“[Traditions passed down are] Believe in God, and do the right thing. Be fair to other people. Be honest. Don’t take nothin’ from nobody. Don’t steal nothin’. Just be yourself. Make someone proud of you.”
Willie Whitt, Sawmill Maintenance Worker; Beckley, West Virginia;
“I was born in Salinas, California. Dad was stationed in the Army, and that’s where I was born in the Army hospital. I was born in ‘55 and then he got out in ’56, and we moved back to his hometown in Pulaski, Virginia. My first three years in grade school, I was in Pulaski and then he took a job here in Beckley working for Vecellio & Grogan when they was building route 16 to Sophia. He drove a water truck on the road crew.
[Growing up in the mountains] was great because of all kind of friends, clean air, wide open and just feel free. Sometimes, we’d just ride our bikes and go up in the mountains and ride our bikes down the hill. In the wintertime, we’d ride sleds.
High school days was a little bit wild. That’s when I met my wife. I rode a motorcycle and wrecked that motorcycle. It was Halloween, I guess it was, I was laid up at the house there. I had a Mustang I wrecked. Her dad and my dad worked together, but I didn’t know her at that time. First time she saw me I was laying on the couch in my underwear. Halloween night and she was out Halloweenin’. My brother seen her up there around her dad’s truck and we didn’t know who it was, but said she was up there soapin’ her dad’s windows. My brother said, ‘You better quit that, I know Mr Lilly, the guy that owns that truck.’ She said, ‘I do too, it’s my dad.’ When I got well enough to go to school, this girl walked up to me said, ‘Hi, I’m Harry’s daughter,’ but I didn’t know who Harry was ‘cause I knew him as Mr. Lilly. So I had to find out who Harry was. That’s how we met. [Been married forty-one years.]
When I got out of high school, I went to work for Beckley Manufacturing as a line machinist. I worked there till August 10th. We got married on August 10th, ‘74 and that’s when I quit there and went to work for Long-Air Dox over in Oak Hill. [After a varied career, I] went to work for Frasure, Trinity Coal is actually Frasure Creek, over on 61 over at Oak Hill, and got laid off a week before Christmas last year. I just got a job [a few] weeks ago working for my son at a saw mill.
[My son’s saw mill] He just bought into it back in February and we’re still just learning about it. The business is not real good right now because it’s mine related. We can make mine timbers and cap wedges and crib locks. Right now, we’re mostly selling pallet boards for making pallets. It’s about the only thing going on right now. It’s a tough business.
[My grandfather and father] were always in the construction business or farming. My grandpa on mom’s side was a conductor on the railroad for Norfolk and Southern.
Mom’s mother and dad they lived the longest. Dad’s dad died when he was only thirteen, so I never knew my grandpa Whitt. My granny Whitt, she had thirteen youngins; there was five boys and eight girls. I had aunts and uncles out the yazoo. I had kin people everywhere. Out of thirteen, the baby is the only one living right now. We have a Whitt family reunion the last weekend of July. [My wife’s] mother and dad was Lilly’s before they married. She’s a thoroughbred.
I’ve done a lot of traveling. Actually, there’s nothing any more beautiful than West Virginia. Colorado’s pretty, but it’s not home. When you live here long enough, you grow roots. No place like home. [Coming back to the mountains] makes me feel like I’m back home. It gives you a feeling of security. There’s windstorms and everything but no hurricanes, no tornadoes. There’s a lot of snow, but it’s going to melt.
[Outsiders] I don't think they really understand our way of living. It’s a simple life, and that’s the way I like it. The simpler, the better. I don’t like a lot of silly fancy stuff. The simple life gives you the freedom of doing what you want to do, when you want to do it. If you want to go biking or fishing or hunting or whitewater rafting; West Virginia gives all kinds of opportunities. City folks don’t have that many opportunities.
I ride four-wheelers, I got a jet-ski, I go water-skiing. I can fish, I can hunt. How many people do you know live in the city that actually own a four-wheeler that can go out and ride it? Because it’s against the law! It’s not against the law here to ride a four-wheeler. [They gotta put them up on a trailer] and haul them to the mountains to where they can ride them. You can ride them anywhere. My son-in-law, he works down there at the Burning Rock Four-wheeler Park, and we have Hatfield McCoy trails. There’s more everywhere. Just like out here on Ellison Ridge there’s trails everywhere. You could ride all day and run out a whole tank of gas and never be at the same spot.
[Hillbilly means] I live here in the hills. I guess billy means you’re a goat. I just want to live here. Walk in my shoes for a week and see how you like it [outsiders]. I know we could probably change their mind. How much fun do you have living in the city looking at a TV or at a computer? I’m not computer savy; I don’t even hardly know how to turn one on. [But I can] get on a four-wheeler or a motorcycle or take a boat and do whatever I want to do.
[Traditions passed down are] Believe in God, and do the right thing. Be fair to other people. Be honest. Don’t take nothin’ from nobody. Don’t steal nothin’. Just be yourself. Make someone proud of you.
[The mines] are way down. It’ll never come back like it was. They can’t do without coal. You have to have coal to make coke to make steel. There’s no other way around it. So I mean coal’s not dead. The way the EPA regulations are, that’s what I can’t understand. Why enforce regulations here in the United States and then ship our coal overseas and burn it? We’re all breathing the same air. I don’t think it's fair that Americans, the working class in the coal fields, have to do with the EPA when they can send it over there and they don’t have no laws. They talk about the ozone layer and I say it’s all the same earth. It needs to be an international thing. You gonna do EPA, do an international EPA.
[The economy] Everything is too politically correct. It needs to be run like a business. You can’t import everything. When the Second World War was, everybody had a job. We don’t need to take care of everyone across the pond till we take care of ourself. Our politicians have sold us out. West Virginia has potential for tourism because of all the attractions, but West Virginia is not known for tourism. They’re known for coal and it’s always been coal. It’s a coal state. I don’t have an answer for [the economy].
[One of the happiest times] Probably when my grandkids comes over. [I’ve got] six. We’ve got this inflatable that we blow up out there in the yard they have a big time off of. Sometimes, we go four-wheelin’. All my grandkids range from one year to fifteen years. We have to do different things to accommodate for the different ages; to make everybody happy.
[Saddest times] was probably when my dad died. He died in ‘06 so that made me fifty-one. He meant a lot; he was my icon. When we lived in Pulaski dad always raised rabbit beagles, and he liked to rabbit hunt. ‘Ole Sadie, a sow beagle, she had some pups there, but he took Sadie out hunting one day and Sadie was runnin’ this rabbit toward dad there, and dad was gonna shoot it, and the old rabbit run right between dad’s legs. He still missed it.
[Dad] didn’t actually teach me all I knew, but he taught me the fundamentals of life; [to] trust in God, to do the right thing, treat your neighbor like you’d like to be treated. He’s got all the general knowledge. That’s what I respect him for.”