A fond look back

| 22 Feb 2012 | 07:58

    Locals remember the heyday of the mining town By Mark J. Yablonsky FRANKLIN — Once known as the “Model Mining Town of the East,” Franklin today displays only a finite amount of the remnants and artifacts from the days when the New Jersey Zinc Co. ran the show in a way that gave virtually anyone a chance to benefit. And to be sure, many did. “The whole town was run by the New Jersey Zinc Co.,” said Sally McGrath. She’s the treasurer for the Franklin Historical Society, who grew up on Nestor Street and remains a proud resident of the town she has called home all her life. “They employed the people at the library, at the pond for recreation and lifeguards who taught swimming; and also the nurses and doctors at the Franklin Hospital. It was just a company town,” McGrath said. “My grandfather worked in the powerhouse for the zinc company, and my uncles were miners. My father worked topside in the (mining) mill. It was a town where most everybody’s father worked for New Jersey Zinc Co.” In fact, aside from the miners themselves, the zinc company needed hundreds more to “support its mining operations,” wrote historian Carrie Papa in her 2004 book, “A Mile Deep and Black as Pitch.” “From mill workers to the general mine superintendent, store clerks to office clerks, carpenters to electrical engineers, or nurses to the chief surgeon in the company-owned hospital, the number and variety of people hired by the Zinc Company to sustain the complex operation was remarkable,” Papa wrote. Keeping time, keeping memories One of those people who was a big part of that complex operation was Joseph Bene, a local historian who worked for five years — 1947 through 1952 — as a timekeeper in the zinc company’s lower Main Street office, which is now home to the borough’s historical society. Bene, now a historical society board member, remembers well his job functions. He recorded the miners’ hours, and his records later made their way to the company offices further up Main Street so the employees could be paid every other Friday. Bene loves to chat about how a zinc company representative would go to the home of someone calling in sick that day, and if necessary, a nurse would go later to help care for the employee. But he also remembers the chaotic time in the nation’s history when people learned to appreciate what they had, however little that might have been. “During the Depression, I feel that we didn’t know how poor we were because everybody was in the same situation,” Bene explained in an interview last week. “You didn’t have any extras. My father would go to the shoemaker’s shop, get a piece of leather and resole our shoes. He would soak the leather to make it pliable and then resole it.” Small-town life was comforting. “Everybody knew everybody and most of the time, they helped each other,” Bene continued. “These were happy days. All the kids played together and on Saturday afternoon, everyone went to the movies.” And on Saturday nights, almost everyone went to the beloved Neighborhood House, directly across the street from what is now the historical society museum. Historian Betty Allen said she will never forget the “Nabe,” as everyone called it. “The one (memory) that comes to mind most is the Neighborhood House, which was in operation all the time I was in school, and even after I was out of school,” Allen recalled. “They provided a director there and a library and even a canteen. It was just large enough to accommodate people, and just small enough to provide a sense of camaraderie for those who attended. The bowling alley was downstairs in the basement and the ping-pong tables were up on the main level.” Allen added. “There was so much on Main Street.” Bene agreed. “Oh, there were a lot of Mom-and-Pop stores, in addition to the ones on Main Street,” he said, listing them from memory. “There was Toppels (grocery store), Isadore Fischgrund had a store, and next door was Coller’s Meat Market, Riggio’s (produce) and Bill Hunter’s Five-and-Dime. Then later on, Harry Fischgrund had a grocery store; next door to that was Prussian’s Pharmacy, which later became Davenport’s Pharmacy. Adolph Platzer had a radio store, then there was Hirsh’s Meat Market, Lorenzo’s car dealership and next to that was David Gandel’s liquor store. And the building next to that used to house the Acme store.” Apparently, very few of those businesses were in direct competition with one another, Bene recalled. “They each had their own clientele and they had accounts, and when payday came, they’d come in and settle up,” the former timekeeper added. Indeed, the mining era in Franklin, which was to be later known as a “booming mining town,” is long gone now. More than 50 years have passed since the closing of the legendary mines on Sept. 30, 1954. That date marked the beginning of the end of Main Street’s commercial dominance. But it remains a time not to be forgotten, historians emphasize.