First Posted: 5/7/2013
In her book “Created To Be Free: A Historical Novel About One American Family,” West Pittston native Dr. Juanita Patience Moss tells the real story of her great-grandfather Crowder Pacien.
She calls the book a novel because Moss can only surmise what Pacien’s life was like before 1864 when the 18-year-old slave walked away from a sweet potato plantation in North Carolina and joined an all-white Union Army regiment of the 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and what his experience was like in the 14 months he served.
What is known is sometime after his discharge at Harrisburg in June, 1865, Patien’s name was changed to Crowder Patience. He worked as a teamster in Mechanicsburg when he delivered horses to West Pittston and decided to stay and he became the grandfather of Harold and Charles Edgar Patience, anthracite coal souvenir crafters and sculptors from West Pittston.
The fourth and sixth sons of Harry Patience, the son of Crowder Pacien, C. Edgar, or Edgar, and Harold were born in West Pittston in 1906 and 1912. Dr. Juanita Patience Moss is Edgar’s daughter.
Harry had a coal souvenir business — evolved from a coal-carving hobby he picked up as a breaker boy — in a shop behind his home at 34 Washington St., where he made highly-polished hearts, crosses and charms. All six of his boys worked for him, but in the long run the business couldn’t feed all their families so all but Edgar and Harold and their older brother Kenneth left the area.
After Harry died at age 48 in 1926 and Harold and Edgar took over business at the West Pittston homestead, Kenneth started a shop of his own in Harding where he carved part-time and was a personal assistant to coal baron legend John Kehoe. Though Edgar and Harold continued to make hearts and charms, they grew the businesses by expanding the line of usable its such as desk nameplates, ashtrays, ink pen holders, lamp stands, letter openers, clock cases and pin-cushion holders which they sold wholesale to shops like Helen’s Gift Shop and Fredrick Job’s in Wilkes-Barre.
As a child in the 1940s, Juanita washed and dried the creations for a nickel apiece and made the satin “pumpkins” for the pin cushion holders for a dime apiece.
In 1939, Edgar and Harold carved a 60-pound to scale sculpture of the the New York World’s Fair’s “Trylon and Perisphere.”
This was a preview of things to come for Edgar and might have been for Harold, too, if he hadn’t lost part of his right hand fighting with the U.S. Army at Anzio Beach Head, Italy in World War II.
“Perhaps,” Moss writes in her book ‘Anthracite Coal Art by Edgar Patience,’ the brothers may have continued to work together had fate not intervened.”
As things were in 1951, while Harry carried on the souvenir business in West Pittston, Edgar, divorced from Moss’s mother and married to Alice Marie Patterson, moved to Wilkes-Barre. Edgar was in his 40s by then and decided to pursue his dream of making it as an artist in coal.
With his new wife, a manager at Blue Cross, supporting him, a five-year experiment turned into a 20-year career.
There were many highlights. Under commission, he carved a bulldog for the Mack truck corporate offices and the official seal for Barbados when the country became independent of the United Kingdom in 1966.
He had his art presented to U. S. presidents by Dan Flood. A bust of John F. Kenney he worked on for nine months was displayed at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Canada where he was one of five American folk artists invited and where he met the Canadian Prime Minister. In 1969, Jet magazine published a photo of First Lady Pat Nixon chatting with Edgar at his booth while holding a piece of his art at a Department of Agriculture exhibit in Washington.
President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had a clock and bookends in the White House. A letter the First Lady wrote to Edgar thanking him is reproduced in “Anthracite Coal Art by Edgar Patience.”
In 1970, at a 25th anniversary celebration of the liberation of Holland from the Nazis in WWII, veterans of the 101st Airborne presented Queen Juliana with an Edgar Patience jeweled clock and an 18-inch string of anthracite “pearls.”
He was profiled in Ebony magazine where it was written, “He made a name for himself as one of this nation’s most unusual sculptors— creating masterpieces of art from penny-a-pound hard coal.”
Though Edgar exhibited all over North America and once exhibited abstracts at the Joseph Grippi Gallery in New York City, he never forgot his roots. He was a regular at the Fine Arts Fiesta. He made a 4,400 pound altar from a single piece of anthracite for the King’s College chapel and an altar of anthracite bricks for St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Hanover Township.
In 1961, coal operator Louis Pagnotti pulled a three-and-one half ton piece of anthracite from the Baltimore vein near the Ashley Bypass to provide a unique coal exhibit for an Arts and Manufacturers Hall planned by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
At Pagnotti’s Sullivan Trail Shops on Exeter Avenue in West Pittston, Edgar “dressed’” the monolith for the Smithsonian. He sanded and buffed it, but preserved the stippled effect on its sides, then hand-polished the top to a mirror-like finish.
The Arts and Manufacturers hall fell through and the monolith, despite its enormity, disappeared.
Juanita Patience Moss found it in 2004 in the Smithsonian’s Suitland Storage Facility in Maryland where she had to make an appointment to see it.
Charles Edgar Patience died in 1972 of pneumonia complicated by coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, just days after he exhibited and was interviewed on TV in Pittsburgh. Harold died in 1976. Edgar’s wife, Alice Patterson, died in 2001.
Today, known examples of Edgar’s art are in family and private collections and at the Anthracite Heritage Museum at McDade Park, Scranton.
In 2011, Moss, a retired teacher and author who lives in Virginia, was awarded an honorary degree by King’s College.
“It really belongs to my father,” she said, “but I wear the title with pride and thanksgiving.”