Noe Valley Voice April 2005

Florence's Family Album

In this essay, first published in the May 1990 Voice, 21st Street resident Florence Holub recalls the long, colorful life forged by her father-in-law, Leo Holub Sr. Mr. Holub died in 1992 at the age of 97.

On May 13 [1990], my father-in-law, Leo Holub Sr., will be 96 years old--and what a life he has had!

He was born in 1894, the fifth of seven children, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to parents from Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia). When he was 15, his coal miner father took him down into the mines as his helper, much to his mother's distress, for she knew the dangers all too well: cave-ins (this is how she lost one son), gas explosions, and fires that incinerated anyone trapped underground. The town existed only because of the need for coal, however, and this need generated jobs, directly or indirectly, for the entire population.

Leo's mother, Linda, was an excellent cook, and ran a boarding house for single miners, called the Blue Goose. Whenever Mr. McKinnon, the mine owner, came to town, he chose to have his dinner at her place. Linda was determined to get her young son out of the mines, so she fed his boss especially well while asking for his help. Not many jobs were available above ground, but Mr. McKinnon eventually told Leo to go to the number two mine to help the blacksmiths, and because of this opportunity, he never had to work underground again.

My father-in-law was about 16 when he reported to the master blacksmith, Jimmy Hamilton, who had been trained in Scotland. Jimmy took a special interest in this eager young man, patiently teaching him the craft that would become his life's work. He showed him how to hold the tongs and when to strike the red-hot metal with the hammer and shape it on the anvil.

The shop's workers made all of the equipment used in the mines, including picks, shovels, and the metal carts pulled by mules with a lead horse. These carts carried the coal out on rails. The blacksmiths hammered horseshoes out of metal strips of iron, and also had the task of nailing them onto the hooves of the work animals, who kicked if given the chance. This is where Leo began his trade, and at 23 he became head blacksmith.

My husband's father was tall, dark, and handsome when he married the little blue-eyed Lydia Havens, an 18-year-old blonde who called him "the hairy blacksmith." (The nickname derived from her discovery of a single hair growing on his chest.) Within three years they had produced two sons, little Leo and Richard.

When World War I ended in 1918, hard times descended upon mining families as the demand for coal plummeted. So the young Holubs started moving westward, traveling from one mining town to another, with the recession nipping at their heels. In 1925, Leo was working in New Mexico when an old friend wrote a letter, offering him a job at the Berkeley Pipe and Tank Company, which was putting in a 93-mile pipeline from the Mokelumne River to Oakland. Leo accepted, and worked there until the job was finished and the recession caught up with him again, closing his company as well as others.

But he'd heard that jobs were to be had up in the Gold Country, so off he went to Grass Valley, California, and within a few weeks he was working in the metal shop of the Gold Center Mine. There he stood eight hours a day over a hot fire, sharpening bits to bore into the hard crystal rock that held veins of precious gold. The family of four settled happily into small-town life, until World War II erupted, causing mines to close and war industries to spring up.

Never one to remain idle for long, Leo answered an ad for a blacksmith at the University of California, and was immediately hired. It was 1942 when he went to work at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, where he made tools for the physicists to manipulate materials too "hot" to handle. Three years later, he was asked to go to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on the high-security Manhattan Project, but he refused to go without Lydia, so they offered her a position as a storekeeper.

The Manhattan Project was considered to be so vital to national security that Leo and Lydia were sworn to secrecy--they were forbidden to speak to co-workers or neighbors, and their mail was censored. Each worker on the project was assigned to a particular task, but no one could imagine what the master plan was...until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, ending the war with Japan.

After the war, Leo returned to the University of California, and Lydia returned to their home in Grass Valley, where Leo visited her on weekends. It was by then 1945, and his son Leo and I had been married for four years.

My father-in-law would often come to spend a Sunday with us in Noe Valley. Once, during the hippie era, we took him down to Dolores Park to a "be-in." He loved it all--the crowds of young people wearing flowers and colorful clothing and dancing on the grass and the band playing a new-sounding kind of music. I remember his comment, "This sure beats the hell out of Lawrence Welk!"

In 1962, when he retired to Grass Valley, Leo set up a little blacksmith shop and began to make ornamental ironwork for his home and garden. Several years after the celebration of his 50th wedding anniversary with Lydia, his little lady's heart stopped, and he had to go on without her. He turned vigorously to his anvil, and before long was asked to give workshops on blacksmithing, both locally and as far away as the University of Arizona. He also served as a consultant when the newly founded Empire Mine State Park built an old-fashioned blacksmith shop on the former mine grounds.

At his 90th birthday party, we overheard a guest saying, "Tell me, Leo, what is the reason you have lived so long?"

He answered the question as though he were divulging the secret of life itself: "I will tell you, Phil, I have lived this long because I haven't died yet!"

Now he is approaching 96, and he is still tall, white-haired, and handsome. He no longer gives blacksmithing demonstrations, however, because three years ago he slipped and broke his hip (although within a year he was walking with a cane).

We have all pondered the secret to his longevity and haven't come up with any pat answers, but we do have a few observations. During his working years, he did everything in moderation. Like his father before him, he enjoyed a beer or two, he never hurried, and he never overate. He read voraciously--enjoying Mark Twain, Jack London, and anything ever written about his idol, Abe Lincoln. He loved a good joke, and he can still remember a thousand of them!