ASHLAND, Pa. (AP) — Children were once punished with coal in their stockings.
However, Len S. Kimmel, 79, of Fountain Springs, prefers when people give it as a gift. And over many years, he has turned coal dust and rice coal into jewelry and paperweights shaped like penguins and pigs.
"I loved doing it and going out to be a vendor at shows and meeting people," Kimmel said.
For more than 15 years, Kimmel has been crafting coal sculptures, using coal dust, rice coal, epoxy and molds, and selling his work at Schuylkill County shopping malls.
This year will be bittersweet, he said, since it may be the last time he will set up a stand in Schuylkill County. He and his wife, Arlene, are planning to move to Maryland to be closer to their four sons.
"That breaks my heart," Elaine Maneval, manager of Schuylkill Mall, Frackville, said when she heard the news Nov. 16. "He's been a Black Diamond vendor since they opened 14 years ago. They were opened before I came here and I've been here 13 years. He and his wife, they're such a sweet couple," Maneval said.
"She's a super gal, Elaine. I've been friends with her for many, many years," Kimmel said.
Kimmel said he will continue to sell his products at Black Diamond Antiques in the mall's north wing. For the holidays, he set up a stand in the mall's Food Court, near the customer service booth in the west wing. It opens today and will remain open for six weeks through the holiday season.
Born in Weishample on Sept. 15, 1933, Kimmel graduated from Hegins High School in 1951. He served in the Army for 24 years and retired from the military in 1976 with the rank of sergeant first class E7.
He worked various jobs over the years including a stint from 1977 to 1987 as a driver for Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md.
In 1984, he and his wife, Arlene, a Frackville native, moved to Fountain Springs to be closer to her family, and he developed an interest in wood carving and staining.
"My dad was a carpenter. My brother was a carpenter and finisher and I was born and raised on a farm, so you learn how to do everything. And I used to make clocks as well as furniture, like end tables, out of cypress," Kimmel said.
He started to sell his crafts in 1980 and in 1990 he opened "Len's Tree Art" at Cressona Mall. In 1991, he opened an ice cream parlor at Cressona Mall.
"We had 44 different flavors," Kimmel said.
In 1995, he closed his stores at Cressona Mall because he couldn't afford an increase in the rent.
In the mid-1990s, a fellow vendor showed him how to mold small statues and knickknacks from coal.
"People think that coal is carved but it's not, it's molded," Kimmel said.
"For the real small figures, you take coal dust and mix it with an epoxy resin and hardener to liquefy it. Then, you pour that into a rubber mold. It's basically done like you would do if you were making a cement form or statue. On the small ones, you use strictly coal dust. On larger figures, you can use pieces of coal, like rice coal, the size that they burn in stokers. You can't use pieces that are too big because you might puncture the rubber mold," Kimmel said.
Maneval said coal figures are rare.
"It's a unique product. Outside of Len's work, I don't see them anymore," she said.
"A lot of the coal artists that used to be out there, well, they're retired," Kimmel said.
Kimmel said he stopped making coal art in 2011 but he has an inventory.
"So we'll keep doing shows to get rid of what we have left," his wife said.
William Sedesse Sr., 92, who runs Sedesse's Coal Museum at 514 North St., Lykens, Dauphin County, said Tuesday that he still makes coal knickknacks every now and then.
"I still make jewelry, ash trays, crosses and other knickknacks. I've been doing it for 35 years. Coal mining is part of my family history. I had two brothers and two brothers-in-law killed in a coal mine and I was trapped in a mine myself for 11 hours. That was back 20 or 30 years ago," Sedesse said Tuesday.