ECKLEY, Pa. — Fame came late to Eckley.
The village was 114 years old before Hollywood discovered it.
In 1968, Paramount Pictures cast Eckley as the site for “The Molly Maguires,” a movie about coal miners, a violent secret society and an undercover agent.
Movie money spent on the village and movie stars that brought prestige led to Eckley’s next starring role as a state museum.
To mark the half century since the filming, Eckley plans a variety of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
A screening of the movie with a cocktail reception is set for April 19 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, a town where portions of “The Molly Maguires,” including the courthouse scenes, were filmed.
On June 23 and 24 during Patch Town Days, the annual festival that re-creates life in 19th century Eckley, there will be another showing of the film in the museum’s auditorium and other special events that center on the movie.
Local theater troupes including the Eckley Players will re-enact scenes from the movie.
An extras’ reunion will bring together locals who played bit parts alongside the big names in the film’s credits: Sean Connery, Richard Harris and Samantha Eggar.
“I want to do a Sean Connery mustache contest,” Bode Morin, the site administrator for Eckley Miners’ Village Museum as well as the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Scranton Iron Furnace, said.
Although not all plans are final, Morin also wants to stage a game of rugby or Gaelic football like the miners play during the movie, and he would like to pay homage to other filming done at Eckley.
There have been student films such as one shot by a film schooler attending Rochester Institute of Technology last year and low-budget features set in the village as recently as last month. A documentary crew from The History Channel stopped by in 1997, and a made-for-television concert was staged in Eckley in 1970.
Public television stations WVIA in Pittston and WITF in Harrisburg filmed the concert for broadcast, but Eckley residents were invited to watch the show, which included a set by B.B. King.
Morin also wants to display movie memorabilia from the collections of area residents.
The movie set
In 1968, it didn’t take much stage makeup to make Eckley look a century older.
Paramount buried utility lines, threw some dirt over the blacktop of Main Street and peeled away new siding on homes to show unpainted wood.
A coal company store built for the movie has recently been repainted, and a non-working replica of a coal breaker still stands even though it was built to serve as a prop for the movie.
Watching the movie, Morin said, shows scenes of hundreds of people walking the streets of Eckley, an everyday occurrence a century ago but one that rarely happens now, even with the biggest crowds for Patch Town Days and other re-enactment weekends.
Eckley reached its peak in 1917 when 1,200 to 1,500 residents lived in the village.
The population declined with coal production during the ensuing century, but more than 100 people still lived in the village when it became a museum. A handful of tenants continue to rent homes from the state, although none lived in Eckley during the filming of “The Molly Maguires.”
George Huss, a mine company owner, owned Eckley when the moviemakers were looking for a place to film in April 1968.
He rented the town to Paramount.
After the movie wrapped up, a committee formed by the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce and CAN DO raised money to buy the residential sections of Eckley from Huss to form a museum. The state took over in 1971 and opened the visitor’s center building in 1975.
Eckley village dates to 1854 when Richard Sharpe, Francis Weiss, Asa Foster and John Leisenring leased land there to mine coal. A steam-powered sawmill cut lumber for homes and by 1858 a schoolhouse opened.
The miners’ landlord, Charles Coxe, had a son, Eckley, who grew up to be a mining engineer and for a time oversaw mining in the village that bore his name.
From the Coxe Brothers, the mining operations passed to other coal companies through the years until Huss acquired it in 1964.
Morin, who concentrates on industrial history, said there really isn’t a historical site that compares to Eckley.
It’s a whole town with 50 percent or 60 percent of the original homes still standing.
“Pennsylvania tackled the unglamorous story of working-class labor history,” Morin said, and dedicated a site to the people who came there to mine coal.
Information from: Standard-Speaker, http://www.standardspeaker.com