By Mimma Papalia
I come from a family of coal producers, a trade handed down from generation to generation; I recall my grandfather Nino (Antonino), my uncles (Ciccio, Peppe and Saru, who all later emigrated) and naturally my father (Natu).
A trade that has since vanished.
The coalman was considered the cleaner of the forest, because he was the last link in a controlled deforestation.
First the lumberjacks cut the logs, which were then transported by oxen and mules.
The pieces of lumber which were not used for industrial wood were used by coalmen to make coal.
The first thing the coalmen had to determine was the location where the wood would be transformed into coal. The plot had to be situated adjacent to the wind, which was the coalman’s worst enemy, and therefore seldom located at the bottom of a valley.
They would search for an area located at the bottom of a mountain or hill with water nearby for three reasons:
1. The wood was launched or transported by hand therefore descending was easier,
They would dig the plot with a pick and shovel making it a perfectly horizontal level. The diameter of the plot varied and depended on the amount of wood used which was from 5 to 10 meters long.
Basically whatever wood was left behind by the lumberjacks was used by the coalmen. The wood would be cut into 1 m long pieces, sections varied from 2 to 12 cm. The wood was transported or thrown to the bottom of the pit, and here women would play a fundamental role.
Once the wood was in the pit, it was placed in a circular (rotating) pattern, starting from the outside going towards the center, rising as it got closer to the center.
The preparation of the pit had begun an example of fine craftsmanship.
At the base of the pit they placed branches and over it they organized the pit. The branches were used because
The wood could not be in contact with the earth
They formed a net that did not hinder the passage of the smoke
Therefore, giving a greater yield from the wood in the transformation into coal. If the wood came into contact with the earth it could not be transformed and would become smoked wood. The smoked wood was very good for the cooking of pork meat, specifically parts such as the mouth, feet, ears, etc, parts that were not used in the production of cured meats.
The smoked wood had various qualities, among them that it did not produce flames and therefore burned slowly.
As one sees in these two examples in a poor society everything was used, scarcity did not exist.
At the center of the pit they placed a smoke stack which was composed of large logs approximately 50 cm long, placed one over the other, leaving the center empty. This was a real and authentic smoke stack, as seen on the roofs of our houses.
The pipe had to resist the force created when other pieces of wood were placed on it.
This was one of the skills of the coalmen. The smoke stack was not fully constructed; it reached its height by being place on a base made of wood. The wood was placed vertically slanted from the outside to the inside. Once the wood inside the pit reached its ideal level they proceeded in completing the smoke stack. The wood stacked, placed in a decreasing diameter from the inside to the outside, until all the wood was used. An important factor was to leave space between the pieces of wood.
Then they proceeded in creating the roof. The base was covered using available materials, depending on the location and time of year. During the summer the pits were placed more often in the mountains, therefore ferns were often used. If ferns weren’t available, the foliage from the underbrush of beech trees, which were abundant, was used.
During the winter they moved to milder areas where clumps of earth were used along with green grass or moss.
This created a gap between the wood and the earth. The earth was placed from bottom to top and pounded with a spade. Once the pit was covered the earth was dampened and pounded with a typical tool which was a wooden shovel. This was a piece of log skillfully carved by the coalmen forming the shape of an oar, but thicker.
Once the earth was pounded and compacted they proceeded to light the fire. The top part of the smoke stack was left open, and from here the fire was lit. A piece of the pine wood that contained resin was often used and once ignited lasted a long time, over it they placed dry branches. The top part was covered with large logs then the gap with earth.
Holes were made on the top of the pit, approximately 60-70 cm apart, in order to let the smoke out. The moment the smoke became white they covered it and made holes in the lower levels of the pit, in the same manner, until they reached the bottom of the pit.
The pit was always watched; to make sure pockets of air would not form and catch fire.
Very often concaves would form near the holes. This was a sign the wood below was burning, instead of turning into coal. At this point the earth was removed and replaced by wood and covered.
Each morning and evening the pit would be dampened and pounded.
When the flames would come out of the remaining holes, the pit was cooked. The holes were covered with earth and left to cool for two to five days.
Another sign that the pit was cooked, other than the flames coming out from the holes, was when a step formed on the outside.They then proceeded to unwrap, or remove the coal. The earth was then moved to the edge of the clearing to be used for the next pit. Before proceeding in the extraction of the coal it was dampened, for two reasons, to temperate the coal and render it manageable and to eventually extinguish potential fires.
The outside part of the pit was easily pulverized, since it was comprised of softer wood and was subjected to the constant pounding of the pit. The middle part, an immense space, was made out of whole pieces of carbonated wood. It looked like the pit had just been prepared but rather being green it was black. The pieces of wood were placed on the outside, over the earth, which had been removed from the pit. The interior part was composed of larger pieces of coal.
Once the procedure was complete, the packing would begin. The sacks used were made of jute (a strong glossy fiber made from a tropical herb) with a capacity to hold 40 to 60 kg.The large pieces were deposited first, followed by smaller pieces, the so-called fine coal, which was shifted to cover the spaces left between the larger pieces and render the sack more compact.Longer pieces were placed on the outside in order to avoid leakage of coal. The sacks were tied with string which was crisscrossed through the holes made at the edges of the sack with of a small pointed branch. After 7 to 15 days the job was completed.