It occurred to me this week as I grieved over the loss of Louis “Cas” Casaletto, who died on Sept.13, that he was a poet.
Not that he wrote poetry (as least I never knew him to) but that he saw deeper into things. And he heard voices. Heard them in the whispers of long dead coal diggers and their families in camp towns; in the dank air of abandoned deep shafts; and along the strip pit embankments of southeast Kansas. Whispers that said, “Please don’t forget about us.”
He didn’t — as can be seen in his work as a founding member of the Miner’s Hall Museum in Franklin to which he donated his sizable collection of mining tools. He also created a frameable map of all the camp towns, railroads and streetcar lines in the Weir-Pittsburg Coalfield and gathered photographs of miners taken at area mines. Both of which can now be purchased at the museum.
Then, of course, there’s his work on the Miners' Memorial in Pittsburg’s Immigrant Park. A project he spearheaded and brought into being with the help of Kaye Lynne Webb, Susie Lundy, John VanGorden, and architect David Fish.
The Memorial contains a life-size statue of a miner returning from work, the history of the Weir-Pittsburg Coalfield, a walking path that features informational kiosks, and granite slabs inscribed with the names of miners who worked area coalfields.
As the Miners’ Memorial project unfolded he asked my wife, Linda, and me to compose the text for the dedication legend at the park’s entrance, as well as help design and create the kiosks that tell our mining history in photographs, stories, poetry and song.
The dedication legend concludes, “This memorial is dedicated to the men and women who not only toiled to extract coal from the earth and create a new homeland but also engaged in a courageous struggle for social reforms that advanced the cause of human and civil rights in America. A diverse populace of uncommon strength, ingenuity and heart, their presence lives on in their descendants and in the businesses, farms and towns they established throughout Southeast Kansas.”
Certainly “uncommon strength, ingenuity and heart”’ are qualities that describe Cas. No doubt inherited from his father, Joe, who migrated here with his brothers – Defendente (Dave) and Tomasso (Tom) in the early 1900s to work the mines. Joe settled with his brother Tom in the Arma-Franklin area and, when the mines were idle, worked the masonry trade in which he had apprenticed in Italy.
With $10,500 he had saved over the years, he started the Inter-Urban Lumber, Tile and Cement Co. Cas took over management of the store in 1947 and changed the store's name to True Value Home Center when he moved it to North Broadway in Pittsburg in 1972, where he ran it until 1999.
Another of his creations was Wilderness Park, made possible by land donated by Cas and Louise, his wife of nearly 70 years. Dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and the enjoyment of all, the park, located west of Cow Creek in Frontenac, features walking trails carved though and over old strip mine dirt dumps that weave past two clear water strip pits (known to generations of Frontenacers who swam and fished in them as “Deep L” and “Whitesnake”).
To be sure, it wasn’t just his Italian side from which Cas drew his “uncommon strength, ingenuity and heart,” as can be seen in a 2000 meeting I had with him in his garage about his collection of galettes (cast iron and steel French cookie presses). In particular the one his grandmother, Henrietta Rons, brought with her when she emigrated here from Belgium in 1889.
In the late ‘50s, he used his grandmother’s iron as a prototype to make and sell French cookie irons — cast with the words “Belgi Galette Iron, Belgi Mfg. Co., Arma, Kans” — out of his lumberyard. Pattern maker Karl Wicker, who made the first cast, told me that lots of people who’d moved to Detroit or Chicago from this area would buy them when they came back to visit.
I observed, that day in his garage, that the cast iron and steel cookie iron must have represented something pretty important for his grandma to pack that weight all the way over here from Belgium.
“Yeah,” he said after a reflective pause, the pride in his voice hanging in the air like the sweet aroma of a French cookie hot off a cast iron galette. “I remember that they were very important to them. They represented tradition ... family.”
It wasn’t only his own family history Cas was proud of. Early on in the venture he brought me files of mining family stories he had collected; stories I initially reprinted in my writing that were eventually published in a regular column — and then gathered into a book — by his niece, Debbie Close.
Getting back to the theme of poetry, I can think of no more appropriate way to close this remembrance of Cas — and the wide ranging legacy he leaves all around us — than with a quote from Walt Whitman, the American poet who repeatedly championed the lives and loves of working men and women in his writing.
“I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun; / I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. / I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love; If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles. / You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean; / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, / And filter and fibre your blood. / Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged; / Missing me one place, search another; / I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com