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Coal founder’s namesake lives down the road

As an area journalist for more than 60 years, I saw the name “Phillip Ginder” from time to time listed as one of the members of the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners.

“Hmm,” I mused. “I wonder whether he is related to THE Phillip Ginder,” you know the one who is alleged to have discovered anthracite coal on Sharp Mountain in what is now modern day Summit Hill, my hometown.

But that’s as far as it went for years. Every time I saw his name in a news story, I repeated to myself, “I’ve got to contact that guy to see whether the two are related.”

After all, being a Summit Hill native, I have had a fascination with the Phillip Ginder story since I was a boy. From seventh through ninth grades, I was a student at the former Phillip Ginter Junior High School. (I’m still at a loss to try to explain why the junior high’s name was spelled differently than hunter Ginder’s name, and I heard that the family was not happy about it either.) The junior high burned down many years ago in a suspicious fire

Think of it: This hunter stumbles upon something that causes him to follow up. What a stroke of luck! Just out hunting one day with his dog, and, bang, instant fame. Well, not exactly instant.

Despite my curiosity about the name’s the same, my follow-through was abysmal. You know the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I just never got around to it until recently.

I was floored to find out that the two are related. In fact, there is even a family genealogy that lays out the lineage from hunter Phillip Ginder until modern times. I found it quite interesting, however, that Commissioner Phillip Ginder, while proud of his heritage, doesn’t go around wearing it on his sleeve. For example, his famous relative is his grandfather many times removed, but even he says he doesn’t know how many “greats” that goes back.

Growing up, he said, he never had any strong motivation to do a deep dive into the background of his famous relative. “I’ve visited the monument in the Summit Hill park a few times,” he said. His reference is to the monument depicting Ginder, his dog and a lump of coal at the west end of Ludlow Park that was dedicated in 1941 on the 150th anniversary of Ginder’s discovery.

By the way, the monument spells “Ginder” this way, while a state historical marker at the other end of the park spells it “Ginter,” so pick your poison.

I figured since Commissioner Ginder, 71, has been around so long and his name has appeared in print frequently that the Summit Hill Historical Society would have been on his trail long before I was, but this was not the case.

Maxine Vermillion, who along with her husband, Dr. Louis Vermillion, has been a sparkplug of the organization for years, told me that she was not even aware that a “Phillip Ginder” was living about 40 miles away until my phone call.

I was hoping there might be an interesting anecdote as to how Commissioner Ginder was named. No, not really, he said. His parents named him “Phillip” because it is a long-standing family name. That’s it. I uncovered several other “Phillip Ginders” in the family before this one.

Ginder is not seeking re-election and will end his 24 years (six terms) as a township commissioner at the end of this year. He has held other township positions, including six years on the Planning Commission and 10 years on the Traffic Impact Advisory Board. Whitehall is one of the largest municipalities in Lehigh County with a population of about 29,000. “I never considered myself a politician,” Ginder said. “I wanted to give back to the community.”

Ginder was born on a farm owned by his maternal grandfather, Claude Wehr, in Mantzville, West Penn Township, Schuylkill County, “just below St. Peter’s Church,” he said. He went to a one-room schoolhouse in the township until fourth grade. The family later moved to the New Mahoning area of Mahoning Township, and he graduated from Lehighton Area High School in 1969 before entering the U.S. Army for two years. After his military service, he graduated from Eastern Kentucky University. He was a self-employed mechanical contractor for 40 years before his retirement. He has been a Whitehall Township resident for the last 47 years.

As for the more famous Phllip Ginder, it is said that this German settler in the Mahoning Valley was hunting on Sharp Mountain when a sudden rainstorm caused him to head for home, despite the fact that he had not bagged any game that day. He stumbled over something, and the hard material reminded him about a rumor that there was coal on the mountain. He took several pieces of the black rock home, and the next day took them to Col. Jacob Weiss, a prominent Philadelphian who had retired to the frontier area of Carbon County and the community that now bears his name, Weissport. This information is contained in the 1938 book “Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Industry,” written by George Korson.

Weiss took the pieces to Philadelphia where Ginder’s suspicions were confirmed. For showing Weiss the spot of his discovery, Ginder was awarded a 400-acre tract of land at the west end of Carbon County. Meanwhile, Weiss and his business associates formed a coal company, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.