Edwin Marshall, Retired Heavy Equipment Operator; Beckley, West Virginia:
“I have lived here all my life. I was born here. When I growed up in Beckley, we lived down next to the coal camp in Sprag. I went to school with the kids from the coal camp. We lived outside the coal camp, but still yet it was all in the same family you might say.
We’d go down to the company store, and the kids would come to school with scrip and their scrip was worth maybe three cents where ours was a nickel. They would switch so they could get some candy or something to drink because everybody when they went to the company store at noon always got an RC and a Moon Pie. That was the most popular thing going at that time.
The kids, they’d come to school of morning and they’d have to crawl underneath the railroad cars down there. The girls they’d come all dressed up, but when they got to school their feet would be black. And the kid’s shoes would be black and then some of them would just come barefooted. We all was in the same boat.
That was during the war and through the depression and we gathered silk pods. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘em or not. But it’s a pod on a weed. It looks like a cucumber and it’s about that long, but the inside of it when it dries they made silk out of it. They used to make parachutes out of it. That’s one thing we did. Then, they had war bonds going on and at that time we was gathering newspapers and things like that in school for the war and defense bonds was a very popular thing. We’d come in there with maybe a nickel or a dime, and we’d just keep on bringing and donating it and they’d keep a record of it and after you’d donated so much, you got a twenty-five dollar war bond.
My principal down there at that time in school, he’d bring a couple bushel of apples and bring them to the door and when the kids come in from dinner from playing in the yard, why he’d give everybody an apple. They was big apples. That was a fun thing. We never missed no school. Very seldom did we miss school from the time it opened in September till May. Even through the winter months, we didn’t have school buses. You walked to school. You waded the snow and everything. The only holidays you got was for Christmas and that was about a week I guess, through Christmas and New Year’s. While you was in school in the spring of the year, why they had a picnic. They took everybody up in the woods somewhere. They had a place they’d picked out where you could go play ball and things like that. That was a fun day.
The best thing I can describe as a coal camp all the houses were the same. They was all gray. The man of the family had to work in the mines. If he messed up, they put him out and put him out of the coal camp. That was a novelty or something when your dad worked in the mines there at Sprag, well then you had a house. They got paid in scrip, and their scrip was acceptable at the company store. The company store sold everything that a person at that time could want. And you paid by scrip but if you changed it to dollars the dollars was worth more than the scrip was. Scrip was a company coin that they printed their own, just like Sprag, I think it fell under New River Coal Company and it’s just like Skeleton fell under New River and Cranberry fell under New River. Most of the places around here fell under New River Coal Company. They are the ones that made the scrip. So that’s how they got paid. On Friday nights well, everybody went to Beckley. And at that time in Beckley you couldn’t elbow your way through town on Friday and Saturday night because everybody knew everybody. And when you went to town you fell into somebody that you knew and next thing you know somebody else you knew and before you know you had a crowd. At that time, there was preachers around and they would stand up on the tables there in Beckley and preach. You could always find a preacher there all the way around the courthouse.
[When I got out of school] I joined the Navy. I was in there for three and one-half years in 1954 during Korea. I was aboard a supply ship and we left in April of 1955, I believe it was. We went to Europe, we stayed over there for six, seven months and we come back and when we went back they changed our home port from Norfolk, Virginia to Barcelona, Spain. I spent the whole time over in Europe, over in the Mediterranean. Then I returned and was discharged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was a boiler tender. I worked in the engine room. It was a very hot job, very hot. But it was a good job.
I come back to the mountains, come back to Beckley. I went to work for Foley Brother’s Construction Company making a dollar an hour. I was a laborer. After I done that, well then, I went to work for Petron Tosley’s, the station we built. We built all of the Sunoco stations in Beckley, and Ramey’s Amoco there on Third Avenue. When that was, I went to work for Oscar Vesillio. He was a big contractor here in Beckley. I worked for him for about six or seven years and then I left here because the work was down and I went to Maryland.
I got married and my wife and I moved to Maryland with our little boy. We stayed up there seventeen years. I wasn’t [homesick]. I don’t think I ever got homesick unless when I was in the Navy and I was going across the ocean. It took us twenty-one days to leave Norfolk to get to Gibraltar. When you are out there on that ocean you’d wake up and feel like you was still in the same place because all you could see was water.
I like to watch the sun come up and the sun go down. I had many, many opportunities to go into the coal mines. That was always my excuse. I like to watch the sun come up and the sun go down. I’ve worked around the mines, all the mines around here. I worked down Sprag, Tames and Infinity and for Console. I’ve worked around all the mines around where when I was working for Oscar Vesillio. It was all outside construction. We faced up for new mines. Once we got them done we moved to another one and opened it. That’s just the type of work I did.
In 1976, things got bad up in Washington. I worked up around the Capitol and the metro system up there I worked on it. I worked on 495 when they first built it and 695 around Baltimore. Things got slack up there and I just up and come down here looking for a job and I found one.
I traveled between Beckley and Baltimore. We lived thirty miles north of Baltimore, a place called Abingdon, Maryland, between the Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal. I traveled that road for nine months, every weekend. I’d leave here in Beckley and go home to my family and leave on Sunday and drive back. Because we was trying to sell our house up there and the whole time I was looking for a place down here. I didn’t look serious because of the way the market was up there. But then when we did sell in April of 1966, well then [my wife] called me up and told me you’ve got to find a house, we have to be out of this house in three weeks.
I’d been watching a house that had been on a market, so I went up and checked with them and I gave them a five hundred deposit on it. I bought the house sight unseen for my wife and them. We loaded up and moved down here, they’d never seen the house. That morning when we settled up at the Beckley Federal Bank in Beckley, I took them over to the house and they went through the house and they liked it. It wouldn’t have done them any good not to like it.
My daughter and my son, the two oldest ones said, ‘Dad, where’s the dishwasher at?’ I said, We’ve got a GE.’ And she said, ‘Where’s it at, I don’t see it?’ I says, ‘You and Eddie, Ginger is a G and Eddie is an E, and that’s my GE.’ So they frowned on that, but we got through that situation for a while.
My wife, she done ceramics and she wanted a dishwasher so she challenged me. She says, ‘I’ve got my money, where’s yours?’ So I had to come up with some money too, to help buy the dishwasher. We accomplished that little task and we got the dishwasher, and everybody was happy.
I used to go fishing all the time and that was my favorite thing, but my wife, she’s got arthritis real bad in her ankles. She don’t have no ankle bone, she has to wear a brace on her ankle all the time so that pretty much takes up all my time. I have to put her brace on her every day and help her with that. We went to the University of West Virginia and they told us there wasn’t nothing they could do for her, they can’t replace ankle bones. So that’s just something we live with.
(What makes this place special?) You know that’s a good question about living here. Either you’re up or down. It’s just something that grows on ya. If you live here, when you go out in Virginia out toward Maryland and places like that, it’s all flatland. All you can see on both sides of the road is trees and everything. But here, you can crawl up on the mountains and you can see for miles. It’s just something about the people. Everybody around here is just mountain people. That’s the only way I know to describe it.
(Why are mountain people special?) Their personality, well they are good people. They’re all friendly, they’ll talk but you don’t interfere with their business. I found that out many moons ago, you speak to people, but you don’t go nosing around about their business. You just leave that part alone. You just talk about things in general.
Just like back in the days when they moonshined. If you come upon someone’s still, well you talked to ‘em and they figured you out and you just went on and you just kept your mouth shut. Just like the three monkeys, hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.
I do consider myself a hillbilly because I have lived here, except for the time in Maryland, for seventy-eight years. I was born in the house [where] my mother, she dropped me. This will be a funny thing, but she went to the bathroom and her water broke and that’s where she dropped me, right there in the john. All my sisters at that time was older, they told mother when they found out I was a boy, to flush me. They said, ‘flush him, we don’t want him.’ And I was a thorn in their side ever since.
I can remember things here in Beckley back when they had that polio, that they didn’t allow children in town. My mother got sick or I believe it was my Dad got sick and they needed some medicine for him and her brother was a pharmacist up in the front of the courthouse in Beckley. He had the medicine and nobody could go after it except me. I went up the back way; you didn’t walk up the street, you had to go through people’s back yards and through the bushes and stay hid.
I met my Uncle Lacy up there on Hieber Street up there beside the bank. He gave me the medicine and he said, ‘you run on home.’ I took the medicine on home to them.
I knew people that had polio, and it was a terrible thing. Through time you forget about those things. There was another time it was bad, it was just like they had an epidemic of ringworms back in the forties and they wouldn’t let the kids in the theaters then. Because they’d lay their head on the back of the seats and then you’d go in and lay your head on the back of the seat and the next thing you knew you had ringworm and you’d lost all your hair.
You know, I’ve had a happy life all of my life. I have been in the valleys and I’ve been in the mountains. I guess the worst times I’ve had was my parents died. Both my parents were killed in car wrecks at different times. My dad he got killed in a car wreck in 1966 on Thursday before Father’s Day. My mother was in a car wreck in 1979 on Thursday before Father’s Day. They both was buried on Father’s Day. It was a peculiar thing. That was the two biggest tragedies”.