Dr. Ernest J. Benko, Retired, Now Works With ARC TV, Doctor in Business Administration, Norton-Wise County, Virginia:
"I went to military school for seven years. I’ve got dyslexia, I see everything backwards and that’s the reason they sent me to military school. Then I came back and went to Clinch Valley College, University of Virginia at Wise, Union College and Cumberland College and ETSU and King University, worked in the coal mines, worked for Clinchfield Coal Company, had my own coal mines mining property, worked for Barge Waggoner Summer and Cannon, largest engineering company in the state of Tennessee. I was Vice-President of the Strip Division of Clinchfield. Clinchfield at the time employed over three thousand people and mined over eighteen million tons of coal, about thirty years ago. Then I worked for Gulf Oil, I was an expert in explosives for Gulf Oil. I traveled all over the mid-south.
People had to work together to survive in the mines. It didn’t make any difference what color you were, or what nationality you were. It doesn’t make any difference in the mines; you are all brothers under that ground if you want to survive.
Pocahontas was the first major mine in this end of Virginia that was in the 1880’s. The first major railroad went to Pocahontas in 1881, is my understanding. They had something like 27 different churches in Pocahontas because they would get people right off the boat and bring them in to work in the mines. Bringing all those nationalities together has cemented the culture as much as anything.
But also, a lot of people here are real suspicious. They want to look back to make sure who they are talking to because, for lack of a better term, there’s been a whole lot of carpet baggers here. They come in and they take what we have, our strength, our energy.
In this general area, the Central Appalachian Mountains, we have over two hundred idiosyncrasies that are found no place else in the world except right here. We’ve got more different kind of vegetation here than any place else in the world, with the possible exception of Amazon River Basin.
Our history here goes back to the 1500s and then Daniel Boone lived in the next county over. Colonel Russell and Daniel Boone were going to have the first settlement in Kentucky and Daniel Boone’s son, James, was killed along with Colonel Russell’ son, Henry. Colonel Russell’s son’s mother was Patrick Henry’s sister. And you go on and on, on what a significant impact people coming through here have had. And of course Daniel Boone led the first, mainly, group of people through the Cumberland Gap 240 years ago.
But also, we have two of the oldest rivers in the world in our backyard here. The oldest river is the Nile, the second is the New River, and the third, as far as we know is the Clinch River. It’s got over 100 kinds of fish in it, and something like 47 different kinds of shellfish.
One side of the Clinch is 400 million years old, that’s the limestone. The other side, where it is coal, is 300 million years old. You lost 100 million years in that river. Right over here going to Jenkins that’s one of the biggest faults that you can see anywhere this side of the Mississippi. You can go through there on the weekends, particularly during the school year and find people looking all over at that fault going through there. That’s the upper thrust. And then the coal, there is so many different seams that we have, depending on what community you’re in, they have different names for the same seam, basically. But down in Appalachia, they got the Kelly and Imboden seam and it’s at the top of the mountain. In Jenkins it is way below the ground. But that is the result of the fault.
Music is vitally important to us and it depends on [the] operational definition of what one calls mountain music, bluegrass, etc. Of course the Birthplace of Country Music is Bristol, and most the people that they had over at the Bristol Sessions are from this general area. Fortunately, we still have the Carter Fold going strong.
Another thing that is kinda interesting is most of the people that died at the Alamo were from this area and there [are] some Stanley’s in Texas, and they feel like they are certain that they are related to Ralph. I think the Tex-Mex music actually is kind of a division of our people from here, because our people took our music from here and then they mixed it down there.
Sam Houston is a Virginian. There is a Wise County, Texas too, named after our Governor, Wise, because he supported Texas. Sam Houston, he’s a Virginian. He was from Virginia, he went to Tennessee and went through a messy divorce or separation or something, and said the hell with Tennessee, and then went on to Texas, and he was an emperor down there for a while and then he was the first Governor, and he was a good old Virginia boy.
John Sevier was one of the leaders at Sycamore Shoals, Elizabethton, Tennessee, and the first real victory of the Revolutionary War was people from this area. They met at the muster ground in Abingdon, [Virginia] went on to Sycamore Shoals down in Tennessee, and then defeated the British in King’s Mountain. Then he [Sevier] was the first and only Governor, [of the] State of Franklin and then he was the first Governor of Tennessee.
We’re developing ghost towns through the Appalachia Mountains. The Federal Government, particularly the EPA, is putting all these people out of work and shutting down the mining industry. And all they need to do is get like Virginia Tech or University of Kentucky or University of West Virginia and put some money in research on how to make it cleaner. People say, ‘oh well, we can’t that, we can’t do this.’ Well, if you don’t do it, you can’t do it that’s for sure.
The Germans ran WWII on petroleum made from coal, and that’s over 70 years ago. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t get our act together to make clean coal? And furthermore, just like the power plant they put over at St. Paul, they’re going to have approximately two million tons of ash. They are not real sure what to do with it, but you can take that ash and mix it with certain chemicals, salt and other chemicals, put electrodes in that, get the heavy metals out and you can almost use it for any building material. Then you can also sell the heavy metals. We’ve got everything to work with, its just getting people that are in the politics off their butt to do something."