Reflections on Irish Hill
Cobb O'Hara remembers when there would be 25 or 30 men sitting along the low wall near the service station across McKay Street from the house where he grew up and still lives in today.
"Let's see ... there was the Laverys, the Jones brothers, the Yartzs, McNeills, Krusichs. Back then, nobody went up town. Everybody from the west end would gather there." A reflective smile widens on his face as he tilts his head, eyes flashing. "Yea, I can see the Riffel brothers, Drenik, the O'Haras, of course, McManus, the Kelly brothers, Mulligan, the Delaney brothers, Kreus. Your dad was there. He even ran the station for a little while."
That was back in the 30s when life was a lot simpler ... and money was scarce as hen's teeth.
"My older brother James went to work in a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camp in Minnesota to help out the family while I finished high school," Cobb says. "Then he came back and finished high school while I went to work in the CCC camp in Farlington."
Course, growing up in a moneyless, Irish, coal mining family, he was no stranger to helping out. He first helped Roger Bezinque peddle milk around town in his old Model T. When he got a little older, Bezinque hired him to work the fields and the barn. "The horses not the cows. I loved horses. But I didn't want nothin' to do with milkin' cows. Had to milk ours at home." His pay? Twenty-five cents a day and dinner.
Cobb's full-blooded Irish grandfather and father, both named Hugh, immigrated to the United States from Scotland, where they worked as coal miners, around the turn of century; first to Pennsylvania, then Illinois, then to Rich Hill, Missouri.
Union organizers, they left Rich Hill when they brought in African-American miners to break the strike. "The McManuses and the O'Haras loaded their kids, their pots and pans, their furniture and their cow into a box car and came by rail to Weir City." But the same thing happened in Weir City so they jacked up their house, put it on a trailer, and used a big thrashing machine to pull it over to Wright Street in Frontenac. There it's stayed ever since.
When the mines were down in southeast Kansas, Cobb's dad and uncle Owen would go to work in Montana. Which is where his dad met and married Josephine Gerlack, with whom he had five children. Cobb, the second, was born in Carpenter Creek, Montana on March 4, 1917 and came to Frontenac when he was three.
After high school and the CCC camps, Cobb took off for Westwood, California where he worked in a venetian blind factory. Until his labor heritage caught up with him that is. "I was a union man, see, and so got involved with organizing with the A.F. of L.C.I. O. One day I was headed down to the picket line and they put the hoses on us, surrounded us with guns and clubs. Then they escorted us to the train and told us to get on the next one that came through. We caught a freight to Keddie, California first. Then I hoboed it back to Frontenac."
The union saga was second nature to Cobb, whose father was treasurer for the union local in Frontenac and remembers UMW District 14 legend, Alex Howat, coming to visit when he was a boy. He also remembers how the political patronage system worked. "When the Democrats were in office, my grandpa was postmaster. When the Republicans were in office, it was Friskel."
Following WW II, in which he served in the quartermaster division, he tried his hand in several businesses. One was a place called the Club Royal, which he and Bert Lispi owned in Frontenac a bar where Frontenac's most colorful Irishman, Michael J. Cassidy, would frequently hold court. "People would come in and buy him a drink just to hear him tell stories. He was a funny, lovable guy. I remember one day as I reached into my pocket for the key to open the bar, he said to me, Say scout. Since you've got your hand in your pocket there, could you give me a temporary loan of a quarter? ... and, scout, while you've got your hand in there ... you might as well make it a half.'"
After visiting in his kitchen awhile, Cobb took me for a tour in his pickup, first pointing out various coal mines west of town the Jones, Davis, Wilson and Lavery diggings then crisscrossing the west end pointing out homes and telling stories about the past residents of what once was known as Irish Hill.
Back in his driveway, he sat in his pickup and reflected on his life. "As far as growin' up in Frontenac goes, we didn't have much money. My dad was a coal miner, went down in the mines when he was nine years old, but he wasn't dumb. My mother was a good cook, took care of us. Took in washing. We grew up in a good Catholic family. Went to church. We done what my dad said ... mostly.
"I got my union steamfitters card and worked Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas for years. After that, I moved back, bought out Joe Doti and started O'Hara's Recreation. Later on I got into politics a little served as mayor of Frontenac. I didn't get married 'till I was 44 you know. I'm lucky I found Erma. She's a good woman."
Speaking of Erma the former Erma Vandelli, a coal miner's daughter from South Radley she pretty much gave me the skinny on Cobb out in their driveway before I'd asked him even one question about his life.
"I can tell you who Cobb is J.T.," she proclaimed in a voice that reflected both her love for him and her certainty of his character. "He's Catholic. He's Irish. And he's a Democrat."
March 20, 2000