Arthur Rothstein caption: Coal miner and daughter. Bush, Illinois, Jan 1939.
Arthur Rothstein was one of the Farm Security Administration photographers. He was born in New York in 1915, and had been a student of Roy Stryker at Columbia University in the early 1930s. Stryker later headed the FSA, and Stryker hired him. During Rothstein’s five years with the FSA, he traveled extensively, documenting the lives of farmers all over the US who were receiving assistance from the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. Many of his subjects were not farmers, just people that Rothstein felt exemplified the economic struggles of the times. In January of 1939, he spent a short time in Bush, Illinois, and took a few photos, mostly of coal miners, some recently laid off.
I saw this photo in A Southern Illinois Album: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1936-1943, by Herbert K. Russell. The handsome father looked so pleased and proud, that I wanted to know immediately who he and his daughter were, and what happened to them. So I tried what has proved to be a successful method of identifying unnamed persons in old photos. I contacted the local newspaper, the Southern Illinoisan. The editor, Gary Metro, agreed to publish the photo and an article.
It ran on St. Patrick’s Day, which brought this Irish lad some good luck. By the end of the day, I received three phone calls from local residents who knew the family, but were not related. One of them told me: “That’s John Garavaglia and his daughter Rose Marie. They moved to the Chicago area in the 1940s. He died, but Rose Marie is still living up that way. Her name is Rose Marie Coburn now. I’ll give you her phone number.”
I called right away, but there was no one home, so I left a message telling her why I was calling. The next day, with the photo staring up at me from the coffee table, I called again, and this time she answered. She knew about the photo, having learned of it when the aforementioned book came out. When I started asking her some questions, I could tell she had already prepared for my call, since she seemed to be consulting some information she had placed by the phone.
After we had a delightful conversation, I asked her if she had any photos of her or her father she could share. She said she was headed up to her son’s house in Wisconsin for Easter, and that he had a computer. She told me that she would get together some pictures and bring them up so he could scan and email them to me. Oh, the wonders of technology. By Easter afternoon, I had the photos.
Edited interview with Rose Marie Coburn (RMC), daughter of John Garavaglia, conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on March 18, 2008.
JM: Do you remember being photographed?
RMC: No. My mother was still alive when we saw the photo for the first time. She didn’t remember anything about it. My aunt and uncle lived in southern Illinois. My aunt’s brother saw this book (A Southern Illinois Album, by Herbert K. Russell) and recognized us, so he called my aunt, and she called me right away. I was so excited. My aunt sent me a copy of the book, and then I went to the bookstore and bought one for my kids. My five grandchildren get a kick out of it. I wish the book had printed our names under the photo, but the author didn’t identify us.
JM: Did you contact the author?
JM: Where was the photo taken?
RMC: At the house in Bush where I was born. It was torn down about 15 years ago.
JM: How old would your father have been when this photo was taken?
RMC: He was born July 2, 1909, and I was born in August of 1935. My dad became a coal miner when he was 19. That was in Bush. That’s where he was born.
JM: What were his parents’ names?
RMC: Frank and Rosa. Her maiden name was Nigro. She was born in Italy. She couldn’t talk very good English. She was strictly Italian.
JM: How many children did your parents have?
RMC: I have one brother, Richard, who was born 10 years later. He’s still living.
JM: You told me that your folks moved to Highwood, Illinois. When was that?
RMC: I was about five or six then. We lived in Highwood till I was 15, and then we moved to Highland Park, the next town over.
JM: Why did they leave Bush and go to Highwood?
RMC: Dad wanted to get out of the coal mine. They had relatives up here. So he got a job as a pipe fitter at Fansteel, Inc, in North Chicago. He worked there until he retired.
JM: Did he like the job?
RMC: Yes. My dad was very quiet, and whatever he did he liked. He was happy. A lot of his family was here. He retired when he was 62. He died June 3, 1985. He was 75 years old. He had heart trouble and black lung. He’s buried in Ascension Cemetery in Libertyville.
JM: Did his father work in the mine, too?
JM: Did your mother work outside of the home?
RMC: No. She stayed home.
JM: Did you father finish high school?
RMC: No. He left Hurst-Bush High School after the tenth grade. But when he was there, he was captain of the basketball team, although he was only about 5′ 5”.
JM: Did you finish high school?
RMC: Yea, but I didn’t go to college. I got married when I was 19. My husband is standing here by the phone right now. This April, we will be married 54 years. We had two daughters and twin sons. One of the sons died when he was six years old.
JM: Did you work outside the home.
RMC: No. My husband had a service station business. So I helped him with the books.
JM: Is there anything else you want to tell me about your father?
RMC: He was such a fun-loving guy. He didn’t travel. My husband is from Wyoming, and Dad would not get on an airplane when we wanted to take him on a trip out there. He never left Illinois except to go the Wisconsin. That’s as far as he went. He drove to southern Illinois to see his brother, Jesse, and that’s about it. Jesse was well-known in there. He had the only grocery store in town, a Kroger’s.
JM: Do you remember the hat your father was wearing in the photo?
RMC: No. And I don’t have any pictures of him dressed as a coal miner. When I was 10 years old, I went back to southern Illinois for the summer and stayed with my grandparents. That’s when my mother was pregnant with my brother. I saw my grandfather dressed as a coal miner, and I loved to put on his coal miner hat. I wanted to go in the coal mine, but my grandma said no. She told me that it was bad luck to do that.
*Story published in 2008.