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.
A village created and built on coal mining continues to live on in semi-solitude and outdoor enjoyment.
A rich, hard history
Like many patch towns that sprung up in western Pennsylvania, the village of Shoaf was created for coal mining.
Built around 1902 by the H.C. Frick Company, it contained rows of uniform company houses for employees working at the Shoaf No. 1 Mine & Coke Works and their families.
Elaine DeFrank, a retired oral historian, has not only researched the history of many coal and coke areas in Fayette County for the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, but also has ties to Shoaf.
“I think I felt a certain identity with Shoaf because my parents lived there,” DeFrank said.
She said growing up, both her father and brother worked in the mines.
DeFrank said while Shoaf was a larger patch town compared to the neighboring Gilmore and Smiley mining towns, Shoaf didn’t have a bath house for the workers.
“They came home dirty and you had to wash their backs,” DeFrank said.
Because of conditions and an environment where people entered the workforce at ages as young as 14 and 15, DeFrank said home life was often difficult. But while few things came easy, people seemed to be content with what little they had.
“The children were expected to work,” DeFrank said. “They had to work gardens in the summer time, pasture the cow. People kept animals in their back yards.”
Like many mining families during that time, DeFrank said she and her family frequently packed what little belongings they had and moved from one patch town to another if there was a strike or a better opportunity.
DeFrank only spent her early years in Shoaf, but would revisit it through her work as an oral historian when she interviewed Max Nobel in 1993 and 1997.
Nobel, who passed away in 2000, purchased the beehive ovens in 1959 and became the third owner following U.S. Steel Corp after it became the H.C. Frick Coke Company.
During Nobel’s operation at Shoaf, the company exported coke as far away as Pakistan and Germany as the coal coming out of Shoaf was classified as nine-foot low sulfur. That meant it was good for making coke for steel production because of the heat the coal gave off when burned.
“Max was very interesting to interview because he was a self-made man,” DeFrank said, adding that the Fayette County native, like many, worked very hard at an early age to make something of himself.
DeFrank added that Nobel even lived in Shoaf after taking over the business as he credited his success of being on the property to watch the day-to-day operations, which was rare for an owner to do.
“He was unique in that way,” DeFrank said. “Often, the owners lived in other places.”
Nobel continued the operations in Shoaf until 1972 when the ovens were forced to close because of new environmental laws.
Life gets easier and fun
Eleven years before operations shut down, Frank Zentkovich was born and with the exception of two or three years, he lived his entire life in the small village.
“A lot of people moved away, but I had a great time here,” Zentkovich said.
Zentkovich’s memories of Shoaf are that of a small community that was close and neighborly.
One man with a large back yard, he said, would allow the neighborhood children have football games on that property.
Zentkovich’s father was a coal miner, starting to work at age 15 with the Braddock Mine and later on, leased a mine outside of Masontown.
Zentkovich, however, found cars more interesting, saying that he started working on cars at 14, and started to travel around in the comforts of the village in various modes of transportation.
Such activities included Zentkovich and the neighborhood children sled riding down the hill of the larger home that once housed the coal company’s supervisor in the winter, or riding his motorcycle around the village and through the woods.
Other than the work the mining operations promised, the other big attraction that brought people to Shoaf was the motocross track, that in the mid 1970s had off-road motorcycle racing.
“That was a big deal for Shoaf,” Zentkovich said. He still has an old souvenir T-shirt from the track.
Zentokovich said the track would bring over 100 people and even once brought a celebrity to the area: the monster truck “Bigfoot.”
Zentkovich remembers all that the area once had in its transition from a patch town to the village, including a gas station with a single pump, an honor roll, a bar that shared the same building as a general store and a church that had burned down in the center of the village where the community center now stands.
He said the community center has functions every now and then, but mostly the people in the community gather for the regular community-watch meetings and wedding receptions.
As a kid, Zentkovich said he spent a good bit of time playing in the woods with his friends when he wasn’t working on cars.
He said he worked on cars so much that it got to the point where his father told him that if he enjoyed it so much, he should build his own garage.
Turns out, Zentkovich did just that when he reached his mid 20s, building his business across the street from where he grew up along Shoaf Road in 1986, a year after his father passed away.
To this day, Zentovich’s business, Franklin’s Auto Body & Towing, remains along Shoaf Road across the street from the house where he grew up and is one of only two businesses in the village.
He also bought the houses on both sides of his home, renovating one of them to have his cousin, a man in his 80’s, move back home from Ocean City, Maryland.
Zentovich continues to work and play in the village of Shoaf.
“I’m having as much fun now as I had when I was a kid,” Zentovich said, adding that as he grew older, his toys became a little more expensive, as he still enjoys riding around the village on his quad.
Zentovich said his wife was originally from Uniontown, and she really adapted to an area where there was more space for having a good time outdoors.
He said he kept those good times going with his daughters as they had a horse as well as golf carts to ride while growing up in the village.
Even though Zentovich said he enjoys travelling out of town to visit family in Maryland and Florida, he always comes back to Shoaf, a place that remains affordable, a location that’s remote but not out of reach and a place that is small yet remains very open.
“This is the type of living where you can do a little more,” Zentovich said. “It’s still kind of open to what you can do.”
Back to the past
The town’s other business, West Auto Repairs, which is located on the other side of the nearly two-mile stretch of Shoaf, was started in 1991 by Jim West Sr.
Jim West Jr., 28, works as a mechanic and whatever else needs done at his father’s shop and has lived in Shoaf his whole life.
“It’s fairly unchanged from the way it used to be,” West Jr. said and added that he, too, spent his youth on a quad, riding around the village. “We always had something to ride — whether it was quads or dirt bikes.”
While West Jr. hasn’t ridden a quad for years, he said he still hears the occasional quad or hot rod shooting through the town. Mostly, though, Shoaf remains quiet and calm with very little traffic or crime, he said.
“It’s been like that my whole life,” West Jr. said, remembering the stories of the motocross track that still occasionally attracts a few off-road racers.
Oddly enough, said West Jr., it’s a link to the past that attracts the most people to the village.
“In the summer time, at least once a week, people come in as far as other states to look at the coke ovens because they’re still intact,” he said, adding that people have come from as far away as Kentucky and Oregon to see the coke ovens, which can be viewed from West Auto’s parking lot.
One of the reasons why the double rows of 200 ovens haven’t completely deteriorated was because Nobel told DeFrank in her interview that he spent over $100,000 to go over them and daub the mortar and cement on both sides of the ovens.
West Jr. said the coke ovens, much like life in Shoaf, is fairly unchanged.
“The way it is now is the way it’s always been.”