Folks Are Talking By Garret Mathews

Photos by Garret Mathews: Edgar Shew, Brenda Mullens and her baby, Earl Rife, Wesley Miller, Ted Cregger, Junior Howard, Gibson family.

Photos by MaryAnne Mathews: Jackie Ofsa, Edna Smith, Omehaw Kessinger, Ora Slone and her baby.

Photos by Wade Spees: Bud Hypes, John Stout, Mrs. Archie Caldwell, Virgil Morgan.

Photo by Vernon Fields: Second Bishop.

Photo by Garnette Lilly Price: Snakes at Jolo.


© 2014 Garret Mathews

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Introduction The Silent (Screen) Type Fifty Tons A Day And Then Some World’s Greatest 9-Ball Player? ‘Shootin’est Thing I’ve Ever Seen’ His Work Space Has A 30-Inch Ceiling Hoover Times Brought Him To West Virginia Mine Is Gone, But Not Bill Byrge Flood Baby Brings Some Needed Joy ‘I Am Not Of This World, But The Next’ Remembering The Timbering Days On The Prowl For Poisonous Snakes Legless Man Wants No Favors Black Players Recall Coal Camp Baseball He Knew Some Hatfields And McCoys His Grave Markers ‘Not As Slick’ Early UMW Organizer Hasn’t Forgotten Old Pete Finally Earns Citizenship The Miners’ Man Inside the Scale House Voice Of Uncle Remus Is Silenced Cock-Fighter Insists He’s An All-Right Guy Fifteen-Year-Old Watched His Father Die He’d Kill You Over One Of His Cars How Do You Pick Up A Severed Head? Opera Singer Comfortable Back Home Ref Sometimes Works Against Own Team Once A Druggie, Now A Preacher The Beauty Queen Is A Coal Miner Female Furrier Eats While She Slices ‘Greatest Mom’ Takes In All Comers Who Needs A Car When You’ve Got Horses? When The Going Got Tough, He Got Gas Two-Fisted Sheriff Wasn’t Just Talk Bootlegger Learned As A Toddler Tailor Learned His Craft In Italy Hand Loaders Say They Face Less Danger Flowers Keep Alive His Son’s Memory Former Hobo Eases Into Junk Business The ‘Almost A Doctor’ Loves His Job Two Who Were There Recall 1927 Train Wreck Homemade Church A Beacon For Fading Town Norman Twigg: Resident Tough Guy Hauler Packs Pistol To Protect Rig Picket Worries About Resolve Of Mates Bartley No. 1 Second Bishop Adkins No. 18 Family Man ‘Stuck” Without A Job Female Miner Lives For Her Children Laid-Off Cop Patrols For No Pay Coal Truckers Feeling Money Crunch He Offers Free Clinic For Jobless Miners


In 1972, I packed my worldly possessions into the trunk of my Ford Pinto and headed to Bluefield, W. Va., for my first newspaper job at the Daily Telegraph. Because I wasn’t very worldly, I only needed half the trunk.

My salary was $90 a week. The only lodging I could afford was a boarding house with no TV, no phone and a shared bathroom. Because the old lady of the manor only charged $45 a month, I managed to stay out of debt.

When I look back over those days, I think of pounding out copy on an ancient Royal typewriter that could have been used as a barbell at a World War II boot camp.

And mailroom guys growing marijuana in the dirt between the cracks of the wood floor.

C.W., their boss, was cool with it and even helped with the harvest.

“Makes ‘em work better,” he told me.

And never completely trusting the contents of the pizza on my desk because pieces of the Depression-era ceiling were always falling down. One night, a staffer thought he was biting into an anchovy and almost needed dental work.

While some graduates of the Daily Telegraph went on to toil at larger newspapers and for The Associated Press, I also worked with a narc, a woman who went to jail for Social Security fraud, a guy who went to jail for assault and a deskman who tried to burn the newspaper building down.

The attempted mass homicide didn’t amount to much. The gothic structure had lived through 80 years of storms, pigeons and angry readers. It could survive a quart of lighter fluid and a boat-load of matches.

My time in Southern West Virginia was life-changing.

I saw a world I had never seen before. One that included coal hand loaders, early United Mine Workers organizers, pool hustlers, bootleggers, mine explosion survivors, snake handlers, flood victims, coal camp baseball players, immigrants from Europe who came to America to work in the coalfields and a female furrier who carved muskrats while eating peanut-butter sandwiches.

While I got some ideas reading weekly newspapers and responding to tips from readers, most of my days were completely unscripted. I drove the back roads and asked around at rural post offices and country stores.

How dumb was I?

My first day in the field was spent in Berwind, a tiny community in the heart of the coalfields. I was told to go up a certain hollow, and I’d find an oldtimer who could tell me about the area’s rich history.

The man had a bad case of black lung from decades of breathing coal dust. It was all he could do to spit two sentences out before gasping for air.

But never mind what he had to say. I was mesmerized by the oxygen tank, the tubes and the mask, and how the fellow had to ration his words to keep from choking.

Sprinting into the newsroom, I gushed about what a great story I had uncovered: A living, (barely) breathing disabled coal miner.

Garret Mathews in 1979

My colleagues broke out laughing.

The story of stories, they said in between guffaws, would have been if I had gone to Berwind and found a miner who wasn’t disabled.

But I stayed with it, and penned more than 2,500 features and columns during my 15 years at the Daily Telegraph.

So why did I make the effort – and it was quite an effort – to sift through my files for the pieces in this online collection?

These men and women are from a bygone era and most are long dead. Their tales help form the fabric of this corner of Appalachia. I want to keep their stories – and memories -- alive for future generations.

It’s also a personal journal of discovery. These accounts are what a young writer found newspaper-worthy during the ‘70s and early ‘80s when the region was only a few years removed from its glory days.

To narrow the time frame for this anthology, I selected stories originally written between 1976 and 1983. While the Daily Telegraph has a healthy circulation in Virginia, I mostly concentrated on the West Virginia side of the border. My main focus was the coalfields – Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties.

I love history, so many of the pieces are about men and women who look back on past times. One man was a hobo. One was a silent-screen western buff. One recalled a 1927 train wreck.

Others are included just for fun, like the fellow who built a homemade cannon that fires Double Cola pop bottles.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things. The coalfield counties, especially McDowell, are among the poorest in the state.

Before mines began to mechanize in the early 1950s, McDowell County had close to 100,000 residents. Unemployment was scant, and the family-owned shops and businesses were on solid footing.

The downturn had begun when I arrived in 1972, but there were still plenty of jobs. The coal camp towns were holding their own. Most communities still had their schools and post offices.

Two words best describe the 1980s: Moving van. As demand for coal dropped, dozens of mines either closed or announced massive layoffs. I couldn’t spend a day in the coalfields without seeing a half-dozen U-Haul vehicles, or the like, loaded up and heading out.

I conclude this volume with stories penned in 1983 about the coal slump. There’s one about the plight of a jobless female miner who was raising six children. Another takes a look at the community of Gary in McDowell County that had an estimated unemployment rate of 90 percent. Another piece profiles a doctor in Wyoming County who offered a free clinic to jobless miners who had exhausted their unemployment benefits.

I adore this place, and only wish I could apply a giant Band-Aid to heal the wounds the region has suffered over the last few decades.

The current population of McDowell County is around 22,000. Only about one in three adults is in the labor force. Drug use soars as the hopeless comfort themselves with pills and syringes.

There is no four-lane highway. No chain sit-down restaurants. No decent parks.

It’s almost impossible to attract professional people to the area, especially physicians and teachers. Hundreds of houses are falling down, their absentee owners long gone.

The little towns struggle to keep their charters. The tax base is mostly retired and disabled miners. For young people, leaving the area is almost a foregone conclusion.

Bluefield remains the region’s largest city, but it’s on the same downhill slide. More than 20,000 people lived here in 1960. The population today is less than 11,000.

Downtown is one empty building after another. School enrollment is tumbling. There is precious little new construction.

The present is dim, the future grim.

So I ballyhoo the past with anecdotal accounts from gritty men and women who lived to tell about it.

I’m alerting public and school libraries in Southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia to this site. I’m also putting the word out to regional historians as well as to colleges and universities that offer Appalachian studies.

Time, I hope, is my friend. Before I’m done, I’ll pitch this project to anyone with even a remote interest in the subject matter.

I’m certainly no expert on life in these mountains. Hey, the last sociology class I took was in high school. But I was boots on the ground. I didn’t observe these men and women from afar. I looked them in the eyes.

That, I believe, makes this collection worthy of your consideration.

I hope you enjoy “Folks Are Talking – 1976-1983.”

Garret Mathews -- Jan. 5, 2016

The Silent (Screen) Type


PEEL CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN, W. Va. – At first glance, the white-haired man looks nothing like a collector of old movie relics.

He sucks constantly on a corn cob patch that’s straight out of Dogpatch, and the floppy hat and overalls makes him look like a fellow quite content to sit around the wood stove all day long, making no decision more substantial than choosing snuff or Red Man for an afternoon companion.

But the 69-year-old retired coal miner is a prodigious saver from way back, and don’t be fooled by the drawl that forces a visitor to conduct veritable vigils between words.

Oh, Edgar Shew still keeps the black powder squibs and the metal prongs he used back in the 1930s to blast coal from the then-bountiful Pocahontas mine.

And he has a goodly collection of dusty license plates, vintage six-shooters and Georgia Moon corn liquor bottles.

But just kid’s stuff, Shew says, when compared to the treasure he keeps in a spare bedroom of the white frame house he’s called home since 1925.

The generally toothless man may have the largest collection of cowboy movie posters from the silent-screen days of anyone on the planet.

He figures he has more than 350 paper and cardboard posters promoting the films of Tom Mix, the Hoxie Brothers, Fred Thomson, William Boyd and Buck Jones along with many other ride-‘em-cowboy types whose careers flourished from around 1915 until 1928 when the dastardly talkies came out.

“Haven’t been any decent pictures made since the start of the Depression. I reckon that’s why I haven’t been to the movie show in 50 years.”

Yes, Edgar Shew is a purist – cowboy silent films or nothing.

“To me, no other kind of movie has any plot to it.”

The full-color posters are in amazingly good condition. Only a few are torn, and most could be used by a movie promoter today if he wanted to turn back the clock.

Shew knows of some individual cowboy posters that collectors have bought for upwards of $150.

“But I can’t see me selling any of my collection, though,” he says, grinning, “Because then I wouldn’t be able to look at ‘em.”

He has laboriously researched every silent-screen western ever made, and tells anyone who will listen about the actors, plots, the film studios and even where the movies were filmed.

The highlight of Shew’s roomful of lore is memorabilia relating to the career of Tom Mix.

Edgar Shew holds one of his silent-screen posters

“He was the greatest,” he says of the man who gave us “Riders of the Purple Sage” as well as many other classics. “People can talk about John Wayne all they want to, but for my money Mix was better.”

Shew was injured underground in 1952 – about the time mine mechanization entered the picture, a happening that spelled the end for pick-and-shovel men. He quit three years later and began pursuing his hobby in earnest.

“I only wish I could have been one of those cowboy actors. Of course, in the ‘20s I was too busy digging coal to think about doing much else. I never got to see Tom Mix or Hoxie or Boyd or any of ‘em in person.”

But Shew saw his favorites dozens of times inside the many theaters like the Palace in Pocahontas that dotted the Bluefield-area coalfields in those days.

“I got most of my posters from outside the old movie houses and sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, I swiped the posters before the particular picture left town. Most of the theater managers were pretty nice about it, though.”

If Shew spotted an old poster, no risk was too great.

Take the time in 1927 when he was riding the train from work back to Pocahontas.

“Trains were real slow in those days, about 10 miles per hour or so. Anyways, when I was riding the rails one day I spied me a cardboard poster of Tom Mix on a telephone pole by the track.

“Now you didn’t see cardboard movie posters much in those days, so I got real interested in grabbing a-hold of that rascal. We got a little closer and I decided it was then or never, so I jumped off the train and pulled the poster from the pole. I ran like a wild man, and a mile or so later I caught up with the train and finished my trip.”

Shew has only one problem when it comes to his cowboy collection. That would be his inoperative movie projector.

“Years ago, this salve company would give you a hand-crank projector if you turned in enough of their coupons. Well, I turned in a passel of coupons, and that old projector did me real good for a long time until recently when the motor gave out. I haven’t gotten around to getting a new one yet.”

Edgar Shew likes to concentrate on a narrow field of endeavor. Just silent-screen westerns. No vehicle. No wife.

“I ran after the women for a spell and then I thought better of it. I don’t have any regrets about that or anything else except when the fools took all the saloons out of the coal towns.

He lights his pipe for the umpteenth time as he looks at the smiling poster of Tom Mix.

“Times were true back in those days,” he says as a frown displaces his normally glad countenance. “Even the bad guys were good guys in their own way.”

Fifty Tons A Day And Then Some


KIMBALL, W. Va. – The words come out in broken English and, with no front teeth as a barrier, they’re on top of you before you know it.

“I just liked to work. Once I’d start, I’d rarely stop. One day back during the Second War I loaded 53 tons by myself.”

Tom Battlo wheezes with black lung now, but in the days when coal was hand-dug and hand-heaved, the man had few equals.

These days he lives above the Beauty Bar, an enterprise operated by one of his daughters. He watches television a lot, a nod to his diminishing health.

“I always worked by myself,” Battlo recalls. “I would always get out of it when they would want me to have a buddy. I would put up my own timbers, do my own blasting and shovel my own coal.”

He worked at McDowell County operations in Roderfield, Premier and Keystone for more than 40 years beginning in 1913. He came to America from Italy in 1910, and spent three years in New York City with tens of thousands of other immigrants before hearing of work in West Virginia.

Battlo remembers loading coal for 65 and, later, 75 cents per six-ton buggy. Each car had his tag on the side, and his production was totaled at the end of the shift.

Old hand loaders in the county remember Tom Battlo best for his domination of the $20 war bond prize given every payday during World War 11. The mine operator offered the reward to the man who loaded the most coal. Battlo figures he collected close to $2,000 beyond his normal take.

“I guess some of the boys didn’t like me winning all the time. The super would put my picture up on the bulletin board, and it would usually be ripped down after two or three shifts would turn.”

Battlo says he rarely worked more than eight or nine hours a day.

“I could make all the money I needed in less time. Besides, the rock dust was pretty bad.”

Daughter Jean remembers the child-like excitement of opening her father’s lunch bucket at the end of the day, and having almost all its three-compartment goodies to herself. Her dad rarely took time off to eat.

Times have changed in the coalfields. Hand-loading operations have almost disappeared. Machines do most of the work.

“It’s progress, I reckon,” Battlo says, “but it would take four men today to do the work of one old-timer.”

Tom Battlo started digging coal with a No. 2 shovel. In the late 1940s, he was issued a No. 5, a scoop that holds some 75 pounds of coal.

He was proud of that shovel.

“They didn’t give many men a 5, you know.”

The World’s Greatest 9-Ball Player?


MULLENS, W. Va. – “Hello, boys.”

Buford (Bud) Hypes walks into the Sportsman, a poolroom he owns in this Wyoming County town, and takes his cue out of its fancy carrying case.

“Writer here wants to see me shoot,” Hypes says, pointing my way.

It’s a lucky day for the half dozen or so men in the place. Hypes doesn’t put his talent on display very often.

“Boys, ain’t no mortal gonna rob me at 9-ball,” the 58-year-old man says as he racks the balls. “But you knew that already, didn’t you?” Bud Hypes at his place of business

Somebody asks if an immortal could beat him.

“Hell, I’d rob those kind, too.”

Hypes bills himself as the country’s greatest 9-ball hustler.

“Have been since I was 16,” Hypes says as he makes one shot after another, pausing only instants in between. “I’d go to a town and ask who the best pool shooter was. If he wasn’t around, I’d wait on him. I’d rob the poor man and then go on to the next town.”

While the balding man with the bulldog face says his skills haven’t diminished, his restaurant and property holdings take up most of his time. Hypes and Henry Ball run Bud & Henry’s Grill. Hypes also owns the pool hall, a parking lot and some apartment houses on the same block.

“It’s just like winning at 9-ball. Why not own it all?”

He sometimes goes three or four months without picking up a cue.

“I’ve got me a little peephole at the Grill, though, and if I see somebody burning up the table, I might take a break from washing dishes to come over and rob the boy.”

Hypes says he’s a good businessman. So good that he passes up the $50,000 he says he could earn if he hustled year-‘round.

He used to play exhibition matches at VA hospitals. He and a set-up man would demonstrate trick shots and Hypes learned how to be a showman. He made shots both left- and right-handed and the crowds loved it.

I bring up a familiar name.

“Minnesota Fats? Man, he’s just an old boy named Rudolph. He was working for Brunswick and I never could get him to play me much. But when I did, I robbed him in 9-ball.”

Hypes generally passed up official championships, preferring to play the winner in a big-stakes game after the crowd left.

“The rules of 9-ball are frequently changed during coat-and-tie competitions to keep the audiences interested. They try to make it harder and harder on the good shotmaker. Sometimes they rig things until a lucky man will do as well as me.”

The master has shooting pool down to a fine science. Not even the weather escapes his scrutiny.

“If I’m playing on a cold day like today, I know the rails will be fast and the felt slow. You’d better adjust your game or you’ll lose.”

Hypes says he once ran 379 balls in a row in games of straight pool. A few years ago, he ran 13 racks in a row playing 9-ball.

The man with beef stew on his apron says there’s a schoolteacher in Williamson, W. Va., who’s been particularly benevolent to him.

“One time there was me and these two Class B players hanging around this pool hall where this teacher always showed up after school. Well, I spotted him first and he was heading for the bank. Now I didn’t want this good teacher to put all that good money away so I ran – only time I ever did that – up to him and talked him into a game. I robbed him good and those two Class B boys were pretty mad at me.”

Hypes finds he has to travel nowadays to find a good money game.

“Can’t get any action in Mullens or anywhere else in coal country. They know better.”

He says players have changed over the years.

“A lot of boys today are thugs and they get filled up with dope when they play. Don’t matter much to me, though. I’ll still rob them.”

As Bud Hypes leaves the room, a young boy looks up at him in awe.

“Hello, sonny,” Hypes says, shaking the little hand. “Now you can say you’ve seen the best.”

‘Shootin’est Thing I’ve Ever Seen’


BANDY, Va. – John Stout is the proud owner of a 1901 grist mill motor that he says a man just can’t find any more.

The retired coal miner also maintains a dual-purpose chicken coop. Stout’s Cackle Inn, as he calls it, is also a recording studio.

“This boy of mine can write a gospel song in less than 15 minutes, and one of these days we’re gonna lock ourselves in this coop and not come out until we have a tape full of music.”

The Tazewell County man leads the way to the main attraction of his back yard.

A homemade cannon.

“Shootin’est thing I’ve ever seen.”

Stout used the driveshaft from a 1951 Buick for the barrel and “just plain common sense” to finish the rest of the weapon. He added two whitewall tires to the carrier red wagon for class.

He points to a large hill across the road.

“I can lob an old Pocahontas Fuel Company pop bottle over that ridge just as pretty as you please. Why, if I had enough gunpowder behind it, I could fire a round a mile, I reckon.”

Stout uses Pocahontas pop bottles because they fit perfectly inside the innards of his cannon and because he has so many of them.

A common target in recent months has been a sycamore tree about 400 yards from his house. John Stout and his back yard cannon

“Don’t see very many leaves on it, do you? A cannon will do that to a tree.”

Once he blew a mulberry bush to smithereens, and told his wife the damage came from a windstorm so she wouldn’t get mad at him.

“Mother always thinks I shouldn’t aim between the power lines, but she should know by now that I’m an expert with this thing.”

Stout recalls the time an inebriated relative shot off a half pound of gunpowder by accident and almost blew man and machine to the next county.

“That was a fun time,” he says.

True to his promise of giving a demonstration, John Stout turns the cannon toward nearby Columbus Hill and sets off a round. The pop bottle flies through the air like a missile.

“It’s been about 12 years since I’ve built a cannon. All that mine dust in my lungs keeps me from working at anything more than a few minutes at a time.”

He talks about the time he defended his cannon to a curious judge who drove to Bandy to see what was causing all the commotion.

“Told the man it was kinda like a kid’s toy, only bigger. He must’ve liked what I said because he just rode away.”

His Work Space Has A 30-Inch Ceiling


CRANE CREEK, W. Va. – Leonard Bailey toils at a small mine that has a 30-inch top and a layer of mud that covers his boots. His days are spent in a deep crouch as he gouges at the coal.

And he likes it.

“It may sound hard to believe, but this operation (Crane Creek No. 11 at the junction of Mercer and McDowell counties) is safer than the ones with so much of a roof that a man can walk upright,” Bailey says as he pours a cup of coffee in the operations room. “Just the other day I was pinned by a big rock, but I shook it off because the thing didn’t drop too far. If that boulder had fallen on me from, say five feet, I’d have been a goner.”

The records prove his point. On the wall are plaques signifying years of accident-free work.

Bailey, a veteran of 33 years underground, has been here since 1966. He’s one of eight men who work at the face some 500 feet from the portal.

“You’ve got a few swag areas where the crew can sit comfortably to eat meals, but most of the mine is just a tad above the loading machine and that’s 28 inches.”

The veteran miner believes it’s easier on the body to work in low coal.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a back injury at No. 11. Now there are people who get banged-up knees from crawling around all day, but that’s about it.”

Section chief Joe Berry joins Bailey in the operations room.

“A lot of guys go down the road to No. 6 (also a Consolidation Coal operation), but many of them end up coming back here.

“I think a feeling of loyalty builds up among the men when they all share in the hardship of the less-than-wonderful working conditions,” Berry goes on.

Bailey believes the goop at No. 11 is worse to work in than the low ceiling.

“A lot of times, there’s a foot or more of water and that makes it difficult to operate the equipment. Sometimes when you feel that first wave of cold water going down your boots, it makes you think twice about what you’re doing here. Also, it slows production.”

An average of around 500 tons is mined per shift at No. 11. The company gives prizes if a shift can maintain that mark over a month’s time.

While Bailey says that target isn’t “all that difficult” to maintain, he admits the crew doesn’t get the tonnage they would if the top was higher.

“They’ve already mined out the high coal where we’re working,” Bailey explains. “The low stuff is all that’s left.”

How does it feel to stretch out after eight hours spent scurrying around like a gopher?

“So good I don’t have the words for it,” Leonard Bailey says, smiling.

Hoover Times Brought Him To West Virginia


ASHLAND, W. Va. – Ralph Rameriez says if he could write well enough, his life story would make a good book.

The introduction would draw from his days as a member of a wheelbarrow crew at a silver mine in his native Mexico.

And the small man who has never weighed more than 130 pounds would give ample mention to his 33 years in McDowell County mines, and the time he proudly held the record for hand-loading coal.

And there would be at least a chapter or two on Annie, his Polish-born wife, who wears her shawl tucked in a bow under her chin to ward off the winter chill.

“I’m old-fashioned,” she says.

Her 82-year-old husband talks in a staccato voice and uses wildly-waving hands as exclamation points.

“I’ve had it pretty rough…a lot of stories,” he says. “If only I could write good enough. But I don’t.”

Rameriez left Mexico in 1920, figuring life had to be better across the border. He never formally learned English, but hoped his willingness to work hard would overcome the language barrier.

He picked cotton for a few months, and then labored at a sugar beet factory.

“Those were Hoover times and times were bad. There was no work at the factory and no work any place else. Then I heard coal miners were getting jobs. So I got myself to West Virginia in 1925 and I’ve been here ever since.”

He found his way to a boarding house where he met a young woman from Poland, whose husband had gone to Chicago, leaving her and the children to pay the rent as best they could.

Rameriez met the lady, liked her, and when news arrived of her husband’s death in Illinois, the two were married.

“I could load coal as good or better than any big fellow,” Rameriez says. “I did 25 tons or more every day for year after year. I never sat down on the job like some other men and I was never sick. They kept the totals on the office. My name was on the top.”

He was seriously injured in a slate fall accident in 1934 that resulted in spinal damage and a long stint in a body cast.

“I couldn’t even sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family.”

The No. 6 mine at Ashland petered out in 1958. Rameriez did odd jobs on the outside for five more years, but he had loaded his last coal car.

“Silver was no good. Coal work is better. I made enough to educate my children and grandchildren, and I was able to have a piece of land.”

He has a knack for growing things, particularly pumpkins and tomatoes.

“I haven’t been healthy for a long time – my heart, eyes and ears mostly. Anyway, when I go to the doctor I always give him vegetables. I think that’s why we get along so good.”

He pulls out a faded picture of a fashionably dressed young man.

“This is what I looked like when I came to McDowell County. I didn’t have any money, but I wasn’t looking like a tramp for anybody.”

The Ashland coal camp housed several ethnic groups in the heyday of the mining company when the grounds held a bowling alley and a movie theater. Annie Rameriez felt at home with her Polish friends, and Ralph had several Spanish-speaking neighbors who moved to the coalfields for the same reason he did.

No more.

Annie reckons she’s the only one in the camp who understands Polish. Ralph knows he’s the only man left of Mexican descent.

“We have each other,” Annie Rameriez likes to say as nervous fingers work the bow under her chin.

“She and I, we’ve tried to be good people to the Americans,” Ralph Rameriez says. “I know I’ve worked hard enough.”

Mine Is Gone, But Not Bill Byrge


KILLARNEY, W. Va. – The mine is gone, the post office is a memory and the 20 or so remaining families must look at massive slate dumps for a reminder of what used to be.

The Raleigh County community is off most road maps now. Folks get their mail in nearby Rhodell, and except for a scrawled sign pointing the way to the Killarney Freewill Baptist Church, travelers could easily miss the place altogether.

Bill Byrge is one who stayed.

“I call myself a refugee. I spent 46 years in the mines, but retirement comes hard. If I sit on this porch all day, I’ll be gone in less than a month.”

So he sells stuff out of his van and off the porch – tape players, cameras, toasters. You name it.

“This right here is the only enterprise going in Killarney these days. If I don’t got it, I can sure get it.”

Byrge came to Killarney in 1940 from Hazard, Ky. In those days, the community had a population of about 500 and area mines were going full tilt.

“I left Hazard because it was too rough. It seemed like there was a killing a day down there. It was a little better here. There were a lot of fights around Rhodell, but not near as much dying.”

The smile gets wider.

“I was right in the middle of it. Liked to drink, too, but I was smart enough to stay out of the bars. I put down enough to flood that creek over there, but almost all of it was done on this porch here on Saturday nights. I wouldn‘t feel good until after two hours of sweat on Monday.”

The white-haired man learned to brawl at an early age.

“Got hired to be a boxer for this carnival. Monday through Friday, they paid me 10 bucks a day to lose most of the fights. The contract wasn’t there on Saturday, and that’s when I got even with a lot of guys.”

The origin of the community’s name, Byrge says, “has nothing to do with Ireland or across the sea or anything like that. Old-timers told me about this real tough guy named Arney who terrorized the citizens back in the early 1900s. The place got called what it did one night after a bunch of riled people came to his house and started shouting, ‘Kill Arney.’ ”

Byrge was superintendent at the Killarney mine until it closed in 1958. He says there’s still coal in the mine that’s just down the hollow from his porch.

“They only quit because of the low prices they were getting. A few years ago, this coal company approached me about resuming the operation. I said I would get the coal out for $5 a ton. They didn’t like my price and that was the end of that.”

We watch a man in a pickup truck try to get to the top of one of the slate dumps. The driver doesn’t admit defeat until plumes of smoke engulf his vehicle.

“Town might be dying out,” Byrge says, “but that don’t mean we don’t got entertainment.”

Flood Baby Brings Some Needed Joy


BARTLEY, W. Va. – Floodwaters ran high in this corner of Appalachia in early April of 1977. Damage figures soared into the millions of dollars as folks watched cars, refrigerators, furniture and other pieces of their lives go bobbing down bloated rivers like so many leaves in a stream.

I spent the week of April 4-8 doing flood stories, concentrating on McDowell County. The days were long as there were lots of hard times tales to tell.

But there was at least one heartwarming story.

It was near the end of my third day on the road. My little Chevy Monza almost became a flood casualty the previous afternoon, so the Daily Telegraph arranged for a Bluefield Rescue Squad vehicle and a driver to negotiate the inundated roads. Joining us was Frank Jarrell, another Telegraph reporter.

We made one last stop in War when 18-year-old Andy Bruch, our wheelman, monitored an emergency call – something about a woman about to give birth who had no transportation to the hospital.

We lit out for Bartley, about 10 miles away, where we encountered a sobbing woman and her tiny husband. Hysteria was setting in as the woman was afraid she wouldn’t make it to the Welch hospital a half hour away. She leaned against her tiny husband for balance.

Andy calmed the woman by telling her he had delivered a baby once and there was nothing to it.

We got to the top of Coalwood Mountain. Only 15 more minutes to go.

The sobbing turned to screams. It was time for Brenda Mullens to have her baby. Andy parked the Rescue Squad and climbed in the back of the truck. Frank and I directed traffic. Brenda and Angel Marie Mullens

After a few minutes, I realized I might never have the opportunity to witness a birth up close. I had always heard people say there was a lot of joy and happiness surrounding such an event, so I decided to peek in and see for myself.

I couldn’t have picked a more graphic time. I saw the baby coming out and the corresponding mess in the back. Scampering back to my post, I vowed I would never have children.

In a few minutes, Frank hollered that the birth had been completed and the new little girl was doing find. Then Andy said we still needed to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to cut the umbilical cord.

Frank drove. I operated the yelp and squelch buttons. Andy comforted Brenda and her husband, Mackie, and the newest addition to their family, Angel Marie.

At the emergency room, the doctors complimented Andy for his grace under pressure. I hounded them until they said I did a good job of yelping and squelching.

Three months later, I did a follow-up story.

The Mullens family was living in a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) flood trailer outside Iaeger. They lost almost all their possessions in the flood, and the government trailer was their third resting place since the waters rose that night in Bartley Hollow. They joined 100 or so other displaced families at the hastily prepared trailer park. Mackie, a coal miner, was still unemployed.

Despite temperatures of more than 90 degrees inside the trailer, Angel Marie was smiling and cooing.

“She only cries when it gets too hot for her to bear and that’s not often,” Brenda says. “She can stand the heat better than I can.”

The mother of two looked back over April 7.

“I was in my tenth month and I started having labor pains around 11 o’clock that morning. The pain stayed for a while and then it went away. Mackie went down the hollow to help some neighbors clean up after the flood.

“About three hours later, the pain hit again. I knew I had to go to the hospital fast so I bathed Louis (her first-born) and got him all squared away. Then I walked down the road and caught what I thought would be a ride to the Welch hospital.

“But the car broke down and me and Mackie called the Big Creek Rescue Squad.”

That’s when we entered the picture. Our Bluefield unit was idling next to the War Police Department, and Andy picked up the distress call.

“I was afraid for my baby,” Brenda Mullens recalled. “It was really bumpy in the back of that ambulance.”

She brought Angel Marie into the living room.

“They let her stay with me in the bassinet that night. There were no complications and we went home three days later.”

Brenda and Mackie Mullens weren’t happy at the crowded trailer park. They hoped to move to Bradshaw to be closer to friends and family.

“But we’ll make it. Angel Marie’s gonna be our good luck charm.”

‘I Am Not Of This World, But The Next’


JOLO, W. Va. - The rattlesnake winds itself around the handler’s arm and becomes like a giant bracelet.

“Jesus, yea Jesus. Praise the Lord.”

The others on the rostrum chant as the holder raises his free hand to the ceiling.


More rattlesnakes are brought out of the big brown box. The music from the electric guitars quiets and the dancing stops as the sweating saints of the church hold the reptiles at arms’ length. The snakes’ heads shimmy up and down slowly as if mesmerized by the religious spirit that permeates the small room.

“A lot of people read Mark 16 in the Bible and kinda skip over the serpent part,” the Rev. Bob Elkins tells his flock. “Well, you can’t skip over it. You got to believe the whole thing.”

The service at the Church of the Lord Jesus is informal and non-regimented. There are no hymnals or prayer books. No specific time is budgeted for preaching or singing. Carefree children chew gum and play with pocketbooks.

“There are those who think this is show,” thunders Dewey Chafin, who holds a giant wad of rattlesnakes. “Let those who think thusly reach into the serpent box.”

There are no takers from the crowd of 50 or so in the congregation.

“One night, this serpent must’ve latched on to my thumb for a good minute,” says Chafin after the service. “I can’t describe the pain. All I can say is a toothache ain’t nothing compared to it. All together, I’ve been fanged way more than 60 times.”

There’s never any pressure on those in the back rows to handle the snakes, most of which are caught in these same mountains. Passing around the snakes in Jolo

Women members of the Church of the Lord Jesus do not wear pants or jewelry and are not permitted to cut their hair. Men are required to dress conservatively. Drinking and smoking are taboo, as is going to movies or ball games.

Believers usually don’t seek medical attention when bitten.

“Trusting in the Lord and living a good life are real important,” the Rev. Elkins continues. “I could never put my hand into the snake box if I had any guilt feelings at all.”

Tim McCoy was bitten on the fingers and almost died.

“You never know what those bites will do to you,” the McDowell County man says following the three-hour service. “When I was bit, I missed a lot of work at the Northfork (W. Va.) Kroger store. That don’t matter. The bite taught me that God comes before any job.”

Chafin, a disabled coal miner, can quote almost verbatim the 16th Chapter of Mark in the Bible where it is written “and they shall pick up serpents.” He is the first this night to take a rattlesnake out of the box.

“In your name, Lord. In your name, Lord,” Chafin says over and over.

Snake-handling is outlawed in the neighboring states of Virginia and Kentucky. Services at the Jolo church have been disrupted on several occasions by drunks throwing firecrackers. This night, a West Virginia state trooper sits in the rear of the church.

“Let’s have ourselves a time,” the Rev. Elkins shouts as the lead guitarist plays “You Gotta Move.”

The snakes are usually passed around by the same 10 to 15 persons. If someone is bitten, that person is not deemed a sinner. Handling the rattlesnakes or copperheads is considered a test of faith, and the outcome of individual contact with a snake is not considered important.

Cindy Church has been attending services for several months, but has yet to pick up a snake. The 16-year-old student at nearby Iaeger High School says she “is waiting for the spirit of the Lord to give me the complete faith necessary to accept the offer of a snake. I’ll know when it’s the right time.”

She says she is the only student at her high school who belongs to a snake-handling church.

“I’ve been rebuked by a few kids, but that has made me a stronger person. Most of my classmates know how much my faith means to me, and more and more I think they understand,” she says after the service.

Cindy attended services as a child at the Jolo church with her parents and grandparents. Then came the move to Ohio, a state in which snake-handling is illegal. The family stayed a few years, but eventually moved back to West Virginia.

“We wanted to be able to express our religious convictions,” Cindy Church says.

She isn’t sure what her feelings will be when she first touches a poisonous snake.

“The power will be all over me, but I know I’ll be in control of my actions. I know I’ll feel the snake on my skin.”

She dates a young man who, while he doesn’t share her religious views, understands her feelings and sometimes even attends services with her.

“I’m lucky to have someone like that.”

At first, Cindy Church admits, “The rule against smoking was a burden to me. But I’ve adjusted, and now I wouldn’t want things any other way. I’ve accepted the fact that I am not of this world, but the next.”

Remembering The Timbering Days


The once mighty lumbering town of Maben, W. Va., has been reduced to crumbling wooden company houses made soggy by the winter rain. The 18-foot logs that once thundered down to the mill pond are now mere splinters in the Slab Fork Creek bed.

The Wyoming County community was the thriving headquarters of the W.M. Ritter Company, an outfit that at one time was the largest producer of hardwood in the world, according to Georgia-Pacific, the firm that bought out Ritter’s holdings in 1960.

More than 400 men processed and loaded lumber for shipment in Ritter’s heyday in the late 1930s.

Today, the old Ritter school is deteriorating on the side of Rt. 54, and only brick from the boiler room remains of the timbering operation where lumber was once stacked as high as telephone poles.

Walter Monday of Mullens was a 20-year veteran of William McClellen Ritter’s life’s work. Monday started in Maben in the early 1920s and left during the Second World War when the operation was “all sawed out,” to use his words.

I ask him to walk the grounds with me.

“The old hotel was here,” Monday says, pointing to a muddy field beside a narrow bridge. “It burned down years ago along with the sawmill and processing camp. The company store was in the same area. When it burned, some of my work records were lost.”

When work gave out, many men landed jobs in the coal mines.

“The money wasn’t that good at Ritter at the end,” Monday says. “When I found a job underground, I earned about 50 cents more an hour.”

He explains that the chunks of lumber – mostly oak, poplar and pine – were allowed to float to the bottom of Slab Fork Creek where the wood was either processed into finished goods or shipped on rail cars.

“Sometimes Mr. Ritter would visit the docks. He was a pretty regular guy and didn’t put on airs. I guess he had a lot of money, though.”

In the early days, Monday says, Maben was a “mighty fine” company town, complete with wooden sidewalks and flower gardens.

“They say that Mr. Ritter used to tell anybody who’d listen that there was about 50 years of timbering in Wyoming County. Turns out that was about right.”

Walter Monday takes a last look at the decrepit company houses.

“I miss it, but I’m thankful I was able to work as many years as I did. There aren’t too many of us timbering men left, you know.”

Glen Looney lives across the Virginia state line in Hurley. The 78-year-old man hired on at Ritter in 1914.

“Me and the mules worked hand and hoof. You had to be a man to work for Ritter. You either did it their way or you got sent home.”

“Their way” meant putting in 10-hour shifts for 25 cents an hour in the tall timber that concentrated in the Little Prater and Knox Creek sections of Buchanan County.

“The camp was designed with self-sufficiency in mind,” Looney explains. “We had a commissary, a blacksmith and other necessities of the times. The quarters were portable. The bosses would simply drag the camp along as we proceeded further and further up in the woods.”

He grins.

“It was pretty primitive. We had a stove in the lobby, but there was no heat in the living quarters. We suffered some.”

Employees could either stay at the camp permanently, or pay 40 cents a night for boarding privileges until the weekend. Looney chose the latter.

“We worked in teams and each team was expected to produce 40 logs a day,” Looney says. “If the foreman put you in what we called ‘heavy wood,’ there was no problem getting the 40. But if the boss was mad at you, he’d put you in an area where there were fewer trees and you’d have to really sweat to get the quota. A man who didn’t help produce the 40 didn’t stick around very long.”

Looney remembers fights on almost a nightly basis.

“One time we were working up Slate Creek when this one man cut another across the temple. I’ve never seen so much blood. One wash pan would fill up and they’d bring in another one. It was nine miles to any civilization, but there was one man in the camp who had a reputation for stopping blood. Well, they called him in. I was there when he put his fingers on the man’s head and the blood stopped. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Timbering began to wind down in Buchanan County in the late 1920s.

“I probably stayed at Ritter for about eight years,” Glen Looney says. “I went to the mines and later took up carpentry work. If I put a nail in a piece of wood, it stayed.”

The days of skinning trees remain etched in his brain.

“I wouldn’t wish young people to have to work as hard as we did back then, but a small dose would be good for them. You can’t look ahead until you’ve seen the past.”

On The Prowl For Poisonous Snakes


FILBERT, W. Va. – The last time Billy Reed was bitten by a snake, the doctor suggested he find another hobby, or at least another reptile.

But Reed just laughed, said “Can’t do it, buddy” and proceeded to leave the examining room for the high country around this corner of McDowell County where scores of copperheads and timber rattlers are on the crawl.

Although his wife can’t stand the creatures and most neighbors think he’s crazy, Reed is known up and down the coal camps around Gary as the man who has killed more than 200 poisonous snakes.

“It’s a hobby, buddy – just like stamp-collecting,” he says.

Reed is a mine troubleshooter for U.S. Steel, and busies himself six days a week installing mine fans or repairing pieces of heavy equipment. But come quitting time, he’s a snake man through and through.

And he’s not alone. Friends Phil Salcines and Harold Finley regularly join him in the woods about the Gary No. 9 mine.

“Some days we’ll kill more than a dozen and other days we can’t buy one,” Reed says as he pokes around a suspected den by the side of the road. “See these lines in the soil? They’re snake trails. That’s how you track ‘em. This one is cold, though. The snake done moved on.”

Reed and his pals figure they’re providing a public service by helping rid the area of poisonous snakes.

“This is good hunting ground, and the shame of it is many men are afraid to come up here because snakes are all over the place. We’ve killed a bunch, but there’s a bigger bunch left.”

There’s money in it when Reed and company vanquish a rattlesnake, as plenty of McDowell Countians are willing to shell out three bucks for the rattles.

“No bounty on the hides, though,” Reed says.

Salcines did give one rattlesnake to the Gary High School biology department, but that was a special specimen that measured a full seven inches around the belly.

“I used to give some of my catch to those snake handlers at the Jolo church, but no more,” Reed says. “Those people are a little too strange for me, and I don’t want it on my conscience if one of my snakes kills somebody.”

The handlers are fearless and that bothers Reed.

“One time I had a whole mess of snakes in a sack and brought ‘em to this guy who goes to the Jolo church. Buddy, he didn’t even think twice about sticking his hand in the bag. He must’ve charmed them snakes or something, ‘cause if I stick my hand in there them rattlers would eat me up.”

A fellow doesn’t hunt snakes as long as Reed has without learning a few things:

  • “I can always tell when I’m creeping up on a copperhead because they give off a smell like a cucumber. Rattlers don’t have much of an odor at all.”
  • “Some so-called experts say copperheads and rattlers are deadly enemies and won’t den together. That’s a lot of bull. I’ve cleared out many a log that had a half dozen of both kinds coiled around each other.”
  • “Rattlesnakes are more deadly than copperheads. If a timber rattler had bitten me three times instead of a copperhead, I might not be alive today. A rattler is bigger and can pump a lot more venom.”
  • “I’ve seen black racers chase a man like hell for 40 yards or more down a ditchline, but a rattler or a copperhead won’t go to that much trouble. Maybe they’d reach out a body length or two, but that’s it.”

Reed wears no special garb. Not even a pair of gloves.

“I carry a two-pronged stick. Some guys like to step on a snake when they catch it, but the stick works best for me. Helps me pin ‘em against the ground.”

He is one stubborn man when on a hunt.

“One time I had this rattler cornered inside a hollow log, but I couldn’t get to it. I swear it was five miles or more back in the woods, but I went all the way home, got me a buck-saw and went all the way back to the log. The snake was still there, and in a couple of minutes he was all mine.”

Reed has tried snake meat, but finds its chicken-like taste not to his liking.

“I understand there’s a store or two in Princeton (W. Va.) that sells rattler meat. Maybe they’d like to hire me to make sure they keep a good supply.”

As you might expect, the guy is quite the outdoorsman. He never forgets a beaver pond or a silver maple or a petrified tree. A gun and fossil collection competes for attention in his den. And even though he works for a coal company, he’s against strip-mining because he says it ruins the pheasant and turkey hunting.

Billy Reed (CB-dubbed Tall Man because he isn’t) doesn’t add to his total this day. He leads the way out of the woods a few minutes before sundown.

“Buddy, some people tell me I ought to be scared. That’s a laugh. It don’t bother me at all to be eyeball to eyeball with a rattler ‘cause I know who’s gonna win out in the end.”

Legless Man Wants No Favors


GARY, W. Va. – “I don’t want to be a part of a sad story,” Jimmy Garnick insists. “If it’s a story about me, it’s got to be happy because I’m a happy-type person.”

The 50-year-old McDowell County man turns quickly in the chair and lets his artificial legs dangle where they’ll have more room.

Garnick lost the limbs in 1951 in a mining accident that claimed the lives of four co-workers and injured 11 others. He learned to walk again, and holds down a bookkeeping job with a local lumber firm that supplies mine props to U.S. Steel.

It’s an understatement to say Garnick is a stubborn, determined and confident person.

  • “I’ve seen a bunch of people walk who have lost both legs above the knee, and I’ve got them all beat. It’s a question of balance and having balance is something I’m good at.”
  • “I’ve got more women than I can handle. It must be because I’m such a happy person.”
  • “I was the most disappointed after the accident because I thought no way could I ever dance again. And I was a good dancer, too. But now I’m back at it. A little slower than before, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”
  • “They called it rehabilitation, but nobody but myself made me learn to walk. I used to practice a mile at a time until I got the hang of it.”

Garnick was more than ready to enter the mines when he turned 18. His father died when he was an infant and his mother was sickly, so it was important to bring home the fattest paycheck possible.

He worked without incident at the Ream mine until the day a wall collapsed.

“That mountain bump threw me against the crib we were working on, and then a piece of machinery ran over me. I was in shock, but I stayed awake. They say I smoked a couple cigarettes while they were carrying me out. They also say it wasn’t a very pretty sight down there what with pieces of arms and legs all over the place.”

Garnick knows it was persistence that landed the bookkeeping job, not talent.

“When I hired on, I probably hadn’t written three checks in my life. I’m a good learner.”

The man still has his original wheelchair, but he’s gone through six sets of limbs.

“If I gain or lose a lot of weight, my legs are awful uncomfortable. Now that I’ve slowed down my eating I need a smaller pair.”

He reckons he would be a coal miner today if he not for the accident.

“Of course I would have fought the Korean War first. I remember I got a big laugh in the hospital when the government mailed my draft notice.”

Garnick still deals with the after-shocks of the tragedy.

“Every Tuesday for the last 14 months I’ve driven to Beckley (W. Va.) to get my teeth worked on. The jolt knocked them loose and the bottom set got crooked. Doctor says I have big chunks of bone missing from my jaw. He says it might take a year before everything gets right.”

Garnick keeps his two canes behind the desk at work.

“Some of the men probably don’t even know about my little leg problem. That’s the way I like it. I don’t want to be any different from anybody else.”

Black Players Recall Coal Camp Baseball Games


The fences were wooden. The bats were borrowed. The scores were forgotten.

And the faces were black.

The New River Giants and the Raleigh Clippers started playing baseball during the Depression. The teams flourished during the pre-union days because the coal companies were more than willing to buy a few gloves and bats to keep their miners/players from complaining about conditions underground.

The end came when the United Mine Workers forced an increase in wages, an action that resulted in the bulldozing of most of the company-owned playing fields.

Nathaniel Smith of Beckley, W. Va., played for both teams. He was a power-hitting shortstop considered by some to have been Major League caliber. But the closest he ever came to the top was an unsuccessful tryout with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the top black barnstorming teams in the nation.

The color of his skin worked against Smith as his diamond heyday was well before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“You can’t go after a job (the tryout with Kansas City) when you’re 31 years old,” Smith says. “That’s the time to be coming out of the game, not going into it.”

He suited up when he was 15, the first year he worked in the mines. He dug coal for 30 years and played for the Clippers until the late 1950s.

“We’d work the mines five days a week, and practice twice a week from quitting time at 4 o’clock until dark. The games were on Saturdays and Sundays, and they’d usually be against semipro teams from Cincinnati and Louisville and places like that.

“I was lucky enough to get a good job running a motor in high coal. I knew the superintendent real well and he took care of me. I don’t think I could’ve played as long as I did if I worked the low coal.”

The companies knew the games were good for camp morale, so they hired quality players whenever they could. If a man could run, hit and field, he rarely had trouble finding work. In fact, promotions often had more to do with performance on the field.

Recreational opportunities were scarce in the camps, so the weekend games were the highlight of the social calendar.

“The coming of the union changed a lot of feelings and the companies no longer subsidized us,” Smith says. “The ball diamonds got torn down, including the one the Clippers used. There used to be a field every two or three miles in the coalfields, but now you can’t find one to save your life.”

The Clippers had to scramble to find a place to play. Players pooled their money and built a few wooden bleachers on an empty lot, but the crowds stayed away.

“You can’t charge if you don’t have a nice stadium,” Smith says. “Besides, by that time more and more people were getting cars and leaving the camps, so that meant they had other things to do than watch us hit baseballs.”

He says there never was any racial trouble to speak of.

“Not unless you count the time we went to Clinchco (Virginia). There weren’t very many blacks down there, and a few drunks started giving us a hard time when we got way ahead. But the sponsors of the other team saw to it nobody caused trouble.”

Smith will never forget the two games he played with the legendary Satchell Paige.

“We hired him to pitch for us against the Homestead Grays. He always brought a crowd, so we booked the exhibition game in Charleston (W. Va.). Satchell got almost all the money, but we agreed on that to get him to come.

“The biggest trouble we had with the man was getting him to the games. He was a celebrity and would do radio interviews until right before the game. We barely got him to the park in time to get warmed up.

“We lost the two games, but we didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. The Grays had a guy named Josh Gibson who might’ve been the greatest catcher to ever play the game. We played before something like 5,000 fans and it was great.”

Nathan Payne of Rhodell came to Southern West Virginia from his native Alabama. The first baseball fields set aside for his race were pastures that the players had to tame with mowing scythes.

The black athletes were a ragtag, poorly organized bunch who knew all too well that, despite their natural abilities, there would be precious little recognition for their talents and little chance to play beyond the shadows of the coal tipples.

Payne helped change that. After the dust from the Raleigh County man’s sphere of influence had settled, dozens of coal camp baseball players of both races received opportunities to play organized ball.

First and foremost, Nathan Payne was a coal miner. He picked slate when he was 15 in the early days of a mining career that lasted 53 years.

“Anything I did with baseball came after I got off the cutting machine. I knew the priorities as well as the next man.”

Payne was a hotshot infielder as a youngster and was playing on a men’s traveling team at age 13.

“Baseball helped me get out of a lot of chores back home in Alabama. I was always ready to go anywhere for a game, and I promised my dad faithfully I wouldn’t get into any meanness. There was something about the running and throwing aspects of baseball that always fascinated me.”

Payne played some after his father moved to Wyoming County – wages were almost three dollars a day higher in West Virginia – but as the years passed he became more and more interested in organizing and overseeing coal camp teams.

“Occasionally it wasn’t just about baseball. Moonshine would get changed hands and the stuff sometimes got as far as the team bench. There was more than one guy on the club that I had to bail out of jail for being drunk.”

Guarantees for games ranged between $100 and $150. Payment wasn’t a certainty.

“I remember one time we went to Logan County (W. Va.) and the manager of the other team tried to stiff me out of our money. I heard he was hanging out at the local American Legion hall so I took my catcher with me – he was mean and as big as a truck – up to where the man was. I threatened to confiscate all his equipment if he wouldn’t pay up. We almost had a fight, but we got our money.”

Payne continued to work on his cutting machine, but gradually broadened his base as far as baseball was concerned.

“I had seen coal camp players come and go for years and I knew there was some big-league potential. The problem was they didn’t have any way to draw attention to themselves. I became a talent scout and worked this end of the coalfields for professional teams.”

None of his prospects cracked the majors.

“Some of the men I signed kinda got swayed by the lights of the big city. Others got homesick and a few got in trouble. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Scouting wasn’t a lucrative proposition for Nathan Payne.

“I was always pretty informal about the whole thing. They never could get me to itemize expenses and things like that. Really I did it (keeping an eye on the players) because I enjoyed it.”

He looks back fondly on the coal camp games.

“Baseball was relaxation. Sometimes we’d play three games a day and it didn’t have to be all sun-shiny like it does today. Baseball was good clean fun back then and it meant a lot to all of us involved. After a day of working underground, playing ball was kinda like being free.”

He Knew Some Hatfields And McCoys


DANIELS, W. Va. – William Saunders is proud of two things in his life that has extended several months past his 90th birthday.

One is the doctor, who recently said he needs no pills and that he’s in good shape for “an old critter.”

And the Raleigh County man is glad he never got in a fracas with the Hatfields and McCoys, who were fussing and feuding when he was growing up along the Big Sandy River in Wayne County.

Saunders’ grandfather was a Hatfield, so the white-haired man knows more than a little about the famous feud between the two armed camps on both sides of the river that separates Kentucky from the Mountain State.

“I knew most of the Hatfield boys – Willis, Doc, Johnse and the rest,” Saunders says. “They were all mean as could be, but they didn’t have anything on those Kentucky McCoys.”

He says there was a store in the Prichard section of Wayne County where the Hatfields gathered when they weren’t gunning down McCoys.

“I reckon I traded at that place a thousand times or more when I was a youngster. I’d just sit around all day long and listen to all the talk. I didn’t mention it at the time, but I never saw how anybody could get any joy out of shooting innocent people just because you didn’t like their last name.”

When 1907 rolled around, Saunders was positive he didn’t want to live the rest of his days by the Big Sandy. But he wasn’t sure on just how to go about leaving home.

“So I sneaked out one night when the moon was low. I was with a couple friends and none of us knew exactly where we were going. We got as far as Kenova (W. Va.) where we all got jobs digging sewer pipe.”

He didn’t mind the digging part of the job, but after three weeks the 18-year-old Saunders got mighty tired of sewer pipe.

“That was when I decided to go into the mines. I started out hand-loading and before long I was digging 40 tons a day when we were in high coal. I didn’t turn over the keys to my tool box until I had been underground 42 years.”

Saunders only finished seven years of his McGuffey Reader, but says his lack of education didn’t hold him back.

“Lots of times they made me boss when I never had the classes for it. They just asked me not to tell anybody.”

He hasn’t forgotten his boyhood days when gunfire and threats of gunfire were all around.

“I don’t care what anybody says. The Hatfield-McCoy feud started when a McCoy stole a pig that belonged to a Hatfield. Forget all that talk about the love affair (between Roseann McCoy and Johnse Hatfield). When I was a little boy, I asked straight out what started the whole mess and my grandmother said it was over a pig that was worth around 50 cents. And she ought to know because she was a Hatfield.”

The feud began in 1865 and bad feelings continued into the 20th century. Ten family members lost their lives.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but there were many battle royals going on in that area around the coming of the 1900s,” Saunders says. “There were a lot of mean families who went at each other with their long rifles. The Hatfields and McCoys were just two of them.”

William Saunders was too busy working to get involved in the long-running dispute.

“That would have been good advice for the two families to take. I think one reason there were so many killings was that neither family much believed in breaking a sweat.”

Has history over-dramatized the mountain feud?

“Nope, because it really happened. People really lost their lives and everybody along the river stayed scared a lot of the time. I’m not sorry I left.”

His Markers “Not As Slick’ And Not As Pricey


JOLO, W. Va. – Earl Rife was walking through a rural cemetery when he noticed that many plots lacked tombstones.

This got the former coal miner to thinking.

“I figured the families couldn’t afford those expensive $200 jobs that the funeral homes charge, so they decided not to have a stone at all,” the 71-year-old Rife says. “Well, I was a pretty good carpenter in my time, so I came up with the idea of making homemade tombstones. That was 11 years ago when the doctor took me out of the mines on account of black lung. I reckon I’ve made 400 or so since then.”

The McDowell County man mixes his own cement and, depending on the size of the desired tombstone, pours the works into one of two wooden molds. Exactly two and one-half hours later, Rife gets out the plastic letters that came from Hong Kong and makes imprints in the still-wet cement.

The upshot is birth and death date in letters that are more or less straight, and in spelling that’s more or less correct.

“My tombstones look like the kind they had back in the Civil War – you know, with the little letters running all over the rock,” Rife says as he shows off a couple of 100-pound demonstrator stones that sit outside his mountaintop dwelling. “Tombstones are real important to people around here. Mine might not be as slick as those you’d get from a funeral home, but the quality is still there, believe you me.”

When we spoke, he was charging $35 for a smaller model and $60 for a full-sized stone.

“The way I look at it, I’m saving a little history. There used to be a lot of homemade tombstone guys in this corner of the state, but I’m the only person I know who’s still going.”

It takes about a day for Rife to turn out a marker. These are careful hours because there is product risk involved. Earl Rife with one of his creations

If he waits too long, it can be almost impossible to remove the footer from the concrete. If he doesn’t wait long enough, the stone can crack.

“I keep on working until I get it right,” Rife says as he shows how sometimes the letters can slip on the cement and cause a name or a death date to be out of line.

“The only thing I don’t do is deliver. I’m not about to lift one of these babies.”

The man is not limited to traditionally shaped tombstones.

“I’ve done a few with crosses on top, and once I put a picture of the man and his wife on the stone. All I had to work with was an old tinplate picture, but it didn’t turn out too bad.”

So far, Earl Rife has not been asked to put any poetry on any of his stones, but he says he could handle the request.

“I’d just have to squeeze the space a little more, that’s all.”

While he hasn’t purchased a fancy cash register or anything like that, he has toughened his pricing policy.

“Unless I know a person, I get half my money up front. I ended up making three headstones for free for this one man and I learned my lesson. I may be a small-timer, but I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Early UMW Organizer Hasn’t Forgiven


LECKIE, W. Va. – Clyde McGraw is one of the few original United Mine Workers organizers still drawing breath in McDowell County. The departed can take solace in the fact that the white-haired man has more than enough venom in his heart to compensate for the declining numbers of his organizing mates.

Venom against the Taft-Hartley law, against Baldwin-Felts detectives, against non-union coal mines, against payment differentials in the 1950 and 1974 union retirement program and, last, venom against what he calls “unfeeling, uncaring coal companies.

“The fighting fever has been boiling up inside me all my life and I can’t get shed of it,” he says.

McGraw’s staunch UMW feelings are hand-me-downs from his activist miner father, who worked in what his son says were more than 100 different mines from Alabama to Pennsylvania.

“Dad was fired from more jobs than I can remember. He wasn’t content when things weren’t right.”

Clyde McGraw first worked in the mines in 1913 when he and his brother loaded coal that had been dynamited by their father. It was the start of a career underground that didn’t end until 1972.

“I started organizing coal mines in the middle part of West Virginia in 1922,” he recalls. “There wasn’t any organizing in the Bluefield coalfields to speak of until 1933.”

Some recollections:

-- “It took us until the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor to organize the U.S. Steel operations in Gary. The miners there were unable to look past the short run of things. They couldn’t see that we were actually there to help them…

-- “I always carried a gun when I was out organizing. Sometimes I didn’t need it, but sometimes I did…

-- “I never was paid a dime for my organizing work. A man doesn’t have to get paid money if he is doing something he loves…

-- “We had to get 51 percent of the men at a mine to sign UMW cards before we could force an election. Our work was made harder because we couldn’t approach a miner on company property. Usually we would get several sympathetic fellas to mill around a man who was signing our card, so the company couldn’t tell who was the latest man to start thinking union…

-- “Jenkinjones in McDowell County was one of the toughest mines to organize. There was no road up there, only a train. If a miner who lived up that hollow owed even so much as a dollar on food or furniture, then that food and furniture would rest at the bottom of the hollow until the debt was paid in full. That kind of company attitude made it real hard on us…

-- “I remember trying to organize men living in shanties where the only running water was from holes in the roof. At that time, the coal company had the right to make a man move lock, stock and barrel on just three days’ notice. Later we were able to change that rule to require 30 days and then 60 days of advance warning…

-- “We were usually working no more than two or three days a week during the organizing years. I hit the road with my sign-up sheets on about all the days I didn’t work and on most of the days after I put in my shift…

-- “My family never went hungry even though I was fired from many mines on account of the organizing. Even when I worked in muddy punch mines, I always had food for my family. I was smart. I cleared me out a garden way up in the hollow, and after work I’d carry down a sack plumb full of all the vegetables we would need to eat that night.”

Clyde McGraw says he would be equally unbending toward coal companies if he had his life to live over.

“The only time I’d change was the few months I went to Baltimore to help organize a cork operation. We had us a merry old time in the big city, but I’m sorry about the time I spent away from the mines.”

As he speaks, a coal train rumbles past the side of the mountain. Its roar gives McGraw time to sum up his case.

“A man is just flesh and bones and he’ll die. But not the union in a man. That’s something special and it lives on after the man is gone.”

Old Pete Finally Earns Citizenship


NORTHFORK, W. Va. – There’s a lot of Jimmy Cagney in Pete Falcamanto.

Same squat appearance. Same pugnaciousness. Same stubbornness. Add to that the distinct facial resemblance, and it’s no wonder he gets kidded about being a ringer for the famous gangster actor.

But there is an important difference. Cagney never had to fight more than 40 years to earn his citizenship.

“Being in the Second World War and getting shot up wasn’t near as much trouble as getting my papers,” the McDowell County man says. “A lesser man would have given up.”

But that wouldn’t be Falcamanto’s style.

He was one of 10 persons to become U.S. citizens the other day during a ceremony in Bluefield’s District Court.

No doubt it wasn’t easy for the other nine new Americans to meet the qualifications. And they probably stood just as stiff and proud as the 70-year-old Falcamanto.

But that’s where the similarity ends.

He came to this country from Italy when he was 2 years old. He worked 38 years in the coal mines, picked a few lemons in California during slack times, participated in the D-Day invasion and earned a Purple Heart for his troubles.

All in all, a significant enough contribution to the American way of life to earn a man his citizenship, Falcamanto figured.

Not so, the government said.

“Most times they turned me down because I couldn’t pass the test. I can write my name and I don’t have any trouble with highway signs, but that’s about as far as I can go with education.”

Falcamanto can’t remember how many times he’s tried to get his papers.

“Each time elections came around my memory would get refreshed and I’d start the ball rolling again. I’d drive all over the place trying to get myself approved, but nothing worked out. I got fingerprinted more often than a common criminal.

“One time the girl at the test center asked me to spell a word. Boy, did I get mad. Another time, they wanted me to take a special course at Marshall University. I told them that was asking me to take a pretty big step – going from first grade to college.

“I kept telling the registration people I served my country overseas and supported my family with a good job. I wanted to be a real American like everybody else.”

Finally, it was decided Falcamanto fit a special category of unnaturalized citizens who had been living in the United States for 25 years. A letter or two from his congressman later, Falcamanto was told he had finally been accepted into the fraternity of citizens.

“If they hadn’t put me in, I was gonna write a letter to President Carter. I was gonna tell him I fought in artillery with General Patton and that I almost got my leg shot off. I wasn’t the greatest of soldiers. I was afraid I wasn’t gonna get out of Germany alive. I could’ve been a corporal, but they were the gunners and too many of them were getting killed to suit me.”

Falcamanto retired from the mines in 1969.

“I worked with a lot of mules, and I still have the kick scars on my stomach to prove it. But life’s been good. I don’t have any regrets about anything other than schooling. I did more rock-throwing than studying and that held me back.”

Many family members still live in Italy.

“I know I’ll never see them again. That’s all right. I’m where I want to be.”

The Miners’ Man Inside The Scale House


GHENT, W. Va. – From 1939 until 1953, Earl Mills was the miners’ representative inside the scale house.

“I was a checkweighman,” the Raleigh County man says proudly. “It was my place to guarantee that the underground hand loaders were paid fairly, and to make sure the coal company didn’t take advantage of them.”

Mills worked at the Stephenson operation in Wyoming County not long after the United Mine Workers’ initial efforts to organize in the area. There was much wariness between the company and the UMW concerning the amount of coal the miners were getting credit for since they were paid by the ton.

It was Mills’ job to make sure the loading figures were accurate, and to balance them with a company man who was his shift-mate inside the scale house.

“I started out as a hand loader at Stephenson. The men were pretty disgusted with the previous checkweighman and they kept getting on me to take the job. I said I’d take it on trial. That trial lasted 14 years and I was never opposed in seven elections.”

Mills and his company companion knew the tare (empty) weight of the cars. The hand loaders’ tags were on the side, and the job required them to record the total tonnage (on tightly rolled white paper like that used in adding machines) as well as each miner’s individual efforts.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the first company man,” Mills says. “He was as honest as could be. But that second one was a different case. He would try to cheat the diggers whenever he could and I had to watch him like a hawk. We had several run-ins and I carried a pistol to work.”

At the end of the day, Mills would take his figures to the miners while the other set of totals became part of company records.

In 1939, Mills earned $9.75 a day, a little less than the average hand loader.

Before the age of checkweighmen and scale houses, there were dock bosses who supervised the coal-loading.

“They were paid by their ‘docks’ or when they would cut a man’s pay when they felt the coal cars weren’t loaded to the brim. You had to have a graveyard hump before the dock boss would consider it full.”

Loading “bone,” or non-coal material, was always a problem, Mills says.

“Rules at the time permitted 500 pounds of bone in a car but no more. Shovel more than that the first time and you got a warning. Do it a second time and you got laid off for two days. The third time you were fired.”

Mills says the hardest thing for the union to accomplish was convincing the coal operators to accept scales to weigh hand-loaded coal. He remembers one operation where the miners were being paid for loading what they thought were two-ton buggies. The conveyances were determined to hold closer to three tons and the men’s pay jumped almost a dollar per car.

“One superintendent said he would die first before he permitted scales at his mine. The night after we weighed the first coal there, he committed suicide in his living room.”

Earl Mills worked 42 years in the mines, beginning in 1918 when the coal was hauled by mules. His checkweighman job ended in 1953 when mine mechanization was completed at the Stephenson operation and tonnage verifiers were no longer needed. The mine had gradually cut down on the number of hand loaders since the late 1940s as more and more machinery was used.

“It was tough being a checkweighman. The diggers desperately needed someone they could trust in the scale house because their paychecks were on the line. Increased pay to the inside men was money out of the coal operators’ pocket and they would apply pressure the other way.

“You had to be mind-strong to hold the job. That’s something I believe I was.”

The Voice Of Uncle Remus Is Silenced


TALCOTT, W. Va. – A stroke has dealt a cruel blow to Uncle Remus and all his animal friends.

Over the years, Icie Sweeney has become well known around this corner of Summers County for her rendition of Joel Chandler Harris’ stories about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, the Tar Baby and, of course, that plot of ground known as the Briar Patch.

The 83-year-old storyteller knows just when to bring her hands to her face to elicit the proper amount of fear from her audience, and exactly when to cackle uproariously to inject comedic relief.

The lady first heard the tales 75 years ago from her aunt, a former slave who was not permitted to learn to read or write. The attentive little girl became the conduit that enabled the Uncle Remus stories to reach yet another generation.

The gentle black woman has told the tales on porches, on playgrounds and in classrooms. She was even invited to go to Charleston, W. Va., and share her art with an assembled multitude at the Cultural Center.

Then came the illness that has at least temporarily silenced her characters.

“It’s called nerve paralysis and it’s hit on both sides of my body,” she explains. “I’m supposed to get better inside of a year, and believe me when I say I’m looking forward to that day.”

While she can still be understood, the stroke has robbed this storyteller of her greatest gift – a sparkling diction that has captivated many a youngster over the years.

“Mama used to tell old stories before bedtime and they seemed to always bring us such sweet dreams,” says Nellie Patterson, one of Sweeney’s five children and her caregiver.

“They called our part of Talcott Pie Town,” Icie Sweeney says. “That’s because my mother-in-law stayed busy making sweets for all the railroad men who worked on the Big Bend Tunnel.”

A statue of John Henry – the legendary steel-driving man – is a mile from Sweeney’s house.

“If you ask me, John Henry really lived, but his exploits have been greatly exaggerated,” Icie Sweeney says. “The old folks used to pass the word that he’s buried in the Methodist cemetery.”

She was born on a farm in Fincastle, Va., and moved to Summers County after she got married.

“I first told the Uncle Remus stories to my own children. Then when my youngsters passed the tales on to their friends, I started having bigger audiences. It wasn’t too long before I had all kinds of kids.”

After her husband died in 1937, she worked first as a teacher and later as a nurse to support her family.

“It’s hard to keep elementary school young ones from getting restless, so I decided early to use my stories when I wanted them to settle down.

“I had success because I used my hands and my voice to help the story along. I never read from the book – children hate that. I had 12 or more Remus stories memorized and I acted them out as I saw fit. Sound effects are the most important thing.”

In her nursing days, she delivered or helped deliver hundreds of babies.

“The last little girl I brought into the world is 13 years old now, and every now and again I see her out playing.”

And, yes, she occasionally told one of her stories in the delivery room to help the mother relax.

Why Uncle Remus?

“They were about the only ones my aunt told and they stuck with me the best.”

She has been assured the nerve paralysis is only a temporary inconvenience.

“Uncle Remus is gonna make a comeback around here. I just know he is.”

Cock-Fighter Insists He’s An All-Right Guy


BEESON, W. Va. – The slight fellow with the handlebar mustache doesn’t look at all like a man who’s been arrested 12 times.

Larlyn Foley insists he is an upright man of the community who does a lot of favors for folks. The amiable man has an arthritic wife, seven grandchildren, numerous grandchildren and says family means more to him than anything else.

That said, Foley raises fighting roosters. The Mercer County man is up front about the fact he has 150 game chickens, and that on occasion he takes five or seven of them to derbies where they fight to the death.

“If the law comes to a derby, I let them arrest me. If I escape, they might impound my car and that would be a lot worse than the $10 fine I usually get.”

Except for the time he got caught across the state line in Bland, Va.

“They really threw the book at me over there. And that hurt even more because I was turned in by two men who were fighting roosters right beside me.”

He chuckles when he talks about getting arrested.

“The cops know I raise game chickens (not a violation of state law), and I know they get wind of it every time we have a derby around here. Shoot, they could have arrested me hundreds of times.”

The numerous rides in squad cars are not a burden on Foley’s soul.

“My family has never said anything about it, and nobody around Beeson has ever rebuked me. They know I’m a good man and I go to church whenever I can.”

The 65-year-old man was a coal miner for 40 years. A series of heart attacks – the last one occurred on his way to work – forced him to retire.

“I still feel bad about that. I loved mining and it hurt to have to quit. I still dream about getting up early and strapping the gear on.”

He says he started raising game chickens a half century ago.

“When I got through free school (the eighth grade), there wasn’t much to do around here except mine coal and fight chickens. I sorta fell in with the crowd.”

Foley says “at least” 100 people in Mercer County raise fighting roosters “and more than that” attend derbies. Most of his stock, he estimates, would fetch at least $200 apiece on the open market.

“Listen, there are fewer arguments at a cock-fighting pit than at church. I’ve never seen anybody squabble about a bet or get rowdy.”

And, speaking of church, “I know an owner of a pit in Ohio who gives $1,000 to each of five churches every January.”

Although he doesn’t believe cock-fighting is cruel, he doesn’t think it should be legalized.

“It’s a rooster’s natural tendency to kill any rooster near him,” Foley says as he shows off a pair of sharp hooks that are attached to a rooster’s claws before a fight. “But I’m willing to keep paying the fines. If it’s legalized, everybody would want to get involved and that would be bad for the sport.”

Cock-fights, the veteran says, are staged from November to July with the animals getting a respite for molting season. Derbies often last three days, and occasionally there are competitions featuring roosters trained and handled by women.

While Foley won’t call himself a champion cock-fighter, he says he is proud of the respect he commands at pits in this area and beyond.

“People bet on the handlers, not the roosters. And, often as not, they bet on me.”

He snuffs the umpteenth cigarette of the day and reflects on his life.

“After my heart attack, the doctor told me not to worry about anything. The man knows I raise chickens, so he said I might as well keep going. It gives me a lot of pleasure. Some days I spend half of an afternoon in the coops with my roosters, giving them shots of vitamins and hormones and lifting them off the ground so they can practice their jumps.”

Larlyn Foley used to keep a complicated set of books in which he carefully monitored the money spent on training and money earned at competitions.

No more.

“That’s too much like worrying, and the doctor said for me not to worry.”

Fifteen-Year-Old Watched His Father Die


MONTCALM, W. Va. – Howard Bowman was only 15 years old.

The Mercer County youngster tried school, but enjoyed being with his father on the produce wagon a lot more.

The senior Bowman, Will, was a peddler. Sometimes the mule led the pair as far as Welch in McDowell County, high adventure indeed for a farm boy.

May 8, 1916. The wagon was parked for the night outside a boarding house in Maybeury that catered to coal miners. Business had been good. Only about a day’s worth of lettuce, corn and apples were left in the wagon. Will Bowman had $40 hidden under a stack of produce. The 42-year-old man wasn’t one to flaunt his money.

Father and son slept together in the back. They cuddled to keep warm.

Suddenly two strangers came to the wagon and asked to buy some vegetables. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Will Bowman reached for his sacks.

One of the men fired his pistol into Will Bowman’s chest, killing him. The other went through their victim’s trousers looking for money.

“I knew Dad was bad off because I could hear him moaning,” Howard Bowman recalls. “After shooting him, the robbers dragged him down until he completely covered me up. I kept quiet because I was afraid they’d get me, too.

“My father had a hawk-billed knife and I knew exactly where it was. One part of me wanted to grab that knife and cut those men to pieces. But the other part of me was more sensible.”

Finding no money, the two men dropped the gun and fled into the darkness.

Howard Bowman is 79 years old. He worked parts of four decades in the mines, and witnessed much human suffering.

“But nothing came close to that night on the wagon. After it happened, all I could think of was spreading the news. I jumped on the mule and took off. It was a long way home over the mountains and a couple of times I almost got lost. I saw my uncle first and told him. A little later, I told my mother.”

Authorities tracked the two men to Chattanooga, Tenn., where both had worked prior to coming to the coalfields.

James Lay, the shooter, and James Mason were found guilty of first-degree murder that same year. Lay died on the gallows and Mason was sentenced 18 years in prison.

“They invited me to come to the hanging, but I turned them down,” Howard Bowman says. “The trial was enough. I was bitter all right, but not that bitter.”

Howard Bowman went to work in the mines a year later in 1917. He never again rode in a produce wagon.

“Dad never talked much about being scared when he was driving that mule from place to place, but he knew there was danger. We had food and money and people knew it.”

Two decades after the murder, Howard Bowman was loading coal next to a man named Murphy, who started talking about a brutal murder that took place in Maybeury.

“He was a member of the search party that looked for the two men. He spelled out what happened, and how he saw the little boy who witnessed the death of his father. He said it must have been real tough on the boy.

“I asked if he thought he would recognize that little boy if he saw him again. Murphy said he wouldn’t. That’s when I told him who I was.”

He’d Kill You Over One Of His Cars


MATOAKA, W. Va. – In 1958, Toby Auricchio was sentenced to 18 years in prison for second-degree murder. His physical condition was deteriorating and his family thought he would never get out of Moundsville alive.

Before he left Matoaka for the penitentiary, a prominent area lawyer told Auricchio’s family that for $500, he would guarantee the case would be thrown out of court. But Auricchio didn’t have the money.

While the Mercer County man was serving his sentence, both parents died. He was unable to attend either funeral. In those days, an inmate had to pay for an accompanying guard whenever emergency leave was taken. Auricchio didn’t have the money.

So it must have been a satisfying feeling a few weeks ago when Auricchio was able to turn down an offer of $5,000 for one of his 16 cars because he didn’t particularly need the money.

The deal was for a 1948 Buick convertible. Auricchio, a master mechanic, has elaborately decorated the black beauty and the conveyance is coveted by car buffs in two states.

“I love cars, but I love unique cars even more,” the 57-year-old man says from his apartment inside the old Matoaka Hotel. “I like to own something nobody else has.”

His collection includes a 1958 Cadillac ambulance, a Toronado, an El Dorado and a 1940 Roadmaster Buick that was the first set of wheels in his collection. He keeps these as well as several autos awaiting repair on a plot of ground next to the railroad right of way.

Auricchio is meticulous about his old cars, and is easily riled if someone messes with his vehicles. In fact, his murder conviction was indirectly related to just such an occurrence.

“This neighbor and I were involved in a long-running squabble about who owned this particular garage that was halfway between our houses. He kept wanting to take it, and I kept saying no because it was a good place to keep my Roadmaster.

“Well, one day he shot me over it, and all he ever got was an assault-and-battery rap. That charge didn’t bother him at all, and he kept threatening me.

“Then one day it happened. He was cussing me on my own front porch when I got out my gun and blew him away. I got the jail time for the killing and I deserved it, but a man has to protect himself.”

Auricchio was paroled after finishing half his term. But he says life behind bars seemed even longer because he was in such bad shape for seven of the nine years.

“I had a real bad nervous condition. I guess you could say I had a breakdown. Anyway, I was taking a lot of barbituates and they were really messing up my life.

“I kept getting worse and worse, so I decided I’d get off the pills to see what happened. That worked and now I’m feeling great. The other day, I even did a job that involved picking up railroad crossties.”

He shows off the Roadmaster.

“This beauty wasn’t even cranked up for all the time I spent in prison. When I got out, all the wooden blocks under it were all rotted, but I put in a new condenser and the car started right up.”

His rolling stock comes in varying degrees of attractiveness. Some need paint jobs while others need upholstery or work on the innards.

“There might be one or two cars I’d sell, but not many. A man can’t be a collector if he sells everything he’s got.”

In addition to years spent at several area garages, he’s also worked on the railroad and at a feed store.

Never at a coal mine, though.

“I was hired for an underground job, and I got as far as waiting by the side of the road that first morning for my ride. I started thinking about being cooped up all day, and I just turned around and went home.”

Toby Auricchio says only one aspect of prison life really bothered him.

“You had to walk all the time. Now I can not only drive a car, I can pick and choose what kind.”

How Do You Pick Up A Severed Head?


IAEGER, W. Va. – Pat Fanning will never forget the night he almost gave up on being an undertaker.

A man was killed by a train, his head completely severed.

Fanning, then an apprentice mortician, was dispatched to bring the body to the funeral home. Young Fanning gathered the remains in the back of the hearse and prepared for a night of embalming.

He could deal with that part of the job, no sweat. After all, he was a professional, albeit an inexperienced one.

It was what came later that Fanning almost couldn’t handle.

In his haste to leave the accident, he forgot to pick up the head. When he returned, the thing was still face up on the ditchline. That wasn’t the problem.

“I didn’t know how to pick the damn thing up,” the 78-year-old McDowell County man recalls. “I couldn’t put my fingers in the ear holes and I couldn’t just pick it up like a bowling ball. Finally, I just grabbed a handful of hair and headed out.

“I’ll never forget that night. I had to cross a swinging bridge carrying that head and I don’t know what I would have done if somebody had seen me. When I dumped the head on the work-up table, I was ready to find some other line of work. But my bosses gave me a good talking-to and I stuck it out.”

These days, Pat Fanning is the dean of McDowell County morticians. There are Fanning Funeral Homes in Iaeger, War and Welch – all founded by the fellow who could probably make it on the storytelling circuit if he were to change careers.

“I’ve buried thousands of people in the last 50 years,” he says. “There have been rich ones who bought top-of-the-caskets, and poor ones whose families hammered and nailed their own burial boxes to save money.”

When Fanning – the father of state senator John Pat Fanning – started out, he could expect to earn about $28 for a funeral.

“And we had a hard time collecting that. The government wasn’t paying but a hundred bucks for their bodies, so I wasn’t getting rich no matter who was doing the dying.”

Coalfield folks, he believes, are more realistic about death than most other people.

“It’s like they prepare for it a little better. They know life is hard, and they know that the world will go on no matter what happens to them. They feel the way I do. Our bodies are just on loan from another source, and when we die the shell is all that’s left.”

He tells the story of a Iaeger family who wasn’t ready to part with their dead relation.

“We had a real young boy brought in, and everybody was crying because he died so sudden. We were sorry, too, but we fixed the body up and returned it to the family. About a week later, I was told the family was keeping the open casket in the living room. I don’t think they had any intention of ever burying the boy. And I don’t expect they would have if I hadn’t gone up there and lied to them, that the federal government was going to chew me up if they didn’t put the boy in the ground.”

A man in Pat Fanning’s line of work often has to improvise.

“Back in the 1930s, we had this rash of spinal meningitis deaths up on Short Ridge. We got the bodies all worked up and put in caskets, but we didn’t have any way to get the bodies back up on the mountain. So we got us a flat-bed truck and stacked the caskets as dignified as we could. We dropped a body off at each house like we were delivering the mail.”

Fanning has never let the job strip him of sentiment. It has long been his touch to put a freshly cut flower on the inside of the casket before sealing it.

“I might be a little rough around the edges, but I still care.”

Opera Singer Comfortable Back Home


GARY, W. Va. – Bill Starling was a breed apart while growing up in this coalfield town.

He sang in school plays -- developing his rich baritone voice -- while other youngsters played baseball.

He listened to the opera while his mates practiced wearing hard hats in preparation for careers underground.

All the while, Starling was shaping a dream that would become an obsession. He would sing for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In 1956, the McDowell County man realized his ambition. He became one of the first black men to perform at the Met.

“That seems like such a long time ago,” the 63-year-old man says. “I had so much more energy then.”

He lasted 15 years with the Metropolitan Opera, playing a variety of roles in dozens of well-known operas. Pictures of Starling in character costumes line the side of a wall inside the living room of his modest dwelling.

While Starling never had a lead role, he always had a job. He played secondary parts and sang in a number of choruses. He developed connections he thought would last a lifetime.

Then his operatic world crumbled.

“I drove myself so hard my body gave out on me. When I first auditioned for the Met, I had to beat out 300 people. In my mind, I never lost sight of the fact that I was always fighting, always proving myself against other performers who wanted to take my place.”

Starling returned to Gary in 1974 to be with his mother who was seriously ill with cancer. After she died, he continued to live in the house.

“The first contact I had with opera came in grade school. One of my jobs around the house was to clean the rug in the living room. I’d always piddle around so I would still be cleaning it late Saturday afternoon. That’s when the opera came on the radio and it never failed to mesmerize me.”

His mother – an accomplished musician – didn’t push him toward a career in opera, although she did steer him away from singing gospel music.

“I was always a very strong-willed person, even before I went to New York. I was stubborn enough without anyone having to help me.”

Starling taught school in Gary for a year before the Second World War. He ended up teaching French to a squadron of black Air Force flyers. He also caught tuberculosis and spent the better part of a year in the hospital.

The TB, he says, “never really left me. It made me a weaker person and it reduced my lung capacity. I think the TB more than anything else hastened the end of my career at the Met.”

He’s never considered returning to New York and attempting a comeback.

“It’s quiet around Gary and I like that. I don’t have to worry about locking the door, and I don’t have to worry about somebody hitting me over the head.”

Starling says he’s not the least bit dismayed that he has great difficulty engaging in a meaningful conversation about opera with anyone who lives around Gary.

“I’ve learned to talk about other things.”

Life is uncomplicated these days for the former opera singer. He owns no car and rarely travels.

“About the only thing I do is teach piano. Arthritis has robbed me of some of my talent, but I still know the fundamentals.”

Bill Starling says he started the piano lessons because he felt an obligation to the children of the coal camp.

“I know what it’s like not to have access to things. I don’t even ask the kids for money. It’s the thing I do for the common good.”

Ref Sometimes Works Against His Own Team


DELBARTON, W. Va. – Sid Copley is a head football coach.

Sid Copley is a basketball official, working scores of games each winter in the Bluefield area.

Sid Copley is an assistant principal.

And Sid Copley is a school bus driver, taking the wheel whenever his Burch High School grid team takes to the open road.

“Yeah, everybody gets a big kick out of it when I pull that big old bus into the football field,” Copley says, drawling. “I like the job. It keeps me close with my boys.”

The Mingo County man knows of no other football coach in these parts who regularly doubles as a bus driver.

“It’s kinda unique, but I guess I’m a unique person.”


During football season, he lives in a camper at the end of the Burch football field while his family is ensconced miles away in Huntington.

He drives the bus for free to save the athletic department the $6.70 an hour it would pay a driver to go to places like Lenore, Fort Gay and Marsh Fork.

“Some of our regular bus guys flat out refuse to go over some of those back roads late at night, so I said I’d take the job. It’s nothing new. I drove a bus back when I was coaching at Elkhorn City (Kentucky) back in the late 1950s.”

Copley says he doesn’t get fancy driving the bus. In other words, he doesn’t make it a point to give his kids a thrill on the skinny roads between Delbarton (the nearest population center to Burch) and places like Mason County where Burch regularly travels to play football games.

“I don’t have to do anything special to get ‘em excited. They shout and get happy just because their old coach is driving the bus.”

The 47-year-old man says he occasionally conjures up football strategy when behind the wheel.

“I just try not to lose concentration long enough to run us into a ditch somewhere.”

No one can accuse Copley of being afraid of hard work.

He has been football coach and assistant principal since 1978. During cold weather, he referees basketball games six days a week in Kentucky and West Virginia.

“My wife likes me better when I’m all tuckered out.”

He’s a sought-after referee because of his crowd-pleasing antics.

“I get along good with the fans because if they jaw at me, I jaw right back at them.”

Sid Copley tells a couple of stories.

“Once I was over in Iaeger working their game with Welch back when Frank Marino was coaching. Iaeger had a better team that year and Frank knew it. He’s always been pretty colorful and he hopped on me from the very beginning. It wasn’t long before I had to settle him down. Frank didn’t care for my methods, and the next thing I knew he got on the court with another man he said was a lawyer. Told me I was gonna get sued for the way I was officiating. That stopped the game dead in its tracks, and I ended up slapping a couple of technicals on him. I found out later that the would-be lawyer was really Frank’s father, and he was just trying to psyche me out.

“Then there was the time in Kentucky when I had to work a game two days after a bunch of Belfry fans blew up the house of the Feds Creek principal. They really take their basketball seriously over there. Anyway, Feds Creek lost to Belfry by something like 10 points and those home fans were really hostile. The school officials told me and my refereeing buddy that we would get killed if we walked back into the gym after the game. So we sneaked out a window and jumped into our car that the principal was warming up for us. That’s the first and last time I ever had to crawl through the weeds after a game.”

The man has no plans to taper down his schedule. In fact, he’s increasing it.

Take what happened just a few days before I talked with him.

“I was in the bus driving my junior high football team to a game over in Matewan. They didn’t have enough refs so ended up working the game against my own team.

“I never had any complaints, and when the game was over I drove my boys back home. It was just another ordinary day.”

Once A Druggie, Now A Preacher


BLUEFIELD, W. Va. -- Memories of the morning of Sept. 7, 1979, are hazy for Cam Mills. But back then all mornings were hazy. That’s because he had taken his usual wake-up dose of LSD, and topped it off with a large beaker of 100-proof whiskey.

The Mercer County man had money when he left the house – he remembers that much. But by 10:30 when he walked into the liquor store on North Street in Bluefield, there was nothing in his pockets but a gun. He was never without it.

Mills needed a fifth of liquor and nobody was going to stand in his way. He pulled the gun and it was like a scene from the movies. He screamed at customers to get down in the aisles. He screamed at the clerks to step away from their cash registers. He grabbed a few wads of money and stumbled out of the store.

Mills didn’t get far. He was caught 10 minutes later a block or two from the liquor store, but not before he pulled his gun on two policemen.

“I got six months in the Mercer County jail. My withdrawal pains were awful. When I wasn’t hallucinating, I was screaming that people were trying to kill me – even people on the sidewalk outside the cell.

“It got so bad I tried to hang myself. I took out a belt I had hidden and climbed up the side of the bars. I couldn’t get the belt around my neck. It wasn’t long enough. I fell back into the bed. I wasn’t even competent enough to kill myself.”


Three years later, I’m talking with the Rev. Cam Mills. He’s been a licensed Baptist preacher since 1980. He wants to be a chaplain in the Good News Mission, an organization that ministers to men and women behind bars. He volunteers his services at the Mercer County Juvenile Detention Center as well as at the county jail.

Rev. Mills is in his third year at Bluefield College. He moonlights as a janitor.

“I preach to every church and civil group that will have me,’’ the 44-year-old man says. “I can point to 80 prisoners that I’ve gotten to turn their lives around.”

He served his time in the Mercer County lockup. He’s been found guilty of the armed robbery charge, but an appeal has been filed in the wake of his lifestyle reversal.

“If the court refuses to hear the case, then I’ll have to go to the prison in Huttonsville. I’ll be prepared. When I came to the Lord after I tried to kill myself, I wasn’t bargaining with Him. I told Him I see things His way and always will from now on.”

Mills grew up in McDowell County, but moved as a teenager to New York City. When he wasn’t shooting up heroin, he was a high-ranking member of the city’s gambling rackets.

“I had a dozen or so men working under me who coordinated the numbers and gambling operations and sold my cocaine and heroin.”

In 1970, he figures he pocketed more than $175,000. He had a fashionable apartment and a sleek El Dorado. On the rare occasions when his conscience bothered him, Mills rationalized that he was in the wholesale business.

“I was a tough guy. I shot a woman who owed me $700 and knifed a guy who had three hundred dollars that was mine. I almost cut his ear off.”

Mills tried several times to get off drugs, but always relapsed. In 1976, he moved to Bluefield.

“I figured there wouldn’t be such a temptation with heroin in the mountains. I was right about that, but soon I was taking LSD and every kind of upper I could find. I found a job driving a truck, but was whacked out of my mind most of the time.”

Then came the September morning in 1979.

“Everybody who was involved came out pretty lucky. If the law had confronted me instead of talking me down, I’m sure I would have pulled the trigger.”

Rev. Cam Mills doesn’t talk much about the prison sentence that hangs over his head.

“Most of the students in my Bluefield College classes don’t know about my prison record. They just know me as somebody who’s trying to make the best grades I can.”

I asked him to estimate the odds of going to prison. In his previous life, he was quite keen on the subject of chance.

“There’s no such thing as odds for me. I’m not dealing the cards any more.”


His appeal was denied. In May of 1983, he was sentenced to the Huttonsville Correctional Center for the liquor store heist that netted $633.

The Beauty Queen Is A Coal Miner


NORTHFORK, W. Va. -- Jackie Ofsa was first runner-up at the 1975 West Virginia Junior Miss Pageant.

Three years later, she’s a coal miner.

“If you want to study mining engineering, it’s pretty important to go underground,” the 19-year-old sophomore at Virginia Tech says.

She was the only female of 12 Tech students who spent the summer in the coalfields. And she must have done a good job because the coal company has already asked her back next June.

The McDowell County woman worked in several Consolidation Coal Company mines as part of an on-the-job program.

“It’s funny, really. My older brother graduated in elementary education, and that’s the career everybody figures I should be in.” Jackie Ofsa on the job

Her father, Jack, has been mining coal for 25 years. She admits he wasn’t too keen on her choice of careers.

“He’d rather see me in a safe place like the tax assessor’s office where I spent the previous summers. He warmed up a little to my job as the summer went on, but I know he was glad to see me walk out of the mine that last day and go back to college.”

Ofsa’s career path shouldn’t have been a surprise. In addition to her dad, four uncles also work underground.

“I was pretty scared the first morning when they had me shoveling coal that fell from the conveyor belt, but each day after that was less frightening. I got to operate one of the continuous miners at the Maitland mine, and I spent some time at Crane Creek No. 11 and its 30-inch top.”

One thing she wasn’t prepared for was the grime.

“I was sure I could find a way to stay at least somewhat clean. I rolled my hair up, put a scarf around it and figured I was ready for that hard hat and the eight hours underground. Wrong. I had tiny black stalagmites in front of my eyes and my hair was going every which way when I crawled out. Everybody had a big laugh.”

Some miners avoided her, thinking she was bad luck. And there were a few who thought they could chase her away by cussing early and often.

“I just turned my head and walked away.”

She has a tip for upper management.

“More and more women are going to want to work in the mines. At Maitland, there are only two showers for females. They’d better think about putting in more.”

Jackie Ofsa says her beauty queen days are over.

“I was lucky to finish second in Junior Miss, and there are so many pretty girls at Tech. That part of my life is over. I’m not saying I’ll work underground, but I sure don’t see myself typing in some office.”

Female Furrier Eats While She Slices


CYCLONE, W. Va. – The long-haired woman adjusts the torso of the raccoon on her cutting rack until the angle is just right. Then she takes a bite of her peanut-butter sandwich, and proceeds to separate the animal’s fur from its innards.

“It’s all in what you get used to,” Mrs. Archie Caldwell says.

The Wyoming County woman is a furrier, regularly shipping her hides to a broker in New York for as much as $5,000. “Everything depends on the quality of the fur,” explains the wife of a disabled carpenter. “I might pay $25 for a quality bobcat and a good red fox fur would go even higher. Muskrats are worth about $5 apiece. My mark-up is about 60 percent over the buying price.” <

p class="c0"> This day, there are about 40 raccoon, fox, possum and muskrat hides lying in state – suspended from the ceiling on what looks like modified coat hangers.

“I became a furrier because I love to hunt. There’s nothing I’d rather do than stalk an animal. I guess one thing just led to another.”

On the floor are several days’ worth of animal leftovers. A large ceiling fan tries to provide some ventilation, but the thing is hopelessly overmatched. I manage to conduct the interview without incident, but my photographer pukes chunks.

One time, the Postal Service fumbled three boxes of strung-out animals. “I imagined them being delivered to a nice white house in the country. The lady of the house opens the crates up and goes, ‘Whoa.’ ‘’

Mrs. Archie Caldwell in her cut-down room

I ask if she has any advice to would-be furriers.

“Watch out for a condition called ‘the itch.’ It’s all right to handle dead animals unless they’ve got that little problem. You can tell by the thin, sickly-looking fur. No telling what would happen if you get that stuff on you.”

Caldwell says the worst animal to skin is a possum.

“Talk about gory. You should see the insides of one of those things. All that greasy fat really raises a stink. But I’ll skin one if I have to. Money is money.”

Caldwell, who used to sleep with a pet bobcat, runs a loosey-goosey operation.

“If you’ve got a dead animal for me, just plop it on the porch. Come by later on and tell me what you threw and I’ll write the check.”

She says Cyclone-area folks are “very understanding” about the occasional bad smells that come from her cutting room.

“I especially have to hand it to the garbagemen. I mean, they know what’s in my black trash bags. But they just throw the sacks in to the back of the truck and go on about their business. We’re all real close around there.”

‘Greatest Mom’ Takes In All Comers


BLUEFIELD, W. Va. – There’s a statuette on top of Edna Smith’s pump organ that reads “World’s Greatest Mom.”

Truer words were never inscribed.

The sixty-something Mercer County woman says she’s helped raise 167 children. Eleven were placed by the welfare department – making Smith a foster parent – but the overwhelming majority were children from parents who for one reason or another weren’t able to care for their youngsters on a daily basis.

“Very few of the parents have enough money to pay me, so I’ve done most of my volunteer mothering for free,” the soft-spoken black woman says. “Sometimes we didn’t have much to eat, but if I had a sandwich then everybody around me had a sandwich.” Edna Smith and some good friends

Currently, the widow has six in her household, including one 44-year-old ex-mental patient who dropped himself on Smith’s doorstep a few months ago.

“It was bitter cold that night, and there was no way I could turn him down. But I never have been much good at turning down folks who need a place to stay.”

She was born across the state line in Tazewell County, Va. Her parents died early and she was raised by a neighbor.

“As long as I can remember, all I wanted to do is be a mother,” Smith says. “I had dreams in which I would have 10 children – five girls and five boys. I didn’t get to have but one (a daughter who is working on a degree in music), but my dreams have come true many times over.”

She says five of her houseguests grew up to be doctors. Others have become lawyers and professional people.

“But some were so rough when I got them that I was glad they were just able to stay out of trouble.”

Smith’s professional mothering career began many years ago when her dwelling only had three rooms.

“Often I had 14 at a time and there weren’t enough beds. We’d have nightly pajama parties. The kids looked at it as a big game, and I don’t think they realized that their mother was a poor woman who had to put mattresses on the floor.”

Smith is a more than capable carpenter and brick mason. Over the years, she’s put in additional bedrooms until her residence looks like an elongated house trailer.

“It’s not like I’ve done it all myself. I worked at the YWCA for many years, and they were kind enough to give me leftover food and clothes. A lot of sympathetic people live in Bluefield. If I ask for something, they see that I get it.”

The length of time a child stays at the home on 130 Clifford Street varies a great deal. Some youngsters only live there a few weeks until the home situation improves. She’s raised others from the cradle to their late teens.

Edna Smith has no plans to slow down.

“I want to keep raising kids until I leave this world, and I’m planning to be at least 150.”

Occasionally, the woman worries that she devotes too much time to her houseguests at the expense of her own daughter.

“I admit there were times I put my own child out of the picture temporarily, but she understood. In fact, one Christmas my little girl gave up all her presents so I could buy food and clothing for four little children who came to my door the week before the holidays.”

The secret, she says, is not being judgmental about circumstances that caused mothers and fathers to let someone else raise their offspring.

“You just channel your love and don’t be concerned with anything else.”

Who Needs A Car When You’ve Got Horses?


CUCUMBER, W. Va. – Sam Charles likes to keep things simple.

Horses instead of automobiles.

Saddlebags instead of grocery sacks.

Hay and oats instead of high-test.

“I just like horses, that’s all,” the McDowell County man says. “Never had much of a desire to drive a car. Only tried once and I wrecked that machine inside of five minutes.”

Today is store day. He saddles up Jim, and together they clomp-clomp down Rt. 16 the five miles to the store. He’ll fit the week’s rations into a pair of burlap saddlebags and head back home, being careful to avoid the many coal trucks that also have dibs on the road.

It’s a ritual that never varies as Charles turns down offers of rides.

“I’ve got me a nice garden, so mostly I just buy meat and beans and things like that.”

He says he was going to take Prince (he has three horses in all), “but Jim was raising such a ruckus about never getting to go anywhere. And then, wouldn’t you know, he wallowed around in the mud before we left and now he looks awful.”

The 55-year-old man says every job he’s ever had involved horses in some way.

“It started at age 11 when I managed the horse team while Daddy pounded in Appalachian Power poles. Then I had some sledding jobs in sawmills, and for a spell I drove horses in truck mines.

“The way I saw it, I’d rather make ten dollars a day with horses than twice that much working with something I didn’t like.”

Sam Charles must speak in the past tense when he talks about employment.

“I’ve got a bad heart, so I’m not much good to a hiring man. I can only work for an hour or two and then I give out. And I’ve never had enough education to do anything but hard labor all my life.”

He remains strong enough to do his own horseshoeing.

“I take care of Jim, Prince and Gypsy real good. Each of ‘em ought to have 20 more years of life. Horses get to be 30, you know.”

Jim is quite the traveler. Charles says he’s traded the animal six times, but the big brown horse always returns.

“I’ve swapped him to horse people in Virginia and Tennessee, but he always ends up back at my place. Maybe I’m the only old bird who can get any work out of him.”

It’s not unusual for Charles to ride one of his horses the 20 or more miles over the mountain to the flea market in Tazewell, Va.

“I’ll never own a car. Even if I wanted one, they cost too much money. I’ll just keep loading up the saddlebags.”

Jim fidgets by the side of the road.

“He wants to wallow around in the mud again,” his master says. “I’d let him if we weren’t late. Horses need to roughhouse a little so they can mend right, you know.”

When The Going Got Tough, He Got Gas


WAR, W. Va. – Late February, 1974.

Gasoline supplies are running low because of the Mideast oil embargo. Many states impose rationing systems, either limiting gallons purchased or only allowing motorists to buy fuel on certain days or at certain times.

Long-haul truckers protest the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit imposed to save fuel. Tempers flare. In Richlands, Va., a man is killed in an apparent argument over position in a gas line.

In West Virginia, a quarter-tank rule becomes law. Gov. Arch Moore says there has been panic-buying by people determined to keep their gauges near full. He orders station attendants not to sell gas to customers who already have one-fourth of their tanks filled.

Coal miners protest the rule and a series of strikes breaks out across the Mountain State. The potential for violence is great among angry truckers and equally angry coal miners.

The McDowell County community of War goes three weeks without a gasoline shipment to any of its four filling stations. Few vehicles move save for police cruisers, Rescue Squad vans and fire trucks.

War Mayor Wesley Miller, irritated to begin with, gets angrier with every telephone call as bureaucrat after bureaucrat tells him there is nothing that can be done.

Finally, he talks Ron Pearson, head of the West Virginia Energy Office, into issuing an emergency order for 16,000 gallons.

But no oil company will honor the order. Miller tries to telephone President Nixon to complain to him personally. Instead, he is routed to someone in domestic affairs. Miller gets no satisfaction and calls the man a worthless flunky.

Miller threatens to commandeer the next tanker that comes into War, and force the driver to divide his payload among the town’s stations. Miller is told he could be put in jail. He says he doesn’t care.

A Washington, D.C. –based television crew films an interview with the feisty mayor that makes the national news. Sen. Robert Byrd and Gov. Moore make phone calls on his behalf. Wesley Miller, longtime mayor of War

Finally, a tanker rolls down the mountain into War. It is stopped by town policemen. The driver produces papers. The emergency shipment has arrived. Within hours, wheels are turning once more in the town of 2,000.

Five years later.

Wesley Miller is no longer mayor. He served for eight years until 1979, and still maintains he was “snookered” at the last election.

Many people believe the gasoline tanker was hijacked that cold day in February.

“Not true,” Miller says. “We only threatened to do that. The only truck we pulled over was the one sent with the emergency fuel.”

But he admits he was itching for a confrontation.

“We would have had nothing against the driver because he was just an employee. We would have been real nice to him. We would have paid him in full. We would have let him call his boss. We would have fed him. We would have put him up for the night.

“I was hoping he would call his superiors, and convince the top dogs of the oil company to come to War. There are lots of reasons to put someone in jail. If those oil officials had come in here steaming, we would have found us a reason. Then while they were behind bars, we would have had a good brass tacks discussion.”

Miller grew up in War. Like so many others, he left in the mid 1950s when increased mine mechanization sparked a coal employment slump. He spent time in Delaware and Florida before returning for good in 1963.

“What really got my blood boiling back in 1974 was when they wouldn’t ship the emergency gasoline after we got an authorization for it. I was elected to do the job to the best of my ability.”

After the story ran on the evening news, the town received dozens of offers of gasoline from distributors across the country.

“The coal miners refused to go to work and I couldn’t blame them. They would run out of gas on the way to the mines, and they would have to leave their cars by the side of the road.”

Wesley Miller is convinced he was in the right.

“There wasn’t any rule book on what to do. I had to act from the heart and that’s what I did.”

Two-Fisted Sheriff Wasn’t Just Talk


DAVY, W. Va. – Let Archie Day tell you how two-fisted he was as a McDowell County lawman.

“Once when I was constable, I shot this drunk when he interrupted a dance I was playing for. Somebody took him to the hospital, I don’t know who. I grabbed my mandolin, went back on stage and finished the show.

“A few years later when I was sheriff, I arrested a man at Lowe’s Place in Welch. We didn’t have a cruiser handy, so I had to load him in a taxi to take him to jail. Somebody threw a rock and it missed my head by three inches. The windshield of the cab was tore completely up. If I had found out who did it, somebody would have been dead.

“Then I almost got my nose broke at a Welch-Northfork basketball game. Northfork won and the Welch fans wanted to start something after the game. I saw where this guy’s mother got pushed down, so I ran through the crowd to see if I could help my officers. The crowd was real tight, and I couldn’t get my nightstick ‘cause somebody had a-hold of it. I grabbed for my Mace, and when I did somebody hauled off and hit me square in the nose. If I had seen who did it I would’ve shot him.”

The 75-year-old Day adjusts his hearing aid and settles back in his chair at the McDowell County landfill. He supervises eight workers and is in charge of four pieces of heavy equipment. He puts in a full 40-hour week, and sees no reason why he shouldn’t be working on his 80th birthday. Don’t ever get too old, he tells friends.

Day only went to school for eight years.

‘Wanderlust sat in. I figured I knew more than the teachers, so I packed my things and went off on a freight train. I’d be a hobo for a while in one city and then I’d move on. I’d work only enough to eat and stay in clothes. I finally got it all out of my system and came back to McDowell County to stay in 1927.”

Day worked for 17 years in mines at Carswell, Keystone, Gary and Superior. He was an early union man and did his share of head-knocking.

“One way or another, I got as many men to sign up as anybody else did. “

He turned lawman for the first time when he was elected constable at Superior in 1945. There was no salary, and his only income came from commissions on fines and serving summonses.

Day became a justice of the peace in 1964, a job he held until 1972 when he won the vote for sheriff of McDowell County.

“One thing I was good at was keeping a close watch on my men. I didn’t have but 14 deputies, and that counted the three that worked the jail. I went to prayer meeting on Wednesday and Sunday nights, but the other evenings I was liable to be anywhere in the county. I’d listen to things on the police radio, and if my men weren’t doing what I wanted them to do I told ‘em about it real quick.”

Day lost his bid for re-election in 1976.

“The Lord had been trying to deal with me for a long time, and finally I let Him have His way. I became a Christian, and I knew I couldn’t be a Christian and be in politics at the same time.

“People come up to me two or three times a week and almost beg me to run, but I tell them no way. I’m finished with that business.”

The former sheriff remains an ardent Democrat in a county where that party has a 5-1 ratio to registered Republicans, but he’s not a big fan of Gov. Jay Rockefeller.

“Rockefeller puts all kinds of money in McDowell County when it comes time to get elected. So what does he and his party do for us after he gets in office? I’ll tell you. Nothing. That’s why there hasn’t been a big push for a four-lane highway through the county. If we had a good road, some factories would come in and the economy would be better.”

How would the former sheriff like to be remembered?

“If Archie Day came after you, you went.”

Bootlegger Learned As A Toddler


NEMOURS, W. Va. – John Johnson’s right leg is just so much dead weight.

“Lost part of it in a mining accident back in 1936,” the 68-year-old Mercer County man says. “I saw four men die, so a gimp leg’s not so bad.”

He spent six weeks in a hospital, and then returned to his brakeman’s job inside the mine.

“After 25 years I hung it up for good and rode a bus out to Denver. Always wanted to see that place. Sorta cost me a marriage, though.

“I started out mean, and it took me a long time to get over it. When I was just a babe in arms, my dad lowered me to the bottom of a moonshine still to help him finish a riveting job. They used to give me corn liquor when I wasn’t more than three or four years old. Don’t reckon it was much of a surprise when I took up that line of work.”

When the Great Depression slammed the standard of living for just about everybody else in these mountains, young Johnson earned up to $125 for a six-hour bootlegging drive to and from a place called Trap Hill in North Carolina.

“I started making the run in 1929. Probably did the trip 40 times or more and never got caught. I’d be loaded down with 135 gallons of bootleg, and my back end would be so heavy I’d have to jack it almost plumb out of sight just to keep the car in the road.”

Frequently he’d be paid in kind.

“That was fine with me. I never was one to turn down a drinking opportunity.”

The job was “kinda risky,” but less so if you knew a “friendly” policeman.

“There was this real crooked cop in Bluefield who found out early about my bootleg runs. He’d route me around any police cars, and in return I’d have to part with a half-gallon jug. In those days, I was driving an old Hudson Super-X and you almost had to blindfold one of those things to get by a service station.”

He says there’s a good reason why he was never apprehended.

“I was smart. I never broke the speed limit and I never drank while I drove. And it didn’t hurt any to carry three sets of license plates. I figured if I was in North Carolina and carried North Carolina plates, nobody would suspect that I was illegal. Same way for when I was in West Virginia and Virginia. It was some trouble on my part, but that kind of thinking kept me out of trouble.”

While he never operated his own still, he says there were plenty of operations in the mountains around Pocahontas in the 1930s.

“I remember this one fellow who was a dead giveaway whenever he was making moonshine. He had the idea that if he burned down the woods around his still, nobody would see the smoke from his furnace. The federals caught him real quick.”

John Johnson takes out a notebook and explains the process.

“This is the pot,” he says as he draws a rough-edged oval. “It can be as big as your taste for corn liquor is. You fill it full of sour mash that you get from combining ground-up corn sprouts and yeast. Then you heat your pot and let the good stuff worm its way (his words for the copper tubing) to the cooling bucket. From there, the moonshine is distilled into buckets or jars or whatever you happen to have to catch it in.”

These days, he lives with a dog named Thurman inside a small house trailer.

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t any moonshining going on within a 10-mile radius of here. Law has pretty much taken care of that.”

Johnson says he’s “too nervous and too old” to do the heavy lifting necessary to set up a still.

Tailor Learned His Craft In Italy


BLUEFIELD, W. Va. – The glowing light bulb on the side of the 1938 sewing machine is proof that Charles Rondinelli has been hard at it.

And, depending on how hot the bulb is, it can be estimated if the master tailor is in the first or the 11th hour of his work day.

On this summer afternoon, at least, the thing is scorching.

“Today I’ve worked on three custom-made suits, talked to eight or more potential customers and finished alterations on I-don’t-know-how-many pairs of pants,” Rondinelli says.

The 70-year-old Mercer County man is the only tailor in a 100-mile area. Those who like the comfort of his $350 suits come to his office in the Coal and Coke Building from as far as Lynchburg, Va.

Rondinelli has a fast explanation.

“There’s not enough money to induce young people to take up the craft. Clothing stores around here can’t afford to hire professional fitters, so they usually just grab a sales clerk and hurriedly teach her to do clothing repairs.”

The mere thought of an inexperienced person standing over an expensive suit with a handful of pins and needles rankles Rondinelli no end.

“I learned the job as a non-paid apprentice for three years in Italy before I came to America. It’s not something that comes easy. I know. I’ve been in Bluefield more than 40 years.”

Rondinelli is quick to share his opinions.

“Americans are the worst-dressed people in the world. They take no pride when they wear clothes.”


“It is very hard for a tailor nowadays to repair a suit of clothes he didn’t make. The manufacturers put so much glue in the material to hold it together, it’s all I can do sometimes to make a cut.”


“The only thing that matters in clothes to a lot of people is how cheap the price is. There often is no attempt to get a proper fit and, as a result, good tailors lose business. This is why there used to be six tailors in Bluefield, and now there is only me.”

It’s a one-man operation. No assistant to help conduct the one-hour fitting session necessary when a customer wants a suit. No bookkeeper to handle the paperwork.

“I ask people to pay up front. It’s the only way I can stay in business, but I lose a lot of clients who go to a clothing store where they can use their credit cards.”

His work space features a worn-out section of floor beside the hand-pressing machine where Rondinelli stands while giving the final treatment to new suits or repaired clothes.

“I would say there are more than 100 custom-made suits in this area that I’ve stitched. I can spot one from a long way away. I know that man has taste.”

Rondinelli relies more and more on alterations to make a living.

“But I would make silk ties, undershorts, anything to stay in business. I would like to devote more time to my wife and children, but I cannot. The long days are necessary or else I won’t make it.”

He tells the story from his early days in Italy.

“I fitted a man for a custom-made suit he wanted to wear to church on Christmas morning. Christmas Eve came and I was not finished. The man said he would wait. Just plopped himself down. So I worked on the suit until daybreak. I got done just in time for him to get to the service. My holiday was ruined, but I felt good knowing the customer looked nice in the suit.”

Hand Loaders Say They Face Less Danger


KEYSTONE, W. Va. – George Peoples unbuckles his kneepads and shakes out the matted coal that’s gathered in the creases. He flexes gingerly like a running back with cartilage problems, and pronounces himself hale and hardy for the next 16 off-duty hours before strapping on the pads again.

“I’ve tried other mining jobs, but I like hand-loading best,” Peoples says. “There’s less danger and almost no noise because the mine doesn’t use electricity. There’s no hassle inside either. If I want to take a break, I take a break.”

The M&M enterprise is owned by Paul Miller of nearby Northfork.

Jack Miller, Paul’s son, is the supervisor at one of the few hand-loading operations left in these coalfields.

“I think we’re real good to the men,” Jack Miller says. “Some, not all, couldn’t pass the physical to work at other places. Here, they go inside and work at their own speed. Because they get paid by the ton, they control how much they earn. Last year, one fella earned $17,000. Sometimes he got as much as 90 dollars a shift.”

The hand loaders are paid $12 for each loaded car.

“Our average daily haul is 325 tons,” Jack Miller says. “I can tell by looking at the men at 7 in the morning about how much they’re gonna load.”

The men work under a 36-inch top. They set their own charges to loosen the coal, and then scoop into three-ton motorcars. At No. 5, the work is 400 feet from the entrance. At No. 6, it’s 800 feet deeper in the mountain.

“I don’t think there will be much of any hand loading in 10 years,” Jack Miller predicts. “It’s a dying art and, frankly, it’s hard to find men who will work. I’d say only about one in 15 that applies here pans out. At mechanical mines, oftentimes the men can put their time in and coast by.”

George Peoples, who came to McDowell County from Alabama, is training his son, Herbert, on the intricacies of the job. One recent day they scooped 36 tons – each carful duly recorded at the Hawley Coal dumping ground where the coal is taken to be cleaned.

The senior Peoples is good at setting charges.

“He can do five charges and load five tons of coal,” Jack Miller says. “For most men, it’s five to get two.”

Miller has a bulletin board on which he notes each miner’s daily tonnage.

“There’s no competition among the men to be best. Some guys don’t even want me to record their output. Some get their desired level at noon and knock off.”

The miners believe there’s less chance of getting black lung at a hand-loading operation.

“There’s more ventilation,” George Peoples explains, “and there are no machines to throw the rock dust back in your face.”

The only problem, the senior Peoples says, “is the arthritis that flares up in my knees if I’ve been off for a few days. But I don’t complain and none of the other men do either. They like the money too much.”

Flowers Keep Alive His Son’s Memory


ELKHORN, W. Va. – Memorial Day, 1965.

Sixteen-year-old Bobby Cregger hitchhikes home from Keystone. It’s after 10 p.m. and the McDowell County youngster has rarely stayed out this late before.

Bobby is in a good mood as he stands with thumb outstretched on U.S. 52. His epilepsy is in remission and he’s down to one pill a day. Soon he will no longer have any trance-like spells. The doctors say he could play football in the fall. His parents say he could get his learner’s permit.

Bobby gets a ride. The driver is drinking. A lot. Vodka mixed with beer. He’s also speeding. The driver makes the turn at the waterfall. He misses the one at the culvert. The car is totaled. The driver staggers away unhurt. Bobby Cregger is killed instantly. It’s so bad the body was taken to the funeral home before his parents even arrive at the hospital.


Ted Cregger leans over the gully and tugs at the weeds that threaten to cover his carefully placed artificial flowers. Rheumatoid arthritis has curled the fingers and bent the legs of the longtime coal miner. It hurts more and more to be the groundskeeper of the place where his son was killed. Ted Cregger at his roadside memorial

But he comes to the homemade memorial several times a year, checking to make sure the flowers haven’t faded and fetching new ones if they have.

“The wife and I have kept on with the flowers for two reasons,” Ted Cregger says as he manicures the ground above the culvert that took the blow of the speeding car.

“We loved our son and want to remember him always. And we hope the flowers and the cross will make other drivers slow down and take notice.”

For a long time, Bobby Cregger had to take multiple pills to combat the epilepsy.

“He was tickled pink that he was getting better. He looked forward to be able to try out for sports.”

Almost every student at Northfork High School went to the funeral.

“Bobby was a jokester and had lots of friends. I don’t think there were but three kids left in school that Tuesday when we had the services,” Ted Cregger recalls.

The elder Cregger’s silicosis got so bad in 1967, the doctors said he could no longer work at the Crozier tipple that’s within eyeshot of his front porch.

The way he deals with his son’s death is to talk about it.

“I always felt it was bad to keep things bottled up. So whenever anybody wants to know what happened, I tell them. I don’t leave anything out.”

The thrust from a passing coal truck flutters the red and yellow flowers.

“It’s sad to say, but at least four people have died in automobile accidents in the same area as Bobby,” Ted Cregger says. “If we can save just one person from speeding down that mountain, all the years of putting up flowers will be worth it. I mean, it just costs a few bucks to change the flowers. That’s the least we can do.”

Former Hobo Eases into Junk Business


SETH, W. Va. – The story of Omehaw Kessinger begins with his name.

“Nobody in the whole of West Virginia has that first name. I had somebody check it out,” the 77-year-old man proudly says.


He was a hobo for most of a decade and wound up in jail on more than one occasion.

“Sometimes I starved and sometimes I ate like a king. Sometimes a meal was a bottle of wine and a sandwich. If I didn’t have any money, I’d leave off the sandwich.”


“A couple of girls did some counting a while back, and they told me I have almost 5,000 pieces of junk on my property. I’m right proud of that.”

It’s not hard to pick out Kessinger’s place on Rt. 3 in Boone County. His digs feature a yard that’s filled to overflowing with junk of every description.

Broken straight razors, hubcaps, broken and not broken glass, toys, dolls, old fountain pens, lights, license plates and even an artificial arm.

As discards go, Kessinger’s collection is an orderly one. Valuable junk is locked up inside in one of four rooms. Not-so-valuable junk is mounted against several fence rows in the yard.

He leans against the artificial arm and expounds on the glory of it all.

“I’ll swap with anybody, but once I fix my price I won’t change it a single brownie. A deal might come and go, but I stay.”

Kessinger worked in the coal mines for around 20 years in between his hoboing. He didn’t dabble in the junk business until the 1970s.

“Some of these hubcaps would be worth over a hundred bucks new,” he says as he points to his automotive section. “But if you buy ‘em from somebody like me you can really save.”

Kessinger is a smart hombre, but he’s tasted defeat on several deals.

“Once I let a man have an old bedstead for $15 and I was grinning at myself. Turned out he sold that thing the same day for 10 times profit. I found out later that bedstead was solid brass under the paint.”

There is no way Kessinger can protect his sprawling collection from thieves.

“Naw, if it’s hanging outside there’s not much I can do. But I don’t worry about it. I may have lost a few pieces over the years, but the only thing really valuable was an old carbide lamp.”

His laissez-faire attitude comes from his hobo days.

“Many times I went all the way to Texas and Chicago. I never knew where a particular train was going when I hopped it, but that never bothered me. I knew I’d get to see a lot of open country and that’s what I wanted.”

Kessinger doesn’t mind admitting he’s spent some time in jail, and that he spent many hot days on the rock pile. But he emphasizes he never got in trouble for stealing. Part of Omehaw Kessinger’s collection

“Naw, the worst thing that ever happened was when me and a buddy got 90 days for starting a fire at this man’s farm. We were freezing cold, him and me, and we huddled in this haystack. I never smoked but he did, and the next thing we knew there was this big fire and we were in jail.”

He did his share of hard labor.

“Usually we’d work all day after we got to a city. We did a lot of stockyard stuff – you know, loading and unloading hogs and pigs. We got paid at the end of the day and were off with the night train.”

He remembers catching trains out of the Bluefield yard.

“But they were pretty strict. A lot of times they imposed what they called a five-mile limit on us. That meant they didn’t want any hobos anywhere near the downtown section.”

It’s easy for Kessinger to grow his junk collection.

“People are real nice about that. They know I save stuff so they’re forever throwing things out their cars in the general direction of my front yard.”

One time entertainer Dolly Parton came to his place.

“She had a show in Charleston and somebody told her to come to Seth and see old Omehaw. She didn’t buy much, but I was glad to see her.”

He picks up a dusty toy soldier that had dropped off its perch.

“This is one of my first pieces. It’s probably not worth much, but it’s got a lot of good memories to it.”

His elbow almost knocks over the artificial arm, but Kessinger rights the thing.

“Know anybody who needs a new arm? I need to swap this old bird before it beats my face up.”

‘The Almost A Doctor” Loves His Job’


WELCH, W. Va. – The male midwife keeps a simple sign posted outside his crowded quarters that reads:

“And deliver us from evil. Amen.”

Dave Kutzler is one of 18 male midwives working in the United States, according to the American College of Nurse-Midwives, which certifies practitioners in the field. There are about 1,500 female midwives.

Betty Webb looks at the sign. Then she looks at her stomach, made big by baby.

Warm weather brings babies – at least that’s what they say in these coalfields – and this day five women wait to see the man one calls “almost a doctor.”

Kutzler, a 31-year-old Montana native, is no physician, and quickly corrects folks who refer to him by that title. He does wear a white coat, and he does have a master’s degree in parent-child nursing. But he’s not a medical school graduate or a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

So he isn’t qualified to use forceps and can’t deliver a baby by Caesarean section. If the birth looks as if it will be out of the ordinary, Kutzler refers the woman to a bona fide baby doctor 35 miles away in Bluefield.

Until Kutzler’s arrival in 1980, pregnant women here routinely journeyed down twisting U.S. 52 to Bluefield to have their babies. There are two small hospitals in McDowell County, but no practicing obstetrician.

Kutzler proudly keeps newspaper clippings of each of his 100 or so births. He also tapes thank-you cards and letters from his clients (“How can I call them patients if they’re not sick?”) to the door of his examining room inside Miners’ Emergency Hospital.

The office is cramped. Kutzler is keenly interested in prenatal care, and piles of pamphlets and brochures on the subject contribute mightily to his lack of elbowroom.

Betty Webb is next in line to visit the examining room. She’s grateful the midwife doesn’t hound her constantly about paying bills. Her coal miner husband is out of work and the young family has precious little money to spare.

“I guess I could go to a regular baby doctor in Bluefield,” she says, “but that’s a long way and I know I’d have to wait a long time.

“I don’t worry about seeing Mr. Kutzler. He’s very gentle and really cares about people.”

The baby will be Mrs. Webb’s first. She admits she backslides a little on Kutzler’s nutritional instructions, “but I don’t do anything bad.”

The midwife admits he floundered around before becoming interested in medicine.

“I didn’t make very good grades in school. In fact, I was just in college (Montana State) to avoid the military draft. I changed majors four times, and didn’t find myself until I got drafted as a conscientious objector and became a medic to fulfill my duties to the country.”

While in nursing school, he heard a classmate present a report on midwifery. The subject fascinated him, and he enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Utah. Only 12 of 80 applicants were accepted and Kutzler was the only male.

The National Health Service Corps financed his education and, in return, he was obligated to serve two years in an area that is short of health manpower. Hence, the assignment to Welch.

“I’ve delivered a lot of $25 babies since I started here,” says Kutzler. “We never turn a woman away because of her inability to pay. We try to get the client on some sort of insurance program, so she can get some relief if I have to transfer her to a doctor who expects to be paid.

“If the insurance thing falls through, we establish some sort of sliding scale based on the amount of income. The maximum I’d charge would be $400 and the minimum is $25.

“I might as well do it for free, but studies have proven people take advice better if they have to pay a little something for it.”

Kutzler sees an average of 12 to 18 women a day, and delivers from three to 14 babies a month. He estimates he refers around 25 percent of his patients to the obstetrician in Bluefield.

“A birth to me right now is just as majestic and awe-inspiring as it was when I was in college. It’s still not something I consider as just part of a day’s work.”

While midwifery is growing, there still aren’t very many men coming into the program.

“I’ve taken a lot of good-natured kidding about being the token guy,” Dave Kutzler says, “but nobody made it hard for me.”

He has no plans to further his education and become a full-fledged baby doctor.

“Why should I? I’m doing exactly what I want right now.”

Two Who Were There Recall 1927 Train Wreck


After the two trains collided outside Ingleside, W. Va., Riley Lilly remembers picking up the unbroken eggs that were thrown from the freight train and selling them to a grocery store. It was messy work and the yolks adhered to his fingertips, but money was hard to come by in 1927 for a youngster.

Boyd Weeks was a passenger in one of the three coach cars. The crash hurtled him toward the baggage car that followed the mail car.

The engineer and foreman were killed instantly. About two dozen of the 100 or so passengers were taken to the hospital.

The Virginian No. 3 became symbolic of death on that 24th day of May in 1927.

“I was going to Pageton (W. Va.) to get a job working on a road,” Weeks recalls from his Oakvale, W. Va., home. “It was lunchtime and the train was just leaving the Ingleside station. I remember a fellow standing in the aisle selling snacks. The wreck happened just after we rounded a curve after going through the tunnel. If both trains had been going at full speed, it would have killed us all.”

The Virginian was going from Roanoke, Va., to Huntington, W. Va. There was no master controller to ensure there weren’t eastbound and westbound trains on the same track. It was all done by orders, and apparently the engineer of the passenger train was in fatal confusion the instant of the crash.

The steam engine of the passenger train ended up on top of the freight. E.G. Aldrich and F.M. O’Neal were killed.

The crash of the Virginian No. 3

“Almost the entire population of the little town of Ingleside came to the track,” Weeks says. “Snapshots were taken and I picked one up at a newsstand a few weeks later for 50 cents.”

Many folks traveled by train in this corner of Southern West Virginia at the time because the roads were often little more than mudholes.

“Aldrich and O’Neal were scalded to death,” Weeks says. “I remember seeing their skin sag. I guess the crew in the freight saw what was coming and jumped off. There wasn’t any place in the steam engine for Aldrich and O’Neal to run.”

The accident happened just a few months after the railroad installed electric motors with overhead cables. There still were telegraph operators up and down the line who had the job of recording the passing of the trains.

The crash was the subject of a folk ballad by Blind Alfred Reed, and later recorded under the title “The Wreck of the Virginian.”

After picking himself off the floor of the train, Boyd Weeks left word that he was unhurt and continued on to Pageton.

“I needed the work. There wasn’t time to dwell on what happened.”

Homemade Church A Beacon For Fading Town


BAILEYSVILLE, W. Va. – Virgil Morgan stops short of referring to his tiny, homemade church as a lighthouse.

Instead, the Wyoming County man prefers to call the 10-foot by 12-foot structure that sits at the top of his 12 hilly acres a memorial to the 1,000 or so folks who were forced to leave this community when the government bought huge chunks of land to make way for the R.D. Bailey Dam.

But Morgan’s 15-foot high miniature church – the inside has eight seats, professionally installed carpeting, pictures of Jesus and a pulpit – does function as somewhat of a beacon because it gives this area a focal point that was sorely lacking before 1977 when Morgan declared his church finished.

“I come up here on the mountain every Sunday morning to ring the bell,” the 67-year-old man says. “This little church isn’t much in size, but it is a rallying point for the community. Virgil Morgan’s homemade church

An expensive and time-consuming rallying point.

Morgan figures he spent around $1,400. He refused all offers of financial aid, saying the memorial rests on his property so the money should come from his pocket. He also turned down the appeals of several area men who wanted to help with the construction.

“I wanted to do it all myself. I hauled the building materials up this big hill by horse and sled. It liked to have killed me the day I brought up the blocks.” (That were once footers on the old Baileysville Hotel, another landmark that’s long gone.)

Two schools and a small cluster of homes along the railroad tracks are about all that remains of old Baileysville.

“I was real fearful the government was going to take my home,” Morgan says. “The federal boys had their official papers and they had all my property evaluated. Then right when I thought they had me, those boys said they only needed a little bit of frontage and I could keep my home.”

Morgan worked for 35 years as a carpenter around Island Creek coal mines. He retired in 1972 and quickly pronounced himself bored to tears. So just for funsies he built a log cabin halfway up the mountain that now holds the tiny church. He placed the logs, furnished the one-room cabin with all the electrical conveniences of home and terraced the lawn with pick and shovel until the place fairly bubbles over with quaintness.

“I knew all along that the cabin was just practice for the church.”

He is justifiably proud of his two creations.

“I learned to be a blacksmith and carpenter at about the same time. And I had to learn by myself. My father and brother were so bad they couldn’t even saw in a straight line on a wide-as-you-please pencil mark.”

Virgil Morgan walks behind the pulpit and looks down at the open Bible.

“I used to go to the Baileysville Methodist Church when it was still standing. It almost broke my heart when the government tore it down. This little church of mine doesn’t have any denomination, but I have to admit I was thinking a lot about that old Methodist Church when I built it.”

Services at the memorial church have been sporadic because of the absence of a regular minister in the Baileysville area.

“We have a service whenever I can grab a traveling preacher, but that’s not too often.”

So Morgan takes matters into his own hands.

“I walk to the top of the hill and have my own little service. I’m not what you could call a preacher, but I don’t do bad.”

He grins.

“Sometimes I’ll be praying and I’ll ring the church bell for no particular reason at all.”

Norman Twigg: Resident Tough Guy


POCAHONTAS, Va. – Back in the day, this Tazewell County town was as freewheeling as the swinging doors on its many saloons.

The peak time was around 1915 until Prohibition helped close the taverns. Many coal trains passed by, and old-timers can remember Saturday night revelers standing on the cow-catchers and reclining on top of the coal cars as they made their way into town.

Pocahontas was indeed a rough place. And Norman Twigg may have been its toughest character.

“Yes, I would definitely say Norman was one you didn’t want to tangle with,” says Jack Dishman, Norman’s best friend in the man’s twilight years.

“I remember when they put Norman in the old town jail once for drinking. He broke all the locks and walked out. He went to the sheriff’s house and asked what were they gonna do with him now. The sheriff just shook his head and sent Norman home,” Dishman goes on.

Dishman, a retired band director at Pocahontas High School, says Twigg stood less than six feet tall and didn’t weigh more than 180 pounds.

“But he didn’t let that slow him down. Norman told me of times when he would cut a circle out of the ground with a stick, and dare anybody in town to come inside it and fight him. Many times when he’d have too much to drink, the law would call me because I was the only one who could talk him down.”

As a youngster, Dishman helped handle Twigg’s horse and buggy when he went door-to-door selling his home-churned milk.

“It was my job to see that the horses stayed put. He took a shine to me and would give me bags of candy for assisting him.”

Twigg toiled for many years in Pocahontas-area coalfields.

“Norman believed in working hard for his money. He wasn’t any slacker,” Dishman says. “I remember hearing talk that he once set the fallen end of a coal car back on the tracks by himself.”

Twigg died in 1956. He was 82 years old.

“He had pneumonia, but didn’t want to leave his house because his wife had just returned from an operation. I made him get in my car. By the time I got to the hospital, he was gone. I watched him die,” Dishman says.

Norman Twigg couldn’t read and write, and it was Dishman’s job to fill out the paperwork for his Social Security and miner’s pension. Dishman periodically looked over Norman’s bank book to make sure his pal didn’t get cheated.

Dishman hands over an old picture that shows Twigg missing two fingers.

“It happened one night when he resisted arrest. He braced himself against a wall, and all the sheriffs and deputies couldn’t force him into the jail. They slammed the cell door shut time after time on those fingers and he eventually lost them.”

Dishman talks about the time a man almost got the best of Twigg.

“Seems Norman was in the middle of the pay line and this young fellow tried to buck the line. Norman walked up to him and asked if he would like to take a place in the back of the line. He refused. They exchanged words and before long Norman hit him. Norman told me he had never been hit back so hard. He said the only way he got the upper hand was to bite the man on the cheek and hang on until he hollered for mercy.”

Twigg’s daughter, Mrs. Ray Myers, lives in nearby Abbs Valley.

“Yes, Pa was mean and hot-tempered, but you could get along with him if you tried. He was a very good provider to us at home,” she says.

She notes that her father’s parents died early in life, and he never had the opportunity to attend school regularly because he had to work.

“I don’t think people realize what a rough place Pocahontas was in the saloon days,” Mrs. Myers goes on. “A person had to be hard-nosed just to stay alive. And, yes, Pa was plenty hard-nosed.”

Jack Dishman asked Norman once if he really enjoyed drinking.

“He replied, ‘Does a hog like slop?’ I thought that was a pretty good answer.”


This work outage lasted 74 days – down from the 111-day duration of the 1977-78 walkout – but no less bitter. There were countless threats, but only a few incidents of violence in Tazewell and Buchanan counties during the spring strike. A big factor was the deployment of an estimated 150 state troopers to the Southwest Virginia coalfields to enforce the state’s right-to-work law. Five weeks into the walkout, I rode part of a day with Junior Howard, a non-union hauler from Buchanan County. Howard drove for United Coal, the largest non-union operator in the county. For the other side of the story, I met with an ardent UMW picket.

Hauler Packs Pistol To Protect Rig

BIG ROCK, Va. – Junior Howard fingers the .38 caliber pistol he keeps under his seat, and swears he will give any striking miner “five in the face” who tries to open the driver’s side door of his coal truck.

“You can take that to the bank, honey,” says the 51-year-old man who epitomizes the tough life of the professional gear-jammer.

Howard used to haul moonshine out of the back hills of Virginia and Kentucky. He’s been in bunches of barroom brawls, and has a bullet hole in his left arm as a reminder of a particularly eventful evening.

The man they call Riverjack drives a non-union coal truck up and down Lynn Camp Creek Hollow as many as 15 times a day. He hauls for United Coal, and each 20-ton payload is dumped at the company’s Wellmore Preparation Plant near Big Rock just two miles from the Kentucky line.

“I used to be a union man until the last strike, but that walkout did me in,” Howard says. “I was owing for my truck and my house, so I left Clinchfield and came down here to Big Rock. I’ve been making runs up and down this road ever since.”

He has encountered pickets numerous times on his route.

“No way I’d ever run any of those boys down. I sure don’t want to hurt nobody. Besides, most of those boys (pickets) are friends of mine.”

Because they are fellow working men, Howard can let that dreaded word “scab” roll off without taking exception.

“I just tell them I have a job to do, and if they want to do something about my hauling, they can take it up with my boss. I’d even let them throw a rock or two at me. But when they start shooting or rushing my truck, honey, that’s war,” he says as he brandishes the pistol.

Howard has been slowed down many times by giant tacks, apparently strewn onto the road by angry union men.

“It takes about an hour to change a tire, and they know that’s one less load of coal I’ll move that day.”

He is generally complimentary of United Coal.

“Now it bothers me a little when they make me wear a rag (a tarpaulin) on top of my coal, but that’s a company rule and I have to live with it. They pay us seven bucks an hour, and we can haul as many loads as we want. I know a guy who kept at it non-stop for 19 hours. We’ve also got a good insurance plan. The only think we’re weak on is retirement.”

The coal truck groans as Howard gears down to scale the last steep hill before reaching the endloader and the giant pile of coal. Riverjack shifts gently. His truck has more than 123,000 miles on it and he treats it like a fine piece of furniture, even spraying the interior with Lemon Pledge. Junior Howard behind the wheel

“United did do one thing that made me kinda mad, though. The other day, one of their people told a TV reporter they were running even more coal now than before the strike. To me, honey, that’s kinda like me calling you over to see my brand new car when I know you don’t have nothing at all to drive. That kind of talk is bound to irritate the strikers.”

But Howard admits the company is powerful enough to get away with it.

“If United pulled out of this county, the standard of living would drop so fast it would make your head swim.”

Two of his sons are union men. He’s told them in no uncertain terms to stay off the picket line and not to cause any trouble. He says he will soon line up a job for one son hauling non-union coal.

Howard believes most non-union truckers would probably be fired if they turned back when confronted by pickets.

“We’d be out of our jobs and, mark my words, some of the pickets would go down to personnel and get them. We might joke about it at lunchtime, but it’s every man for himself when it comes to having a job. If one man’s weak, a stronger man will eventually take over for him.”

Junior Howard gets his load, jokes with a driver he calls Big Eye and then slowly heads back down the road

“I don’t think there’s going to be much excitement around Buchanan County unless someone gets hurt. Then there’s liable to be hell to pay.”

He says his employer could indirectly stir up some bad feelings.

“Honey, United’s got mean junkyard dogs at all their operations, and they’ve got men with big old guns who are ready to ride with us if we want them to.

“Myself, I hope nothing happens. I’m a peace-loving man and I don’t want to see nobody get in trouble.”

But what if trouble comes?

“I’ll do my best to stay out of it. I’ve been in enough beer hall fights to know there’s always somebody in the world tougher than you are.”

Picket Worries About Resolve Of UMW Mates

POUNDING MILL, Va. – Donald McTague worries more about the complacency of the United Mine Workers than the movement of non-union coal.

The 24-year-old McTague – a union man to the core – is willing to go to jail for his cause. He doubts if more than a handful of mates share his zeal.

“When I call a bunch of guys trying to get ‘em to take turns on the picket line, too many have excuses why they can’t,” says the native of Maine, who came to Tazewell County in 1975. “One man told me he had to plant his garden, and the day I asked it was raining so hard his garden was just a big mudhole. Another guy said he had to mow his lawn. I asked what was more important, his lawn or his job. He didn’t have much an answer.”

McTague, a roof bolter at VP No. 4 in Buchanan County, says he has been on the picket line almost every day since the strike began. Ten days before we talked, he was arrested on the side of the road leading to a non-union tipple in Red Ash.

He gives his version of what happened.

“We were on the line that day, me and about 17 other boys. We made it a point to holler a few things at every scab truck that passed by, but hollering was all we were doing. That’s all we can ever do with the state police babysitting.

“Anyway, this one driver pulled onto the tipple road and then stopped. He went to the side of his truck, and all of a sudden out of nowhere he started waving a jackrock. He looked over at us boys on the line and saw I was the only one wearing a coat. The driver told the cops it was me who threw it, and that I had been carrying the thing in my coat pocket.”

The pickets were immediately ordered to disperse, and McTague received a summons to appear in court. He was the only man to be ticketed.

“No, I didn’t get mad. I didn’t want to give them (the troopers) any more ammunition against the union. If they had told me to go to jail, I would’ve gone to jail.”

McTague is convinced the non-union hauler produced the large tack in an effort to break up the picket line.

“All I know is I had nothing to do with that jackrock. But that’s all right. I can take whatever grief they give me. I just won’t wear a coat next time, that’s all.”

McTague had $2,500 saved prior to the strike. He says he has spent all that money, and now is forced to borrow. He has a 2-year-old daughter and his wife is pregnant. He says his only income the past two months has been “a few dollars” working on cars. A few days ago, he received his first booklet of food stamps.

He is not in the market for a job with a non-union operation, even if it means a secure job and instant folding money.

“The scab miners would have nothing today if it wasn’t for the union. They want us to take all the risks and sit out all the strikes. We do just that, and then their wages and benefits go up as a result. If they went out with us, this strike business would be over in no time. I say to hell with ‘em.”

He talks about the lack of solidarity in the UMW.

“Our Local in Oakwood has 67 men. I’d say no more than 12 of those boys hit the picket line on any kind of regular basis. That’s bad enough, but I’d say the percentage of active pickets is a lot higher in our Local than it is across the membership.

“Some of our union men tell me they’re afraid they might get shot if they walk a picket line. I tell ‘em that’s the last thing that’s gonna happen, especially with all the state police around.”

McTague says the union has been reduced to asking retired miners to man the picket lines.

“That’s pitiful. I think the UMW should fine all union men who stay home and watch the soap operas instead of getting out there on the line.

“I know I’ve hurt some feelings during this strike,” he says, referring to the angry telephone calls he’s made to reluctant pickets. “But I’ve got to hurt some feelings. They’re hurting out jobs.”

Not that the pickets have been that effective.

“I haven’t been on a line yet that’s actually stopped a scab truck. We’ve cut down on the loads they haul, though. We’re making ‘em learn it don’t pay to run heavy with a lot of troopers around.”

Despite his aggressive stance, Donald McTague insists he isn’t a violent man.

“I’d rather hoot and holler at scabs than fight ‘em. I haven’t even had a run-in with that driver who caused me to get arrested.”

He doesn’t regret the feeling of wanderlust that brought him from the seashores of Maine to the mountains of Virginia.

“I can’t see myself not being a coal miner 10 years from today.” He pauses. “Not unless I get rich, that is. If that happens, I’m getting the hell out, way out.”


Bartley No. 1


BARTLEY, W. Va. – It was 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 1940, at the No. 1 mine here. The afternoon was cold, but not unbearable. But there was no cold on the mine’s West side, just coal and the huddle of miners working out the final hours before shift change. Payday was Friday, and things could be a lot worse.

The major newsreel companies of the day were concentrating on the ominous threat of war in Finland and England. Doubtless, none could find McDowell County, W. Va.

Then the explosion shook the timbers and spread inches of dust on rail tracks throughout the mine. Miners were thrown around like kernels in a popcorn popper. Telephones were knocked loose from their cradles. Giant chunks of steel were twisted like so many pretzels.

Nine-one men died.

And the newsreel companies had to figure out how to get to Southern West Virginia.


Dewey Pruett still lives in Bartley. He doesn’t like to move around. As a boy, he saw his coal miner uncle change jobs three times in a single day. He made up his mind not to be so wishy-washy.

And he wasn’t. He worked at Bartley No. 1 when it was owned by the Pond Creek Pocahontas Coal Company, and he was there after the explosion when it became an Island Creek operation.

In all, Pruett labored 32 years at the same place, only leaving No. 1 in 1967 when the operation shut down.

“I was a dispatcher in 1940,” Pruett recalls. “Dixie Combs was the mine superintendent. After the blast happened, he tried to run by me and join the rescue crews. I told him not to do that. Even threatened to knock him down. He was the top dog and he didn’t need to be in that mess. I finally got him to listen to me.”

For 24 hours after the blast, it was thought that 92 men were missing and feared dead. Dewey Pruett was No. 92.

“I helped lead some of the East side miners out the back way. I didn’t want to cause a panic, so I lied and told them the bosses wanted everybody out of the mine so they could examine the ventilation system. When I didn’t come back, the rescue crews took the tag with my name on it down the shaft, figuring to use it to identify my body. I got it back and it’s in the house as a souvenir.”

Many miners on the East side continued to work, thinking the noise and dust was the result of a minor slate fall.

“I only saw two dead men,” Pruett says. “They were found about a half mile from the bottom of the 620-foot shaft. The rest were trapped two miles away.”

He worked as a dispatcher throughout the rescue operation, not taking more than a few hours off until the last body was recovered four days later on Sunday.

“I knew just about all the dead guys, but I didn’t want to live in the past. When the mine reopened, I was one of the first to come back. Most of the survivors (around 160 in all) did the same. We needed to work.”


It was a difficult time for undertakers, too.

“First, there was the requirement that no bodies be moved until all were properly identified, and that delayed burials for several days,” recalls John Pat Fanning of the funeral home in Iaeger that bears his name.

“And you also had hordes of people who looked over my shoulder while I did my initial work on the bodies. But a lot of them started vomiting after they saw how swollen the men were, and the crowds started trickling out.”

Fanning says his office received approximately two dozen bodies.

“There was a lot of competition from the several funeral homes in the area, but I don’t know why. West Virginia was only paying about $100 per burial. Nobody got rich during that week, that’s for sure.”

The mortician was reminded of the tragedy every time he got in one of his four hearses.

“We never got the smell out of that one no matter how hard we tried.”


Bill McGlothlin lives a mile or so up a muddy hollow from the old No. 1 mine. The tipple remains, but the rest of the mine complex has crumbled to the ground.

McGlothlin knew that seam well. He hand-loaded its coal.

The black man left his native Alabama in 1935 for the West Virginia coalfields.

“I never regretted my decision,” he says. “Bartley worked when a lot of other mines didn’t. The bosses were good, the UMW was strong and there were very few wildcat strikes.”

McGlothlin was upended by the explosion that Sunday, but was able to race for safety.

“They asked me to help on the rescue, but I said no. My brother and my brother-in-law died. I wasn’t ashamed to admit I was afraid I might not make it out alive if I went back in.”

But he did go to the roped-off area several times between Wednesday night and Sunday night.

“I saw newsreel crews and portable soup kitchens. I also saw family members chewing on bleeding stubs of fingernails waiting for news on their loved ones.”

Fifty-one women became widows. Some 169 children lost fathers.

“Back then, a dependent widow got something like $30 a month until she remarried or died,” McGlothlin says. “A dependent child got $5 a month until he turned 16.”

At the time of the explosion, McGlothlin says Pond Creek was experimenting with new conveyor machinery that reduced the work force from 30 to 12 in some sections.

“If the accident happened a few months later,” he says, “not near as many miners would have been on that West side.”

In 1949, Bill McGlothlin was hurt in a slate fall.

“Times sure have changed money-wise. After I got disabled, there was enough money for me to put two cars in my garage.”

Second Bishop


BISHOP, Va. – Vence Hagy remembers the swollen faces and blue lips of the dead miners. He helped carry out 13 bodies.

Elmer Altizer remembers the funerals. On Thursday following the Monday mine disaster, he was pallbearer at services held at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

Mrs. Cosolo Wilson remembers how her husband had a chance to leave the coalfields and become a cook, but he chose to stay underground. The Earth has drawing power because man is a part of the Earth, he told his wife.

Cosolo Wilson and 21 other men were killed at 8:28 a.m. on Oct. 27, 1958, when Pine Ridge Section 20 of the Pocahontas Fuel Company mine exploded. This came to be called Second Bishop. On Feb. 4, 1957, 37 men were killed in an explosion at the same operation. The vigil hours after Second Bishop

I attended the 25th anniversary memorial for the dead at Second Bishop. Speakers from the union and company honored the fallen miners. Several gospel groups performed. A Tazewell, Va., radio station broadcast the memorial service. Late in the afternoon, the widows walked from the union hall to a nearby monument that lists the names of the 59 men who perished in the two explosions.

“The first few years it was sad, almost terrible, for me to show up,” says Mrs. William Johnson. “But now I can hold up pretty good without crying. The only time it really hurts is when they call on the widows to take the flowers to the monument.”

Many of the dead at Second Bishop were completing their first month of work since being recalled in late September of 1958.

Mrs. Johnson heard the rumors, but did not know for sure until 3 o’clock that Monday afternoon.

“Jerry (her oldest son) came home crying from school. I took it real hard. They just about had to carry me off the hill at the funeral.”

William Johnson, a native of North Carolina, started working at the Bishop mine at age 14. Twice rock fell on him, once mashing a foot and once breaking his pelvis. He never thought about getting another job. Running a coal-cutting machine was all he ever wanted to do.

“My family moved to Bishop when I was 15,” Mrs. Johnson recalls. “We had to live in two tents my Daddy made for us because he couldn’t get a company house right away. I had to walk wherever I wanted to go, and every time I walked out of the hollow I had to pass by Bill’s house.

“The first time we were together was when he borrowed somebody’s car to take me home for church. We courted for four years before we got married because I wanted to be the first from my family to graduate high school.”

Jerry Johnson was an all-state linebacker at Tazewell High School, and later played for Emory & Henry College.

“My Bill was a tremendous football fan. It pleased him so much to watch Jerry play. He would have about gone crazy to see him play in college.”

Mrs. Johnson’s daughter died from cancer, and she is raising her 10-year-old granddaughter.

“We never had a lot of money, but we managed to get by. I worked as a cook at Bishop Elementary School for a few years, and then I got a job at a grocery store. I’m not working now, but every so often I help teachers at school grade papers. I like to stay busy.”


Mrs. Cosolo Wilson didn’t find out her husband was among the dead until late Monday afternoon.

“My brother-in-law was waiting outside the shaft and he ran home and told me. I don’t know if I ever heard official from the company. Maybe they were trying to spare my feelings, I don’t know. I do know that made the anxiety that much worse.”

Mrs. Wilson came to the coalfields from Alabama. She met her husband, a Logan County, W. Va., native, when she was 24. They married in 1933, the same year her husband started working at Bishop.

“The main thing I remember about him was his easy-going ways. He always had a smile for people and he had a lot of friends.”

She attends the memorial service every year.

“I don’t get sad any more. Things happen according to the plan of God, and there is no way for us to change that plan. The Lord has a purpose for my husband and that’s why He took him.”


Bishop straddles the Virginia-West Virginia line. The entrance to the Bishop complex is on the Old Dominion side. The processing plant is in the Mountain State. The Pine Ridge section is almost directly under the state line.

About 300 people live in Bishop. At one time, Pocahontas Fuel Company owned most of the homes which they rented to their employees. The white camp is along Main Street and the black camp was on a side thoroughfare.

The company, now known as Consolidation Coal, is out of the housing business. The dwellings are now privately owned by the mostly retired and disabled miners. The segregation continues.

The Bishop mine has been shut down for about a year due to a slump in the metallurgical coal market. Some 500 employees are on lay-off status.


Willie Hampton was on the Big Creek side of the mine at Second Bishop.

“We didn’t feel any kind of vibration or anything like that,” he recalls. “At first, they said it was a rock fall, but a rock fall doesn’t throw out that kind of dust. As soon as I saw the heavy dust, I knew something bad had happened.”

Hampton first worked in the mines as a trapper boy before the end of World War I. He was 13 years old. His job was to open the door in the hauling area so the mules could come and go with the coal.

He retired in 1967 to become a preacher at two coalfield churches.

“A few men didn’t go back to Bishop after the mine blew up for the second time, but most did. In my case, I was getting awful close to retirement. I trusted in the Lord that I could make it.

“I never had any more close calls at that mine. But any time something would go wrong, even the smallest thing, I’d work up a big dread. I don’t think I ever completely got over the fear.”


“It hurt me bad to see ‘em like that, all stooped over and blue in the face and reaching for their water buckets. You learn to love men you are miners with. When they die, it’s like your parents.”

Vence Hagy worked stretcher detail on the afternoon of October 27, 1958. He knew most of the men when they were alive. It tested him to recognize them when they were gone.

“They weren’t blown up that bad. What made it hard was their swollen faces and how dirty they were from all the dust. Lots of times we had to identify them by their bigness, or by looking at what they had put on their hard hats.”

Hagy worked 36 years at Bishop, retiring in 1978. He was a miner’s helper in 1958, meaning he helped load coal on the Joy cutting machines.

“I was uneducated and there wasn’t a whole lot else I could do. I didn’t have shoes much when I was growing up, so it was hard to go to school in the wintertime. I did go in warm weather for about three years, but I never learned much. I didn’t even get past the first primer.”

Hagy, now 78 and wheezing with black lung, went back to the ill-fated Bishop mine as soon as it reopened.

“Like I said, I didn’t have many choices.”


Elmer Altizer helped clean up after Second Bishop.

“I knew Holliday Sutherland real good. I tried to get him to work on the (continuous) miner with me on my shift, but he didn’t like it. He said the only equipment he felt comfortable with was the cutting machine. If he had come along with me, he wouldn’t have been killed.”

Altizer was pallbearer at three funerals on one day and six in all. It pleases him to say he made it to the church on time for each service.

He worked at the Bishop mine 34 years before retiring in 1974. He lost two brothers, one at Bishop and another at a mine in nearby Canebrake.

“I never got scared out, not even after I broke my back in an accident. Maybe I should have been scared out, but I never was. Mining coal was all I ever knew.”


H.L. Bowling was inside the mine both during the 1957 explosion and Second Bishop. In October of 1958, he helped carry out the dead.

“The thing I’ll never forget is the smell of flesh burning. You can stand to look at the bodies. It’s the smell you can’t hardly live with.”

Bowling worked underground for 36 years until retiring in 1972. At the time of Second Bishop, he was operating a continuous miner.

“We all knew it was a gassy mine. But all the mines around here are that way. I got afraid a lot more easy after 1958, but I learned to live with it.”


The investigation into the cause of Second Bishop was delayed because the following day a mine explosion in Craigsville, W. Va., claimed 14 men.

A six-hour hearing at Bishop ended with most parties agreeing that an improperly fired explosive shot was the most likely cause of the mine disaster. Twenty-two men were in the Pine Ridge section of the mine at the time and all perished.

Adkins No. 18


My wife, MaryAnne, also wrote for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph during this time. She co-authored this story.

MARTIN, Ky. – The room in Our Lady of Victory Hospital is crowded. Three women share the space with their babies, and the added presence of a nurse’s aide and one of the women’s husbands doesn’t ease the cramped quarters.

Ora Slone, 39, sits on the bed nearest the door and looks out the window. In the crib next to her, a red-faced boy jerks occasionally in his sleep.

“His daddy said I’d be getting a good Christmas present and I did,” she says, smiling.

Robert Matthew Slone was born on Dec. 16, 1981, the eighth child of Ora and Robert Slone.

But Robert Slone will never see this baby. He died on December 7 in a mine explosion on Potato Branch near Topmost, Ky. The blast killed eight of the nine men in that section. The lucky miner, Ray Conley, escaped death when he came to the surface moments before the blast to change a battery in a mine scoop. None of the men suffered. Their lives were snuffed out before they could even reach for their self-rescuer devices. Their clothes were burned from their bodies.

“I felt like something bad was going to happen,” Ora says in her soft, airy voice. “At first, I thought maybe something was wrong with the baby. I kept having bad dreams. I’d dream I was in a graveyard cleaning off graves and picking off leaves and twigs. Now it’s over. I don’t have those dreams no more.”

Ora is a thin woman with long, black hair. She has the clear skin of many mountain women, but her face is gaunt with dark eyes that draw your own toward them. The face of the young girl hides in the shadow of the woman with eight children born year upon year “like stepladders.” Ora Slone and her baby Robert Matthew

“It’s awful rough not to have your husband with you when you’re having a baby. When they’re there you feel like nothing can hurt you, that nothing bad can happen.”

When Robert Slone was killed, Ora was making popcorn.

“The kids came home from school early that day. They liked to have chips and I didn’t have none so I popped some popcorn. That’s what I was doing when I heard the explosion.”

The house shook and the windows rattled. Then there was a second blast, not as severe as the first.

“I knew it was the mine,” she says. “It couldn’t be nothing else. I knew he was dead right off.”

Ora Slone answers the telephone.

“Oh, no,” she says. “What else is gonna happen to me? Well, put it in the snow.”

She hangs up.

“My Frigidaire’s conked out. Can’t even keep the baby’s milk cold.”

Robert Slone’s life in the mines was almost a parallel of his marriage. Twenty-one years as a coal miner. Twenty-one years married.

“He never talked about the mines much at home,” Ora says. “That was because he didn’t want me telling him what to do. He had only been working at Potato Branch for a few weeks. About all he’d tell me was the mine had a bad top and he wanted out.”

The Topmost mine was a small, punch mine (a descriptive coalfield word that likens the mine to a hole being “punched” out of the mountainside). These operations are small and cramped – no more than three feet high as a rule – and often more dangerous than larger mines which tend to be better supported and thus more stable. Eastern Kentucky abounds in punch mines, each of which employs a handful of men who work on their knees or even crawl in order to get to the coal.

The mine safety teams entered the mine about two hours after the explosion. Five hours later, at 9 p.m., the state police asked for eight disaster bags. It didn’t take long for the word to spread.

Days before his death, Robert Slone took his family on a shopping trip. He bought holiday gifts for everyone except his wife.

“My boy Daniel said, ‘Daddy, you didn’t get Mommy anything’, and Bobby said, “Don’t you worry. She’ll get a nice present for Christmas.”

Ora brushes her newborn’s hair.

“And I did. I sure did.”

Mrs. Slone doesn’t think the family will suffer financially.

“We’ll do all right when I get the Social Security money. They say Bobby’s got some black lung benefits coming, too.”

She cradles Robert Matthew.

“There are lots of people helping us right now. We’ll be all right.”


Josephine Slone could tell by the blackened hands that the dead man was her father.

“I couldn’t bear to look at his face. I saw his fingers – he had funny little fingers – and the wristwatch Mommy gave him for Christmas and that was all I needed.”

At 20, Josephine is the oldest of eight children. She talks this afternoon – six days after the funeral – from the sitting room of the family’s humble abode near Topmost. Only four of the six rooms are heated. The door to the outdoor toilet swings open and shut with the wind.

“I didn’t want to put Mommy through that (identifying the badly-burned body.) We were afraid any more shock would cause her to lose the baby.”

Josephine leans closer to the wood stove.

“It was Daddy’s dream that all us kids go to college. We didn’t have the money, but he insisted I enroll at Alice Lloyd (College). He was so proud of me. He kept calling me his favorite little accountant, even though he knew I was studying to be a teacher.

“Daddy never wanted any of the boys to go underground. He said he would be the last coal miner in this family.”

The other children range in ages from 11-year-old Hubert to Robert Matthew.

“April (age 4) hasn’t cried much because we told her Daddy is in heaven. Peggy Sue (2) understands, too. We had to park Daddy’s truck up in the hollow because every time she sees it she starts crying.”

Josephine says the newborn looks exactly like his father.

“He’s gonna be Daddy’s ambassador on Earth, I’ll see to that. The other kids will, too. I’m prepared to spend the next 20 years of my life seeing to it they get raised right.”

The young woman plans to sit out the next semester, figuring to resume her sophomore year in the fall.

“He never went to school past fifth grade. It’s not even a question for me to drop out. I know this is what he would want.”

Josephine Slone says her father was great with the kids.

“When he got his payday, he never kept it long. He’d go out and buy things for his boys and girls. Daddy would never hang onto money. He’d see something nice for one of the young ‘uns, and nobody in the world could stop him from bringing it home.”

Her mind goes back to the previous week when she identified the remains of her father at the Rescue Squad building.

“I try to forget, but I keep thinking of his hand and that wristwatch. The fingers looked so helpless and Mommy’s watch hung so limp. God must’ve taken him awful fast because that wasn’t the Daddy I knew.”


Family Man ‘Stuck’ Without A Job


CAPELS, W. Va. – Morgan Gibson wears a shirt that says “Superdad.”

It’s the type a younger man would buy at an arcade – colorful, a little frayed and trimmed with spangles.

The 30-year-old Gibson pooh-poohs that spangles stuff – after all, he’s as tough-minded as the next 11-year coal miner – but he strongly believes in the concept behind the word on the shirt.

“Shoot, I’d never go underground at all if it wasn’t for feeding my family. That’s my bottom line. I get sick to my stomach when I think about my three boys not having a daddy because some big rock fell on me.”

The McDowell County man hasn’t worked for more than nine months.

“I get $183 a week in unemployment. After I pay my bills, I just have two or three dollars left over. I don’t mean two or three dollars the way people talk when they’re exaggerating. I mean just that amount – two or three dollars.”

The monthly furniture bill is $77. The trailer payment is $161. Lot rent is $23. The most recent electricity bill was $54. There is also the monthly bill for the television set and money the family must set aside for prescriptions.

Gibson’s troubles began in September of last year when he hurt his knee playing football with his sons. He was laid up throughout the fall and winter. He tried to go back to work in April of this year, but it wasn’t to be.

The Maitland mine – which had 250 men on its payroll in 1981 – had trimmed its crews to 150 by the time Gibson was strong enough to return. Now, he says, there are fewer than a dozen men on the payroll.

Gibson wasn’t surprised when he got the bad news. For the previous seven years, his work schedule was increasingly erratic – ranging from a six-day week to no work for days at a time. He says Maitland worked less than 40 full days between the time he injured his knee and when he was officially laid off.

Gibson graduated from Welch High School in 1970. He rarely applied himself academically, settling for Cs when he could have sweated a bit and gotten Bs. In his dreams, he is a bookkeeper or the manager of a store or maybe a state trooper. Then he wakes up and realizes he’s just another Appalachian coal miner out of work.

The black-haired man started out as an auto mechanic. He was good with the books and in time he was managing the service station. But in 1972, Gibson fell prey to the lure of the big money he could earn underground.

“I turned into a roof bolter because I liked the guys I was working with. We could joke around and still run more coal than any other section. But I know how it could be better. That would be if I was bolting something outside with no big, old black rocks hanging over my head ready to come down.”

In good times, Gibson made more than $100 a day. But the money never went to purchase anything fancy.

“That’s because we got burned out by two different fires,” his wife Kathy says. “The first time was Christmas of 1976 when we lost the company house we were living in. We didn’t have any insurance and that really put us in a hole.

“Then in January of this year, a fire hit our kitchen and pretty well messed up the whole house. We didn’t have enough money to build it back on our own. If it wasn’t for neighbors pitching in, I don’t know what we’d have done.” Kathy and Morgan Gibson with sons Scott, Morgan Jr., and Chris

Kathy worked full-time at a Welch restaurant until earlier this year.

“I’m a diabetic and I guess I worry about things too much. Anyway, I was a manager and was putting in a lot of seven-day weeks and eventually the stress got to me. The doctor said I was killing myself and he made me quit.”

Gibson had his 1978 pickup truck repossessed last month, the second time he has lost a vehicle to the bank.

“We had been paying on it for something like five years and the balance was still $2,500,” he says. “I went to the bank and they were talking like maybe they’d refinance it so we could pay $100 a month instead of $150. I thought we had a deal, but then that repo man came.”

The family’s Pontiac is owned by a friend. Gibson pays on it as he can.

The Gibsons have no money in their checking account.

“We keep $5 in a savings account just to keep it open,” Kathy says.

The family hasn’t had a vacation in five years. A visit to the Dairy Queen is for special occasions. For entertainment, the boys (ages 6, 8 and 10) play with a tame blue jay that dances a jig on the side of the trailer.

Gibson tells a story about the neighbor who put a “For Sale” sign on his truck. The original asking price was $1,500. With a month, that price had big X marks on it until the amount was lowered to $400.

“That’s still not cheap enough to sell something around here.”

Gibson would jump at the chance to work at one of the several punch mines around Capels.

“Those kind of mines pay good money, but a lot of the operators skirt the law and that can be dangerous. It would be like asking for trouble, but I’d have to take it. I can’t make excuses to my family, and say I’m good enough to be doing something else.”

He reads the want ads in the newspaper and makes the rounds at the unemployment office, but his morale is not good.

“A lot of employers in McDowell County are just interviewing out-of-work miners just so it’ll look good. As soon as the miners leave, they throw their applications in the trash. They figure as soon as the mines go back, we’ll quit on them and they’ll be left holding the bag. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know.”

Morgan Gibson loses his hospitalization insurance in three months. His unemployment compensation expires in five months.

“People say we should pack up and move, but it’s not that easy,” he says. “Our roots are here, and we’ve got both sides of our family within a few miles.”

Gibson is a deeply religious man. Despite the hard times, he continues to give $40 monthly to the church. He refuses to cheat on his unemployment. If he makes a few dollars working on cars, he dutifully reports the earnings to the Welch office.

“I have to live with myself,” he explains.

Gibson admits he has thought long and hard about how he happened to get in a profession he doesn’t particularly care for.

“I’m stuck, that’s the only word for it. I guess I’ll be mining coal 10 years from now, that is if I can find the work.”

He hugs his wife.

“I still have my family and that’s more than a lot of people can say. We’ve had worse times. At least there’s no fire.”

Female Miner Lives For Her Children


TAZEWELL, Va. – Cosby Totten believes she is as tough as any man.

She cracked a rib and reported for work the next day. She broke a finger and didn’t lose a single hour.

The 180 pounds are stacked on her five-foot eight-inch frame in weightlifter proportions. She talks like a man and smokes like a man, gripping the cigarette hard between her fingers.

Totten is not at leisure by choice. The Tazewell County woman worked at the Bishop mine from 1976 until October of 1982 when she lost her job along with almost 500 other underground employees.

At Bishop, the 42-year-old woman set timbers and operated a shuttle car. She earned right at $100 a day, plenty of money to raise six children and even enough to take up photography.

The single mom lives for these children, who range in age from 11 to 21.

A reporter telephones, and asks if he can come by the small house on Fincastle Street for an interview. She checks first with a daughter who will be observing a birthday on that day. Totten explains that she always devotes the entire day to the child celebrating the birthday, and that child must grant approval if the time is to be interrupted. Goldie gives her OK and the interview is scheduled.

Photographs of her children dominate every wall in the living room. Some are snapshots taken when Totten could afford only an Instamatic. The later ones were taken with a more sophisticated camera she used in better financial times.

These are not good financial times. Moreover, the stocky blonde – one of nine women she says was on the payroll when Bishop shut down – believes the heyday of female coal miners has passed.

“I don’t think most companies will be too anxious to call women back,” she says. “If they can find a way out of it, that’s what they’re gonna do. Men will get every advantage.”

Nationwide, some 3,700 women have worked in coal mines since 1973. Only about half of them are still working, according to statistics presented at the Fifth National Conference of Women Miners in Dawson, Pa., in June of 1983, which Totten attended.

In 1980, she was one of three miners – and the only woman – to tour strip and underground operations in China. Closer to home, she was on the mine safety committee at the Bishop mine. She also was instrumental in convincing mine owners to put a chain across the door leading to the womens’ shower.

“After work one night, this guy came in on us while we were taking a bath. The very next day I started out trying to do something about it. Nothing happened overnight, but eventually we got our chain. If you don’t complain, then you’re just asking for things to get worse.”

Totten does not like to react to trouble by filing a complaint. She prefers to stay ahead of the game.

“There used to be this habit at Bishop that the men would initiate new miners by giving them a paddling. I found out this was against the law and threated to turn them in. If they ever tried to paddle me, they’d have to call the rescue squad first. I would’ve killed somebody.”

Totten was raised on a farm. She says from the very beginning she could toss bales of hay as good as any man.

“I went in the mines a long time before I ever got hired at Bishop. My ex-husband was in the business of selling timbers to operators, and I used to help him unload the truck.

“Put it this way. If an average man can pick something up and move it, I can pick it up and move it.”

She graduated from Tazewell High School in 1959.

“That was right after those two killer explosions at Bishop. I remember telling myself after all those people died, that’s the absolute last place I’d ever work.”

She grins.

“Then lo and behold there I was 17 years later, shoveling belt and putting up timbers.”

Before Totten hooked on at Bishop, she worked at a furniture store in Bluefield. Previous jobs since her divorce in 1977 were for minimum wage.

“The man reason I went to the mines was for the paydays. I think that’s the reason most people are there. But compared to other jobs I’ve had, I like coal mining best of all. There’s something different every day, and I never have a boss looking over my shoulder every minute.

“That’s one reason I wouldn’t be interested in working on any of these jobs projects going around. The supervisor is right on top of you, and all you’re doing is picking weeds or something like that. There’s no learning in a situation like that. I’d like a job that would help me improve myself, like nursing.”

It wasn’t easy for her to get hired at Bishop in the first place.

“They turned me down after I took my physical. I don’t exactly remember what they said was wrong with me, but it was a big old word.

“Well, that got me worried. I went to doctors at three different places and they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. Turns out the mine brass were just giving me the runaround. It took me three months of complaining, but I finally got my job.”

Totten pooh-poohs the possibility of going out with one of her co-workers.

“I don’t date nobody, and I won’t until at least after the kids get grown. My children are first and foremost to me.”

Cosby Totten does not try to hide her feminist leanings.

“A woman has to be more capable than a man if she wants to work in a coal mine. When a man is there long enough to earn his black hit, there’s not much more expected of him. But a woman has to prove herself every day no matter what color hat she wears. The pressure is always on.”

She looks at the photographs on the wall.

“I hoped to have enough money for a darkroom, but that’s gone. People say I ought to get bus tickets for us all and move away from here. Well, that’s fine, but I don’t know of any place that’s better. You don’t leave something for nothing.”

Laid-Off Cop Patrols For No Pay


GARY, W. Va. – Tom Anderson, Jr., is a volunteer.

Not the kind who gives blood every other month.

And not the kind who wears a cheery red outfit and works a few hours a week at the local hospital.

Anderson volunteers by carrying a gun, driving a vintage cruiser and keeping the peace in a community he says is growing more lawless every day.

The 37-year-old Anderson – along with three other former officers – work without pay. He does his own repair work on the police car that has 133,000 miles on it. He buys his own uniforms. Often he uses his personal vehicle for investigations.

Yet he has remained on the job as a volunteer since April 15 of this year, performing for free the same duties that normally earned him $650 a month.

“I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” Anderson says. “The mayor here (Charles Hodge) gave me my chance and I’m not gonna let him down. I’ll give the job all I’ve got, just like when I was getting paid. Maybe if things get better, I can get back to being on salary. That’s my hope.”

Gary’s story is a sad one. West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, around 10 percent. McDowell County (35 percent) has the highest jobless percentage of any county in the state. The Town of Gary has the highest rate – an estimated 90 percent – of any state municipality.

The hard times came earlier this year when U.S. Steel closed its five mining operations and preparation plant because of a drop in the coal market. Months later, there is no good news in sight for the 3,500 people who live in these mountains.

“I’d give my eyeteeth to see a real honest-to-goodness paycheck,” Anderson says. “I wouldn’t even complain when they take out the taxes.”

The son of Gary’s police chief is not what you could call a lucky man.

“I tried to get on with the state police a few years ago. At that time, you had to have perfect vision and I didn’t. Well, now they’ve relaxed their standards, but I’m too old to apply.”

He says the only other law enforcement person in town other than his father, Tom Sr., is Jackie Vernon.

“I’m the second oldest man on the force so technically I could have kept my job. But Johnny (McCarty, one of the other volunteer policemen) and I worked for U.S. Steel, so we knew we could get unemployment benefits. We figured we could stand being laid off better than some of the other guys so we volunteered to be cut. Mr. Hodge accepted that and asked us to volunteer our time.”

Recently, patrolmen George Rash and Rick Lambert got the axe. They too work for free.

Tom Anderson, Jr., says the crime rate has been soaring.

“There have been an awful lot of break-ins and things like that in Gary during the past few months. If the town didn’t have us volunteers, things would really be bad.”

He admits there are times when he isn’t sure he wants to donate his time.

“It’s not easy to arrest somebody when they know you are being paid to do it. You get even more lip when a drunk or a speeder knows you are doing the job out of the goodness of your heart.

“And there are those who think the four of us are somehow getting paid under the table. I had a lot of trouble with the unemployment office in Welch. They even sent an investigator down from Charleston to make sure I wasn’t being paid for being a policemen. It took me three months to get my benefits.”

The younger Anderson worked as a mechanic for U.S. Steel for 17 years. He joined the Gary force in 1978, and until the April layoffs sometimes worked 16 hours a day at both jobs.

“I figure I drive my car 300 miles a week looking for work both in the mines and as a policeman. There just isn’t any job to be found. I hear they’re begging for officers in Miami (Florida). I’d hate to go all the way down there, but a man needs to work.”

Gary has turned off its street lights, and the Town Hall is closed on Fridays as an economy move. There were six street department employees. Now there are two. There were five workers in the water and sewage department. Now there are two.

“I need three more years at U.S. Steel to get a pension,” Anderson says. “I figure when I’m 55 I’ll have it made. My problem is what to do until then.”

Coal Truckers Feeling Money Crunch


WHITEWOOD, Va. – Full-to-the-brim coal trucks roar by Fuller’s Dairy Bar here like trains at a crowded station.

The only difference is there are no passenger stops for these truckers who must hustle – both to set up coal hauls and then on the run itself – for economic survival.

Coal trucks are plentiful around this Buchanan County mining community. If one front yard doesn’t have a shiny truck, then the nearest neighbor is likely to have a pair. It’s finding coal to haul that’s the reason for the hustle.

Some of the trucks rolling in front of the Dairy Bar are driven by men working for big-timers like Lonzo Presley and Claude Keen, who between them have almost three dozen rigs.

But many drivers are independents. They own their own trucks, and can depend on no one else to make the payments or even change a tire.

A new truck costs around $100,000. Banks like to have a down payment of at least one-third of the purchase price. Monthly payments on a coal truck often run $2,000 or more, about the same cost of a year’s worth of insurance that is required for bank financing.

Few haulers around these parts work five days a week. To ensure a job, many have agreed to cut as much as 25 percent off their customary hauling charge. In other words, a trucker will get behind the wheel for $1.50 a ton instead of $2.

Nationwide, an estimated 50,000 coal miners are out of work. It’s harder to estimate the number of coal truckers who are staying home. One fact is certain. An unemployment check – jobless Old Dominion miners get around $138 a week – will not pay an installment note on a rig.


J.C. Horne currently owns two coal trucks. This day, one of his sons landed a hauling job in Hurley, Va., with one truck. The other rig – the one Horne bought for the bargain-basement price is $9,000 and repaired himself – is in his side yard. He’s been hospitalized with blood clots off and on during the past year, and is still waiting for the doctor’s OK to return to driving.

“That over there is what’s been beating us,” Horne says as he points to the railroad tracks behind the Dairy Bar. “The rail rates for coal have come down in West Virginia and Kentucky, but not in Virginia. Our coal isn’t competitive, and that’s why there aren’t any trucking jobs.”

Eastern Kentucky coal is underselling Virginia coal by $1 a ton, while transportation rates for Mountain State coal are $2 cheaper than those for the Virginia product.

It follows that coal production in Virginia for the first 34 weeks of 1983 is down nearly 24 percent from the year before. Coal exports at the Hampton Roads port have fallen by 41 percent.

“Bankruptcies are up and I know a lot of guys who have taken to drinking,” Horne says. “They can’t make their payments on their trucks, so they hit the bottle.”

Still, Horne says he would like to own 100 trucks – provided, of course, business is good.

“My big truck can haul something like 30 tons. Let’s say you can get two bucks a ton, and you make 10 or 12 loads every working day. Even after I pay taxes and pay the driver, I stand to make $10,000 a month with that truck.”

Horne says he has the bank account right now to augment his stable of coal trucks.

“I’m just waiting for the right time, that’s all.”

A coal truck rumbles past the drive-in restaurant, its payload rattling against the sideboards.

“The old boy driving that truck is like most who run around here – he’s overloaded,” Horne says. “The law is here every week and they check pretty close.”

Big smile.

“But the coal truckers have a friend over in Grundy in Judge Pat Hale. An overloaded truck is supposed to get fined $250 the first time, $500 the second and $1,000 the third. Judge Hale usually suspends the fine and just makes the guy pay court costs. That comes out to something like $18.

“Now if Judge Hale catches you stealing, he’ll send you to jail almost faster than if you killed somebody. But he’s a true friend of the working-class coal hauler.”

Horne says it’s the rare trucker in the Whitewood area who works more than two or three days a week. He knows at least one driver who hauls construction debris in his rig – risking major damage to the bed – just to earn a few bucks.

“An awful lot of men around here are doing a lot more hunting and fishing than they care to be doing.”

Horne is an expert truck mechanic. He says he has to be.

“No way a coal hauler can make it if he has to take his rig by the shop, and let it sit there a couple of days while he pays somebody $25 an hour to work on it. You do it yourself or you die on the vine.”

J.C. Horne says only one of the seven Jewell Ridge mines on the Whitewood side of the mountain is operating. The only reason that mine is open, he explains, is because the truckers agreed to take a quarter cut in pay per ton.

“A lot of the younger drivers are knocking the price down. Some of ‘em bought big trucks without knowing the full picture. They get desperate to feed their families, so they agree to run coal for less. When that happens, it makes it rough for everybody. You’ve got to get so much per ton just to keep your truck on the road.”


Kirby Cole prides himself on his easy-going ways. The man is quick to grin and slow to cuss. Before his dog Galley died, Cole was known as the only coal trucker around Whitewood who had a pet that liked to ride atop a 30-ton load of coal.

He once owned 16 coal trucks. Not any more.

“I sold the last one just a few days ago, and I’m out from under all that headache. I wouldn’t take a fleet of coal trucks now if you gave them to me.

“The taxes can kill you and, if they don’t, figuring up all that workman’s compensation will. On top of that, you’ve got a lot of drivers who don’t care if they make you any money or not.”

Horne, his coffee buddy this day at the Dairy Bar, says he’ll accept the offer of a free fleet and take a stick to any driver who won’t do his bidding.

In the old days, Cole and others swapped coal trucks almost as freely as young boys trade pocketknives. Cole was once big-time enough to waltz in a Richlands, Va., truck lot with not even pocket change and ride out with a $60,000 Mack.

“I guess they figured I was good for the down payment, he says, smiling. “But that was back when coal trucks don’t cost what they do now. I still truck, but I don’t truck coal.”

Cole makes a living these days hauling mine equipment. Earlier this summer, he worked six days a week, but the rides have dried up and he spends more and more time sitting inside the Dairy Bar.

Cole knows a few truckers who, in desperation, agree to drive long distances on the open road for five or six dollars a ton.

“I know a job last summer that had coal haulers going all the way from Haysi in Virginia to Iaeger in West Virginia. It was so hot you could almost see the tread burn off their tires. I’d be amazed if those boys got four months wear out of those tires. And we’re talking four hundred bucks to replace one.”

Kirby Cole says he recently took out a loan of $60,000 to consolidate his debts.

“When I pay that off, I’m done with the coal-hauling business once and for all.”

He Offers Free Clinic For Jobless Miners


MULLENS, W. Va. – Dr. Michael Witt tolerates tradition enough to own the familiar black bag.

But put the satchel aside, and the 28-year-old physician is about as unconventional as they come in his chosen profession.

  • The guy makes house calls – in a four-wheel-drive truck, no less.
  • He lives in a house trailer, pronouncing its cramped quarters plenty ritzy for his needs.
  • He offers a free clinic in his office four hours a week, administering tests and medications at no charge to unemployed coal miners who have lost their health benefits.

The youngest physician in town works in tandem in this latter respect with Dr. Anthony Flaim of Oceana, who offers a similar free clinic for jobless miners in and around that Wyoming County town. The doctors are close friends, and recent graduates of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg.

“Everyone wants to know what the catch is,” Dr. Witt says. “The truth is there isn’t any. We know there are a lot of people around here who are hurting financially. When they get short of money, health care is the first thing to suffer. We wanted to do something about that.”

He can expect around a dozen patients to come between 4 and 8 p.m. on Thursdays when the Mullens free clinic is offered.

“Frankly, the response hasn’t been as great as we thought. A lot of miners are too proud to visit us under those circumstances. They would rather suffer than take something for free. We do a little better with their wives and kids. There doesn’t seem to be that same reluctance with them.”

Dr. Witt is two years out of medical school. He has around 1,500 patients, but the expense of paying off his education continues to dominate his cash flow.

“It is true that Tony and I are hoping some of the patients we’re seeing on a free basis will become paying patients when the economy improves. But I can’t be optimistic. Longtime coal miners are telling me these are the worst times they’ve ever seen.”

A portion of the medicine Dr. Witt administers at this time is free samples from drug companies, but well over half comes from the inventory he maintains for his paying customers.

“It isn’t unusual for a guy to come in on a Thursday night and cost us well over a hundred bucks in tests and medicine. We just absorb the expense as best we can. We don’t hold anything back. If he needs an EKG, we administer one. The most typical things I see involve back injuries or upper respiratory infections.”

(Of some help is the Wyoming County Miners Fund that donates money to defray some of the costs of lab work.)

“We don’t want to impose a lot of rules, but we like for our free clinic patients to be from Wyoming County. If we don’t know them, we might ask for some ID that proves they’re unemployment and without benefits. This could take the form of a miner’s card or a letter from the union.”

No member of Dr. Witt’s immediate family ever worked in a coal mine. His father Joseph once operated a bulk storage plant in Mullens, but now serves as his son’s business manager.

“The United Mine Workers doesn’t subsidize what we do,” he says. “I don’t go around waving the banner of the union or anything like that. I’m just trying to fulfill a need.”

The tall, black-haired man grew up in Mullens. His undergraduate degree from West Virginia University was in veterinary science. He had a year of post-graduate work at Marshall University before enrolling at the Lewisburg school.

“Some people would say there’s not a lot of status to work in a coal town, but I didn’t get into medicine for the status.”

The only other free clinic he knows of is in Beckley.

“I hear they’re having problems over there. Some doctors were gung-ho for the extra hours when it first started, but now they’re starting to drop out of the program.”

He has heard no complaints from more established doctors in the county.

“How could anybody who calls himself a physician complain about the free clinic? Doctors are supposed to help people the best way they can. I’m just trying to do my part.”

Dr. Michael Witt’s passion is raising quarter horses. A short-term problem for the young doctor would be affording the hay, much less the horse. A long-term problem will be finding level grazing land around Mullens.

“I figure the horse stuff is a long way down the road. It sounds corny, but the most important thing for me now is to help the people who need help. I hope my schedule never gets too full for that.”

© 2014 Garret Mathews

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