Pictured above is the former National Bank of Barnesboro (red-brick), in Cambria County, PA. But, you know how banks are these days. National Bank became Laurel Bank, and the latest is the Bank of Northern Cambria. Photo was taken in 1992, by Bob Kramp.
My father’s maternal grandfather, Thomas William Russell, spent his last couple of decades, 1900-1925, as a janitor at the National Bank of Barnesboro. He lived in an apartment in the basement of the bank. My uncle Russell Stryke remembers visiting his grandfather, Thomas. He said that Thomas spoke with a Scottish Brogue, and used the pronouns “thy and thee”.
Thomas was born in Scotland, but within a year, his family migrated to the coal fields of County Durham in northern England. Here, he met his English-born (Yorkshire) wife, Eleanor Hartley, and they had their first five children in County Durham. Unfortunately they also witnessed the death of their first two children who were girls. Thomas and all of his male siblings were coal miners. They immigrated to Pennsylvania about 1881, and Thomas in particular was joined by some of his in-laws, the HARTLEY and HESELTINE families.
Thomas and his kin first settled in Clearfield County, PA, and continued to mine coal. Although the mining industry was a dangerous place to work and labor strife occurred regularly, I believe the Russell families were somewhat better off than in England. There is some evidence that they bought land in Houtzdale and the materials to build their own houses. Thomas wanted his two sons not to become coal miners. Apparently they never did. Sons in the next generation were proprietors of grocery stores and movie theaters, laborers, and at least one of Thomas’ nephews became a Primitive Methodist Minister.
Unfortunately, Thomas' wife was relatively young, about 48 years, when she died. There were five children left in the household, aged 6 to 16 years. Thus, Thomas was an elderly widow during the times he spend living in the small apartment at the bank.
Being a coal miner and a bank janitor seem to be pretty humble occupations in my opinion. But I believe he did those jobs well and without complaint. There were activities of bygone days by which men judged their fellow man. For example, Thomas was one of the oldest members of the local Lodge of the Scottish Rite Masons. When I read Thomas Russell’s obituary, I can see why Robert Burns, Scotland’s favorite son, who is also known as the Ploughman Poet, was Thomas’ hero. Burns was born about 50 years before Thomas. As I read, I had a changed and respectful vision of the person who was my great grandfather though I never heard much about him from my close relatives. Below is an excerpt from Thomas’ obituary. In those days, in a small town, some obituaries of an honored citizen took up quite a bit of newsprint, thank goodness.
From The Barnesboro Star, Thursday, 10 Jan 1929, page 7:
"Death of Thomas Russell, Sr. He was a great student and lover of Bobby Burns, memorizing many of his poems.’ 'The Cotters Saturday Night', 'The Two Dogs', 'Man was Made to Mourn’, ‘The Wee Mouse’, and Burns' ‘Letters to his young friend’ were always at his tongue's end. He often said that when a small boy, his father who was somewhat of a poet himself, used to gather him, and the other children around his knee, and recite to them Burns' poems. All through his life, Burns was his constant friend and companion. Another of his favorites was the poem often quoted by Abraham Lincoln: ‘Why should the Spirits of the Mortals be Proud’ [by Robert Burns] and only a short time before he went to his bed, he surprised his friends by reciting this entire poem. Coming from a man of his years, a typical Scotchman (sic) with hoary head and of venerable appearance it created an impression on the minds of his hearers that they will never forget."
Thomas W. Russell, “with hoary head and of venerable appearance” sits to the left of his brother, Robert Russell, and their brother-in-law, Alexander Forsyth (m. Alma Emma, nee. Russell). The man on far left has not yet been identified. Photo was taken in Syracuse, New York, 1920. Thomas was about 73 years old; Robert, about 70 years.