Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
Fayette County is a community that was built on the backs of coal miners.
Tiny towns popped up throughout the county as homes for the miners and their family.
Like a patchwork quilt, these “patches,” as they were often called weaved together the traditions, faith and families of these immigrants together. Here, families flourished, friendships were made and childhood slowly drifted away into adulthood.
Coke ovens burned bright all hours of the day, company stores were the place to purchase groceries (and hear the latest gossip) and children played outside well into the darkening hours.
After the mines closed and the ovens went dark, families moved away to seek other employment. Many went to Cleveland, Michigan and Virginia in search of a new job.
Today, many of these homes remain and a lot of the communities that were founded as lodging for miners still exist and make up what is known as many of the small towns of Fayette County.
Lemont Furnace is one of these towns.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her home in Lemont Furnace, Mary Kubiak, a life-long resident, has sepia faded photographs scattered around her.
She sifts through the memories frozen in time and points out the faces that comprised the baseball teams, church ceremonies and company store employees of days gone by.
“All the people around here grew their own vegetables. We all had gardens,” she said as she wistfully looked out her kitchen window. “Each garden also had a grapevine and people were aloud to bring a basket to their neighbor’s vine to pick grapes to make jelly. There was nothing better than a homemade jelly sandwich on fresh made bread on a cold day.
Families were also large in Lemont Furnace.
“Most families here had from six to 10 or 12 children.”
Kubiak remembers, when she was a young girl, what Lemont Furnace used to be like when many of the male residents spent their days, and sometimes nights, underground mining for coal.
“All the men usually worked in the mines,” she said. “The men rode with one another. Whoever had an automobile would take them to the different mines in Continental and Leisenring.”
When the mines first opened the men would go to the lamp house, which later became known as the Sherlock Home, to light their lamps so they could see underground.
The house still stands and is the oldest building in Lemont furnace.
However, the coke ovens were not as lucky and have long since been in disrepair and decay.
All that remains from the booming days of coal are the iconic duplex style houses and the former location of Union Supply Company Store No. 29, which is now the North Union Township Volunteer Fire Department Fire Hall.
“We all had a bill down there (at the company store) and they took the money out of the miners pay to pay the bills,” explained Kubiak. “The miners probably left most of their money in the store because we had to get everything we needed at union supply.”
When people were not working, they found ways to enjoy life together as a family and community.
Situated off of Connellsville Street was a place that was popular with the youngest of Lemont Furnace residents.
“We used to go to Shadowland Park to roller skate,” said Kubiak. “It was up where Nickman’s (Plaza) is now.”
In addition to Shadowland, another popular spot for picnics, swimming and fun, for many decades was Shady Grove Park.
Built over 100 years ago, Shady Grove was the place for families to picnic, swim and relax and for teenagers and young adults to enjoy a few thrills and often dance the night away.
Larry Dolan, a resident of Lemont Furnace and also the owner of Big Mike’s Smokin’ BBQ & Grill also in Lemont Furnace, recalls when the park had several amusement attractions.
“It had a rollercoaster, a ride with rockets that went around and a skating rink,” he said.
“They would bring bands from out of town and we would have polka dances in a big pavilion out there,” said Kubiak. “It was very interesting.”
Today, this pool that was once one of the biggest pools between Philadelphia and Chicago, has been closed for at least four years, along with the rest of the park.
The water has long since been drained, the pavilions are being taken over by time and nature and the only ones enjoying the lush green grass that was home to many sunbathers are a family of goats.
Another popular place for families to relax on Sundays during the summer, St. Cecilia Park, has also been turned into a pasture.
“It was a big park, there right across from the church (St. Cecilia). On Sundays they would have a picnic. Everybody would go down. Some Sundays they had music, some Sundays they didn’t,” said Kubiak. “We all enjoyed telling each other our problems and our troubles.”
The park was named after the roman catholic church, St. Cecilia, that was built by community members in 1883.
“The chapel traces its roots to all immigrants who moved to the area to go to the coal mines,” said Kubiak.
St. Cecilia’s parish was in operation until the final mass was held Oct. 11, 2006.
Today, the building is the home of the Cove Run Free Methodist Church.
Barbecue eaten around the world
While a lot of things that were once a part of the community of Lemont Furnace are no longer around, there is growth in the community that is drawing the attention of people outside of the area.
The smells from Big Mike’s Smokin’ BBQ & Grill entice any traveler along Mount Braddock Road in Lemont Furnace. If the smells do not bring someone, the food’s reputation will.
Originally started in the Smithfield area, Big Mike’s moved to Lemont Furnace about three years ago on the site of an old Sinclair gas station.
Situated along the back wall of the restaurant are two vintage National Geographic maps: one of the United States and one of the world, dotted with a plethora of push pins.
Dolan explained that each one of the pins represents the home of someone who has dined at Big Mike’s.
With pins in places such as Ethiopia, Spain, Greenland and Russia, to name a few, it is fair to say that the word about Big Mike’s “world famous” barbecue has traveled.
The maps were started by the original owner of Big Mike’s, Mike DeLeonibus, who passed away suddenly at age 59 at the beginning of the year.
Dolan, who had been a friend of DeLeonibus, wanted to continue the restaurant’s operation.
“He was one of my best friends. He was an outgoing guy,” said Dolan about the late owner. “I got laid off from the gas wells and it was an opportunity.”
With the help of DeLeonibus’ son, Mike DeLeonibus Jr., Dolan was able to continue the restaurant with the same menu and recipes.
When a customer walks in the door, they are greeted by pig in a chef’s uniform that was carved with a chainsaw by Dolan, which was a gift to the original owner.
Today, the pig, known as “Little Mike” serves as a way of greeting customers.
On the wall is the extensive menu that features a variety of barbecue specialties including pulled chicken sandwiches, corn muffins, smoked chicken wings, various barbecue platters, a variety of pulled meats by the pound and lots more.
Dolan said that the ribs, pulled pork and chicken, and a unique menu item called “pig wings” are the most popular items.
“It is the shank of the pig,” Dolan said when explaining what is a pig wing. “It is a little like ham on a stick.”
For Dolan, the day starts early at 6 a.m. when he arrives at the restaurant to start cooking for customers. With many of the meat requiring extensive cooking times, like the brisket that requires 14 hours to smoke, it is easy to see why Dolan has to be at Big Mike’s at the crack of dawn.
But, according to customers, it is worth it.
During the lunch hour, the restaurant becomes flooded with people as they order to-go items to take food back to offices or people who spend a lot of time on the road grabbing a table to enjoy lunch before they return to their daily tasks.
Every Tuesday, Kenny Riddell, who works in the Cherrytree area of South Union Township, picks up orders for both he and his fellow co-workers.
“A couple of years,” said Riddell about how long he has had this lunchtime tradition. “This food is great. You can’t get smokehouse food this good anywhere else nearby.”
Circle of life continues
While Lemont Furnace was started as a community for coal miners, things have changed over time. However, this many not be a bad thing.
While previously the primary industry was the long shuttered coal mines, today Private Industry Council and CareerLink are situated in a business park and help the community find jobs and prepare clients for their future.
Shadowlands and Shady Grove are distant memories of fun times shared with family and friends, today Big Mike’s serves as a weekly ritual for many of the faithful barbecue enthusiasts to share a laugh and maybe some pig wings.
When Lemont Furnace was first established, many young families inhabited the homes and backyards that were the place for tag and capture the flag. Today, the cycle continues as Lemont Furnace becomes a place for young families once again.
But, one thing that has not changed about the community is the love that the people have for this place called home.
“It is a quiet little place and we like it that way,” said Dolan.
“It is a nice community where people look after one another and take care of one another,” said Kubiak.