Louise Stoker

“Appalachian people have a sense of home. They have a sense of place where other people don’t. Appalachian people are unique that way. If there’s change that comes, it must come gradually and for the right reasons for them to accept it… It’s this Appalachian culture. It’s this sense of home they have. It’s this feeling that they have where the mountains and rivers are. It’s a feeling, and it’s hard to put a feeling into words.” 

Louise Stoker (People call me “Lou”), Mayor, Bramwell, West Virginia; Bramwell, West Virginia:

“I am the Mayor of this town, this small wonderful town, with 364 residents. I have been the mayor for eight and a half years at this point. My maiden name is Dawson, so I am Louise Dawson Stoker. I was born in this town. !have never lived in another place; have always lived here. My choice. I knew where my roots were. I had no questions about that even when I can barely remember. I was preschool. I knew I loved this place. I wanted to stay here. Growing up, I wanted to do what I could to make it the great, great place it had always been, and to keep it that way. 

I had worked with that in mind as a volunteer, actually, for more than 30 years, since our town was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. When people would say, ‘Why is it that that building important? Or that house is important?’ I always knew why they were important. They were important, and still are, because they helped start the coalfields of Southern West Virginia. Not them, but the people who owned them. 

There was no coal mining here in the 1870s. But in 1883, the first coal was shipped out of Pocahontas to Norfolk, and it opened up what came to be the Pocahontas coalfield. All of this town of Bramwell, all of this surrounding area, just sprang up. Think of the Gold Rush of California, and I call that the ‘Coal Rush’ of Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia. So the Pocahontas mine was the first. It was just across the border, three miles from us. It was in Virginia. In 1884, in West Virginia, the first coal was shipped from Bramwell. After that, within two years, there were three more coalmines, right here in this spot, in this town, where we’re sitting right now. 

Of course, they needed tipples, they needed coal miners, they needed construction. They built very fast. They built coal camp houses, they’re called, in all of these. This happened all over southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia within a few very short years, within less than a decade. The difference in this town, Bramwell, West Virginia, and the others was the others were absentee owners. Bramwell was not. The coal operators came here, developed coalmines, but they did not come as coal operators and coal barons. They made their money from this coal. The Pocahontas coal was the richest coal seam – 13 feet high. As the word got out, everybody wanted this. 

The population grew. In the days right at the turn of the century, there were 8,000 people here and over in Pocahontas, Virginia, just across the mountain, five minutes away. Railroad lines were put in immediately. First of all, Pocahontas, a year later, a spur line into Bramwell and the next year, two more. They went on to the north, the lines did, into McDowell County. As that happened then the coal could be shipped out. That’s what we’re talking about…a coal rush, a coal boom. Thousands of people were brought here; many just from other parts of the country. They came from North Carolina, and Virginia, eastern Virginia. 

We had a time finally that everyone was free. We had all colors, all ethnic groups settled here in Bramwell and the surrounding areas. A cemetery in Pocahontas, Virginia has tombstones that are written in other languages: Russian, Slavic and Italian. And the same thing happened in the other coal camps. We had to have bankers, we had to have bookkeepers, we had undertakers, we had storekeepers, we had management, we had attorneys, we had architects whose homes were here. 

The people who came in to develop the coalmines started to build grander houses and grander structures as they had more money. Many of those still stand today. One is the central point in the middle of town. It is the stone building that is the Bank of Bramwell built out of native blue stone that came from the mountains here. Another is a home, and it was built in 1910 by the son of the immigrant coal miner from England who opened the very first coal mine here in southern West Virginia in the Pocahontas field. It was John Cooper who sent his first coal out in 1884, and by 1910, his son had enough wealth to build this wonderful mansion on Main Street in Bramwell called the Edward Cooper Home. That house is still lived in by descendants of John Cooper. It was the first copper roof on an entire house in this country. We have another mansion that was built right during that same time by a daughter of John Cooper. So, the brother and sister had their houses built. One was going up on the river in the central part of town, another mansion on a hill. Those are still standing. Those are the stories of the early coal mining days. We were incorporated as a town in 1888. We still are sitting right now in the same town hall that has been used since 1888. 

Sometime in the 1920s, Bramwell High School took on the name of Millionaires, and from that point on we were called the Bramwell Millionaires, which is a unique name for a high school team. We are still known as the town of millionaires. In fact, the Bank of Bramwell was considered the richest bank per capita of any other bank in this country in its heyday – per capita per depositors. I can give you names of 28 millionaires who had deposits in that bank. And there are different numbers that are given by different people, whether or not you are saying that they lived here at the same time or not. I’m saying 28 through the decades. 

I’ve been mayor for eight and a half years. I’m in my fifth, two-year term. That is how I felt I could help the heritage we have continue here and keep the wonderful place we have. That is the way that I could offer to volunteer to do that, and see that something would be left for the next generation to say, ‘There’s where my ancestors grew up,” “That’s where my ancestors went to high school.’ It is a wonderful place, and we love for people to come and visit us.

Since I’ve been Mayor, we think the changes that have come about are good. We were established on coal. The economy here was based on coal. Now the coal has been worked out, and the seams are no longer what they were. We must, in order to continue, have something that is an economic boost. We have had the opportunity in this time that I’ve been mayor, to be a part of a new economy. It’s entertainment of a sort, and it’s tourism of a sort. It is called ‘Riding the Trails,’ for ATVs. It’s four-wheeling, and dirt bikes can ride there. We were chosen as a trailhead for the southern point of Hatfield-McCoy Trail. We opened up three and a half years ago as our trail opened up. Since that time, our small businesses that were struggling have been able to survive, and now they are prospering. We’ve had people come in and buy little tiny lots and large lots. They have opened up places for ATV riders to come and stay overnight or for a week. We’ve had entrepreneurs, local and out of state, come in and help develop that. There is more to be done. That is our new economy. However, you don’t want to destroy what you’ve had for over a hundred years. So what we’ve tried to do is partner the two. We’ve been able to maintain the historic district, and the look of it, the feel of it. Yet, ATV riders have been able to come here and stay overnight, they may eat here, just walk around and just enjoy the history that is here for them to share. That has been the major change in these eight years.

I work hard to be elected. I offer 24/7 to work for everybody, every part of the town. We are over three miles long, and a half-mile wide. We have three different separate type communities here. In the early days, each one had its own name and its own post office. We were even written about in Ripley’s Believe it or Not for having three post offices within our town limits; each one with its own zip code. I think it one of the many unique things about our community. 

Appalachian people have a sense of home. They have a sense of place where other people don’t. Appalachian people are unique that way. If there’s change that comes, it must come gradually and for the right reasons for them to accept it. We have our roots here, you and I. I think someone mentioned the Hillbilly Highway to North Carolina. During the days of the down days in mining, when there weren’t as many people employed – I’m talking about the days when coal mining went to mechanization, and not as many miners were required. We had highways that went to Detroit, Michigan, to Flint. They worked in the auto factories. We had highways that went to Elkhart, Indiana. We had later on, in the last twenty years, the highway that went to North Carolina where they could get employment. But as soon as they could come back, they moved back. 

It’s this Appalachian culture. It’s this sense of home they have. It’s this feeling that they have where the mountains and rivers are. It’s a feeling, and it’s hard to put a feeling into words. 

(What advice would you give to Mayors of other small towns?) I would advise them to have a dream, and to try to see that that dream could come true. But not only a dream; you must have a vision. You must have a vision of what you want in the future. Do you want it all leveled and to go back to nature? Or do you want it to be what it was or what it could be? The first thing is to have an overall picture. That’s a vision. Then, can it be done? Can it not be done? Don’t spin your wheels in doing what cannot be done. See if it can be done, how it can be done. That’s what we’ve done in Bramwell. We have a vision and we’ve tried to see that through to the end. We all work together. 

People in Bramwell are warm, loving, caring, interesting, family people. Even if they were not born here, they become Appalachian folk when they come here.”