where you can hop on a boat, go up the river and eat dinner, come back and hop on a side-by-side (utility task vehicle) and go for a ride,” said Otto.
A place to call home
Paul and Patty Zvolenski are Palmer born and bred. Both of their fathers worked in the mine. Patty’s mother lived in the patch for 90 years. Before settling in their Firehouse Road home in 1969, the couple spent a handful of post-graduation years in Washington, D.C. The move only strengthened their ties to Palmer until, eventually, they decided to return.
“All of our people were here. Her mom and dad and my family were all here. This was home,” Paul said before adding, “D.C. is too quick for a country guy.”
Karpency shares the sentiment.
He’s lived on the hill for most of his life. So has his three sons, Tommy, 31, Jeremiah, 26, and Dan, 25, all of whom are professional boxers. Karpency, who serves as their trainer, converted the basement of St. Albert Catholic Church into a gym for the fighters to train.
As the family travels to compete in matches, so does the community.
“We take pride in our community. We wear our Adah T-shirts everywhere when we travel,” said Karpency, who admits that he hates to leave home, even for the bright lights of Las Vegas, Chicago or Toronto.
“I’ve talked to old friends who wish they’d never left and who wish they could come back. Sometimes when I’ve talked to people, they’ve asked why do I stay here,” Karpency said.
“Because I like it. Right here is everything I ever want to have. Everything I’ll ever need is right here. I walk into my house, I’m at home.”