“There always seems to be a sense of gloom or despair that hangs in the air when you look at the economic situation, and I think that’s dampened some really proud moments. I graduated with a Geology Degree, and I graduated about the time the coal industry really took its hit. That’s one of the reasons why I got an Education Degree. It seems like the happy is mixed with the sad around here.”
Aaron Owens, High School Teacher; Princeton, West Virginia:
“I’ve lived in Mercer County, well in Princeton, my entire life. My Grandfather worked for the coalmines, had a business running house coal from place to place. My Dad’s a mining engineer. We’ve got mining in our family going all the way back to just after the Civil War. My family’s lived in the Appalachian Mountains since right around mid to early 1800’s, some going back into the 1700’s, so we’ve been here a long time.
I still see my grandmother quite a bit. Because I have summers off, I go out to eat with her every Wednesday, and see her at church. One of my grandfathers died when I was real young, then the other one died when I was in middle school so I didn’t really know them as well as I would have liked to have. But, I’ve spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I like listening to some of the stories that they’ll tell about when they were growing up. My grandmother, one of her favorite stories is of when she was growing up. She says that they used to take a pig bladder and inflate it and use it as a ball.
[My grandfathers] did leave a legacy; you have to work hard to get ahead. I’ve always been taught to respect my elders, and to value your family, and to not do anything that would be embarrassing to them or my parents. I don’t think you could stress working hard enough. That’s something that’s really important, especially in my family, and in most families around here. Treat people with respect. Be honest. Just general things that I think have made America great over the years.
I live on a road named after a creek. It’s the Twelve Mile Road, named after the Twelve Mile Creek. Well when they put in the train tunnel they actually drained the creek so the Twelve Mile Creek doesn’t exist anymore. [My grandparents would tell] stories about the coalfields, how people lived when they lived back in some of those hollers. Like I said, my family’s lived within this area for hundreds of years, so we’ve got a lot of ties to this area.
I haven’t really lived through any real hard times, but I’m not that old. I’m twenty-four. But a sad aspect of my life has been the fact that my grandfather was the only one of four of his siblings to stay in this area, so a lot of my cousins on that side of my family are gone; they’re in Tennessee and D.C., and places like that. A lot of that is because of the economic situation in this region. On the other side of the family, they’re real close. A sad part of my life is not being really able to get as close to those parts of my family as I would have liked to have.
I went to Princeton High School, graduated in 2009. I was in the marching band. I was always into the country boy stuff. I wore cowboy hats and stuff like that. I started [Civil War] re-enacting as soon as I graduated high school because I had researched my family’s history and found out I had an ancestor who fought for the 47th Virginia Infantry. I found out now that I’ve got about five or six guys who fought for the Confederate Army. I’ve been re-enacting for about six years, and that’s pretty much what I do in my free time. I live on a small farm. We have beef cows. Most of us work, and kind of try to make things go. (Laughs)
My mother is an accountant and my father was a mining engineer. They both worked very hard. They’re still together [which is] becoming an increasingly rare thing amongst my friends. They both went to church throughout my entire life. Dad worked hard, but because of their education they didn’t have to work on Sunday so we went to church together. I’ve been going to church since I was a week old, so I grew up in a very Christian family.
My mother’s real easygoing. She’s got a personality like myself. She’s fulfilled a lot of what you would consider the traditional role, the roles of a mother in a household. But in a lot of ways because she was working, [she] spent a lot of time outside of the house.
My father, he’s a pretty ambitious guy. He’s always trying to improve our property, or do something different. We’re working on getting our orchard trees up and running. That’s kind of the big project he’s working on right now. His whole philosophy in life has been work hard and work harder. That’s just what he does. Living here around Princeton, there’s not a lot of higher level, good-paying jobs. I drive forty-five minutes to work, and he’s been driving forty-five. He drives from here to Charleston every day right now, because the economy’s taking a really bad hit, especially in the coal industry.
I’ve studied history, and one of the unique parts about Appalachian culture in this area is we’re fiercely independent. We value our privacy. We value working hard and having something. It’s always been pretty much driven into me that you have to go out and you have to make a living for yourself.
I think people think we’re backwards. They conjure up this image of dueling banjos and walking around barefoot. Don’t get me wrong, I play a banjo, and I walk around barefoot a lot, but my house has electricity. We did tear down the outhouse from the farm about two years ago. (Laughs) We’ve had running water our entire life. It really doesn’t bother me because I’m a pretty easygoing person, but you know, I think [the stereotypes] have been used to exploit this region. I think they’ve used it as a justification; ‘Well those people are just backwards. They don’t know what they’ve got. Let’s take what resources we can from them, then roll over their rights as soon as we get a chance.’
Those of us here in Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, we do cling to tradition, but at the same time, we’re not backwards. We’re the same as people everywhere else in the world. We wake up in the morning. We try to put food on the table. We value our lives. We value what we have, and we just try to make our way in the world about as best as we can.
We live in a harsh environment. There’s a lot of wildlife and stuff here, even now, that can kill you. A lot of us work dangerous jobs. I’m the first Owens in a hundred and fifty years that hasn’t worked for the coal industry in some fashion, and probably won’t. I don’t know, I’ve got a geology degree, I might. But, working hard and making a living for yourself and providing for your family, that’s culturally important here. We have very strong family ties. I grew up on the same road my grandmother grew up on. We’ve got cousins on both sides of that road, basically, for the whole length of it. We grew up around those people that we were related to. Having a lot of respect for your family, and having respect for tradition was always a very important thing to us.
I love it here. I’ve lived here my whole life. I like Appalachian culture, old timey music, and the fact that I’m around my family a lot. But even more than that, I think that if you keep your head about you, and you’re responsible and you work hard, you can have a pretty good life here in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s all about how you view things. People will always say, ‘Oh, we don’t have anything to do here in West Virginia.’ There’s more here to do in West Virginia, than anywhere else you could go. (Laughs)
You go to a place like New York or even smaller cities like Beckley [and] what do you do? You go to a club or you go out to eat at a restaurant. That’s what you do day in and day out. Here, every day is something new. You can go white water rafting, you can build a new fence on your property, or you can work hard to get a bigger piece of property, but there’s always something new that you could do here. I’ve always loved that. The fact that it’s not the same generic, do the same thing over and over again for fun. I think this is the best place in the world where you can do that. We can grow our food here, we can hunt for food if we choose to, we can ride four-wheelers on our property, and do stuff along those lines, and that’s pretty much what kept me here.
[The economy is] causing people to leave. I’ve been lucky because my parents were pretty well educated [and] they had pretty good jobs. Dad lost a pretty good job about a year back that was related to the coal industry. Something that he really liked doing. But, he lost that position and it’s really personally affected my family. It doesn’t make anything easier working in the school system, people move away because their parents have lost their jobs. It’s just sad to see how it affects these families in this area. The economy has gotten about as bad as it’s been since the eighties.
I’ve done a little bit of geology; that’s part of what my education is based on. We have more abundant natural water supplies here than just about anywhere else in the country. You know where they’re doing those big DPIS Projects out in the Midwest and out in the West? They’re pulling groundwater out that won’t replenish itself for years. We don’t have to worry about that here. I think agriculture can be a big part of the [economic] solution in this area. Now we don’t have as good a farmland, we use our heads and put together some kind of greenhouses or something. I think that could be a big part of the answer [to economic sustainability].
On the other hand, we have here in the state of West Virginia more natural resources as far as coal, oil, (up in the northern part anyway0; natural gas, and we have a geothermal hotspot. Energy, I think, is going to be a part of our future. I don’t think there’s any way to get around that, because of how abundant it is. The Marcellus Shale Field, I mean it’s just absolutely astonishing how much natural gas that they discovered in just one layer of rock. But I think it’s a mixed approach. You have to look at primary industries, things that have worked successfully in this region in the past, and apply them in new ways that will make it more sustainable for the future.
The happiest I ever am is when I’m back at my house. I love spending time with my parents. I love spending time with my grandmother. I love being outdoors, and doing stuff like this, living history. I was really happy that I graduated from a local college, Concord University. That was a very happy time that I’ve lived through. It has been a dreary atmosphere for the past ten years though, and I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve never had to suffer personally because of it.
There always seems to be a sense of gloom or despair that hangs in the air when you look at the economic situation, and I think that’s dampened some really proud moments. I graduated with a Geology Degree, and I graduated about the time the coal industry really took its hit. That’s one of the reasons why I got an Education Degree. So it seems like the happy is mixed with the sad around here.
I’ve always been big into history, and it really started with a third grade Social Studies Fair. We researched genealogy, and I did it all on the American Civil War. I found out that I had ancestors who fought, and that kind of really lit the spark. I went through high school, and I got to where I knew quite a bit about history, both this war [Civil War], the American Revolution, and World War II. Those were the three big highlights of my studies, but I personally studied and I actually sought out joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV).
[SCV is] an organization dedicated to the preservation and remembrance of our Confederate ancestors. We’re all descendants of Confederate ancestors. I’m descended from five that I know of so far. When I joined the SCV, one of the guys recruited me as being a cannoneer. I just absolutely love it, I got addicted. I went to the 150th and 1st Manassas, and it was the first big event I went to. And it was 109 degrees, and when you considered in the humidity, it was like 120 or something crazy like that. It was burning up.
We don’t cause any trouble; we’re out here remembering our ancestors and pretty much teaching people more about the way that their ancestors lived. We should really keep doing this, because if you don’t have living historians we just erase everything that our ancestors lived through. We can forget about all of it, and then we’ll just never learn anything. We will never advance forward. We’re out here so that we can learn from the troubled times of our ancestors’ past.
In a democracy, it’s important for us to understand what the consequences of our decisions will be, because they are real. Things will happen because of the choices that we make; politically, economically, and socially. We have to suffer for it, or we benefit from it. There are bad and good things that come out of every situation, but to prevent us from being stuck, we need to learn from the past.
It’s one of the most fun hobbies I could ever think of. I just love being outside. I’m an outdoorsman anyway. I like being out here, hanging out with the guys. We sit around the campfire and enjoy it. The real fun part isn’t battle re-enactments, it’s the camaraderie that we get from this, and we’re all a very close-knit group. All of us are friends and we’d all lay down our life for the other ones. I think it’s a really important part of developing a good, full life. You develop a good group of friends, and that’s what this is. This is about friendship.
I want to be a person who doesn’t let his family down. That’s what I want my legacy to be. I want to be one of the generations that pushes his family forward, not backwards.”