While doing some research for a client, I came across an amazing story of a “self made man” named James Francis Collier. He is shown here front left, with his wife and children.
James was born in 1863 in Pennsylvania—the son of Irish immigrants Martin Collier and Catherine Kealy and the oldest of ten children. Martin and Catherine settled in Schuykill County, and then Northumberland County, Pennsylvania—coal mining country. James’ father Martin was a coal miner, as his father was before him. In fact, the name “Collier” means coal miner. It was hard and dirty work. Martin died at age 49.
In the 1880 census, James (16) and his younger brother (only 12!) are “breaker boys” in the coal mines. I had to look that up… Wikipedia says that breaker boys sorted coal by hand, without gloves. It was a job for the young and the old. Boys as young as eight would work ten hours a day, six days a week, sorting the coal by size and removing impurities. They often lost fingers, hands, or worse in the conveyor belts. Asthma and black lung were common.
By the 1900 census, James was married to Lizzie McDowell, a daughter of Irish immigrants. James has come a long way in 20 years; he is an insurance agent. By the 1920 census he is a “superintendent-insurance company.” The 1940 census tells us that James’ formal education stopped at the sixth grade—consistent with he and his brother being “breaker boys” by 1880. James was truly a self-made man.
His 1945 obituary tells us just how far he had come. It is entitled “James F. Collier, Civic Leader, Dies After Long Illness” and it says, in part:
“Mr. Collier was one of the best known insurance men in the city. He was superintendent of the Prudential Life Insurance Company here until his retirement 11 years ago. Since then he has devoted his time to civic activities and was a member of the Rotary Club, the Elks, the Eagles, the Young Men’s Republican Club, the Young Men’s Democratic Club, and the Wheel Club. A member of the Church of the Annunciation, Mr. Collier was active in parish affairs and was a member of the Holy Name Society. He was a member, also, of Williamsport Council 966, Knights of Columbus; was a fourth degree knight and served two terms as grand knight. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, serving as its president; was a director of the First National Bank, and a director of the Williamsport Hotels Company. He was a past president of the County Automobile club. In municipal affairs, Mr. Collier was a leader in city planning. He served long periods as president of both the City Planning commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals. He was a past president of the Pennsylvania State Association of Planning Commissioners.”
All this with a sixth grade education!
It also says this in his obituary: “Mr. Collier started to work when he was eight years old, picking slate in the anthracite breakers.” That tells us that James never forgot his humble roots, and rather than hiding his past or being embarrassed, he told his story. I am guessing that this self made man was a huge inspiration to others. I’m glad I had the chance to tell his story.