Garnett Gilliam

Garnett Gilliam, Local Historian and Collector; Big Stone Gap, Virginia:

“I was born in Big Stone Gap (Virginia) and I grew up across the river since I was age 11. Then, we moved down to one area called, Frog Level. I used to walk to school. When I came out from the side street, here come some boys and girls up from the street below us. By the time we got to school, which was a mile away, we (were), 30-40 people, all of us walking at the same time up this street. There was no library, there were no houses down here, this is where we would sleigh ride. You’d have hundreds of kids up here sleigh-riding off the hill, running into each other. And we had a big old oak tree over here that blew down when we had a tornado hit this area not too many years ago. But in the process, this oak tree, we used to take tires and build us a big ol’ bonfire every winter. Now today, I don’t know where kids go to sleigh ride, I don’t know if they even sleigh ride. But that was just one instance of what we did here. 

It’s a good, little town. You didn’t lock your doors. You didn’t have to around here years ago. It’s not like it is now. We had competition in our stores. We’ve got one grocery store today here in town. We are kind of like Cumberland, Benham and Lynch (Kentucky). We’re dying. This last layoff of coal miners is killing this area. Now, I don’t know what we’re going to do. 

The history of the whole area is fascinating. You go back to the mid-‘50s, the coal industry took a nosedive and they closed the mines. When they opened the mines up, they opened them up with machinery, or the mine company didn’t reopen them at all. Now, we’re going through the same thing again. This time, the last couple of years, people closed up their mines left and right. I saw in the paper just the other day 1800 from up in the West Virginia area (were laid off). One mine from the same company is going to close up here in Wise (County). We’re going through about the same thing, but in the mid-‘50s people could leave here and go to the cities and get jobs. They can’t get jobs now. So they’re staying here, unemployed, welfare and stuff like that. Like I say, it’s just not a good situation. 

A lot of people grow up and they don’t get involved. People used to read a lot. The old-timers still read a lot. What do kids do today? Play games, texting and all that stuff. They’re losing out. Their parents and grandparents don’t bring them around to a lot of stuff that’s going on, like history and local books and stuff. They’re losing out. 

People need to know where they’re from. I think they need to know about conditions growing up. I was born in 1935, Depression baby right there. I have brothers and I’m the youngest one in the family.

If you take Southwest Virginia, East and Northeast Tennessee part of Kentucky and North Carolina, you’re in what we call The State of Franklin. And we are the purest Anglo-Saxon speaking people in the United States, with our accent and everything else. And people who are good on language and so forth, when you start speaking, they can pretty well tell where you’re from. We don’t speak the way they do in Northern Virginia or Eastern Virginia and certain other areas. 

I’m 80 years old, and I’ve had a good life. Got three daughters, they’re scattered all over the United States. That’s the bad thing about growing up in small towns, since they’re dying the way they are, the young people have to leave to find jobs. They come back to visit, but they won’t come back to stay. And you can’t blame them".