Roger Owensby

“There was a buggy man on another shift and I’d come in and I’d take chalk and I’d write ‘Safety First’ on the canopy. I’d come back the next day, and the guy had erased it and put, ‘Jesus Saves.’ I’d come back and I’d erase it and put, Safety First.’ Both were good, just safety was very important to me.”
Roger Owensby, Teacher, Mining Engineering Technology Program, Bluefield State College; Brushfork, West Virginia: 

“I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and then I was raised in Bishop, West Virginia, a coal camp. Then, we moved to Bluefield, Virginia where I lived [during my] high school years. 

Both sides of the family are from Knoxville. I was just a wee baby, maybe a year old when I moved away from Knoxville. My grandfather was a coal miner up here, and my dad moved up here to get a job in the coalmines. My grandfather lived just down the street from us, and he was a mine foreman in Bishop for many years. He retired and moved back to Knoxville. 

My dad worked in the coalmines for many, many years and then he retired. I can remember coming home from high school, I was in the tenth or eleventh grade, and I’d come in the house and he was lying on the couch with a bandage around his head. A piece of rock had fallen out and it hit him and knocked him out from under the rock, but then it landed on another man and killed him. 

Growing up in the mountains was good. We played in the woods and played on the creek bank. We didn’t know any different. It was great. We actually went up in the woods one time, it was an old logging road, and we put up hurdles so we could run and jump over hurdles and we did pole vaulting and all that kind of stuff in the woods. I played football in high school, and I wrestled. I liked baseball, but Graham High School didn’t have a baseball team so I couldn’t play baseball. I played split end and I also played defensive half back. I really, I wasn’t that interested in offense. I liked to play on defense and tackle. I was just out there to hit somebody. I had a mean streak in me. I’ve tamed down a lot.

My grandfather always planted a garden. My dad didn’t plant a garden and I’ve planted a few out here but I don’t get enough sunshine. So now I plant out at my daughter’s house. I like to put out tomato plants and I like to put out cucumbers. Just stuff for a salad. It’s not usually a big garden. 

I can remember going out with my dad and going up in the woods and cutting a Christmas tree down and bringing it back to the house. It’d be way too big, and we’d have to trim it down some and put it in. Then we’d all decorate it together. We had those lights that had the bubbles in them. They heated up and then bubbles came up. I always liked those. We always had those. 

For years, and years, and years all the brothers and sisters would gather at my mom’s house and we’d have Christmas dinner. My mom was always in charge of cooking. She’s gotten up in age so now she can’t do it anymore. I remember the turkey and dressing was good. We had ham. Our thing at home was always to have gravy and biscuits and pork chops on Sunday. That’s what dad liked. 

We opened presents on Christmas morning. Some people liked to open them Christmas Eve, but we never did. There was always some conflict there if somebody wanted to open them in the evening on Christmas Eve. I got a train set one time that had a train that went this way and cars that raced this way that was nice. I can remember as a young boy at Christmas, we didn’t have a lot of money so we could all pick one gift and that was it. The big deal was to go to Bluefield and shop. I can remember being in Bluefield in the ‘50’s and the streets were just packed with people. It was kind of an amazing thing to see. 

All of my brothers and sisters live in this area, but one. I’ve got a sister that lives in Atlanta. My other sister lives here and then my brother lives here. 

I can remember at about age ten I went to the bus stop to go to school and the bus driver came by and he stopped and opened the doors and he said everybody go home there’s been a disaster at the mines. That just stuck in mind forever. I go home and I can hear a discussion of the adults and they were trying to decide who was in the mines in our family. It blew up. My grandfather was on dayshift and my dad was on evening shift and my uncle was on third shift. But we didn’t know what time it blew up. We later found out my uncle was killed. That was the Bishop mine explosion in February of 1957. 

My dad and grandfather were on the mine rescue team that went in to recover the bodies. My dad told me that he had to bring out my uncle. He weighed close to 300 pounds and all he found was the trunk of his body, and they just brought the trunk out. They’ve seen things that are just hard to imagine. For that reason, my dad would change jobs every two or three years. If he got a feeling that something was going to happen or they didn’t rock dust the mines and that kind of stuff like they should, he would just quit and go somewhere else. Back then that was easy to do. If you were an experienced miner, you could quit and find another job the next day. 

I just read the story on the Scotia mine not long ago. I can remember seeing the pictures on TV where the cars where lined up along the road and all the women were gathered around standing waiting to find out. 

I went to Bluefield College for a couple of years and then I graduated and we moved to Texas. I was a salesman for a hardware company in Austin, Texas. We stayed out there a couple two or three years. We had a couple of kids so, you know our parents were here, so I decided to move back and brought them back. There are good people in Texas. I like Texas. I liked Austin, even though it was a pretty good-sized town. One day I was out selling. I was driving down the road and John Denver came on the radio singing, ‘Country roads take me home’ and so I said that’s a sign I need to move back. I came home and told [my wife] that we were moving back, and she was elated. 

I missed the mountains and mostly, our family. We had two kids and they didn’t get to see their grandparents. I came back and went to work in the coalmines. Went to work at Keystone. I said well, if I’m going to work in the coalmines, I need to find out all I can about the coalmines so I enrolled at Bluefield State in the mining engineering technology program and studied mining at the same time I was working in the mines. After four or five years, I had an opportunity to start teaching in the mine foreman certification program at Bluefield State, so I started teaching coal miners to make their papers to be mine foremen. 

Well, you know, working in the mines was a job. I enjoyed working on the pillar sections. To me, it was exciting to go in there and to pull the pillars and see the falls and all that stuff. It was probably the most dangerous job in the mines. We did it all. We set timbers and we roof bolted and I ran a shuttle car, helped on a miner…just did all the jobs on pillar sections. 

I don’t remember who the miner was, but [I was working] along the pillar line before you get into the gob, and I saw this guy on the other side of the curtain laying up on a big rock sleeping, in the gob. I kind of shook him and said, ‘buddy, this is not the place to be sleeping. You need to get out of the gob.’ I just couldn’t imagine anybody going into the gob hiding and sleeping. [The gob] is the area where you’ve removed the pillars and then you let the top fall in. It’s just a big mass of rock that’s fallen down to the ground; very dangerous area to be in. 

One time, a piece of rock flew back from the miner and hit me in the shin and knocked my leg out from under me and that hurt a little bit. One time I pinched my finger, pinched my fingernail where this back part popped out. I was bossing at the time, and I said call me a ride I’m hurt. They said you can’t go out you’re the boss. I said I’m leaving here. So I went to the doctor and he just pulled the rest of the nail out. I was never seriously hurt. I had some close calls. That was painful.

Mining has changed in a lot of ways, and it hasn’t changed in a lot of ways. I was really shocked a couple two or three years ago. I was doing some consulting work up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia and I go in the mines and I get in there and the equipment is much better; a lot more reliability and that kind of stuff. We got in there and they had water coming out of the top. The ribs were rolling off and it was really, really bad conditions. I’m thinking this is not that much different than what we used to be in. Lots of water, ribs rolling off, lots of rock, kettle bottoms falling in and that kind of stuff. That was all the same. But it’s mainly the equipment. It’s just much larger, more electronics. 

I think the met coal market will come back. It depends on the demand in the world, and the biggest [user] is China. The demand in China is down. So met coal is way down but it’ll come back. Now, steam coal I don’t know if it will come back or not. Probably not, because of the cost against natural gas. We got so much natural gas now that I think they’ll price coal out of making electricity. Still, I just read the other day one third of all our electricity is made from coal, so it won’t completely go away for another twenty years.

The main thing I see is when I go down the road during the day is there are just no cars out running up and down the roads like there used to be. The people are staying home. They’re obviously not out spending money and buying things like they have in the past. I like to bowl, and you go to the bowling alley where we used to have twenty and twenty-five teams, now we’re down to nine or ten teams. All the leagues are down to about half or less than half of what they used to have. That’s kind of an indication of the economy. I can remember back when North Fork had good football teams, they had a playoff at the Mitchell Stadium. They were AA football, and the stadium was completely packed. This year we went to a football game, and not even half the stadium was full. 

Tourism is a big thing now. You come out here on Thursday and Friday and there are all kinds of ATVs headed down Highway 52. So, tourism and that kind of stuff is good. The ATV park brings in people. They come flocking in here on weekends. I think it’s a good thing. It’s helping the economy. I don’t know that there is anything we can do to completely replace the coal industry. 

Lewisburg is a town that really surprises me. They’re just growing leaps and bounds. It’s mom and pop stuff. Little stores and stuff and it’s really a thriving place. You look at other towns and you don’t understand why they’re not doing the same thing. I guess they’re just very progressive. They’ve got progressive thinking people that are willing to get out there and work. They just seem to act different than most West Virginians. 

We have one grandkid, so we spoil her rotten if we can. We had two daughters and one of them, she’s not married and she’s so picky I don’t know if she will get married. The other one is married and she had one child. I think that’s all she’s going to have so we’re going to have one grandchild and that’s it. I like to take her out in the woods so she’ll get an appreciation of being out in the woods. I take her on walks. We talk and I’ve always talked to her just like she’s an adult. So we go on walks and we talk and I listen to her and just see what she’s thinking and all that kind of stuff. She’s pretty interesting. I’ve taken her bowling and that kind of stuff. 

I took my daughters fishing. I never could fish because they wouldn’t touch the worms. So all I did was stand there and bait the hook. Then they’d throw it out there. 

I guess at this point, I’d like to be remembered as a good teacher. I’ve taught at Bluefield State for 39 years, so I’ve had lots and lots of students over the years. I always tried to teach the way I’d like to be taught and treat students the way I’d like to be treated. I have no clue how many students I’ve taught in 39 years. I know I have to remember about 100 different names each year, so 2000, 4000, 5000? I don’t know. 

I was teaching a tech math class and this little girl came up and she says, ‘Mr. Owensby, do you think I can do this?’ I went, ‘well, I don’t know you and I haven’t seen your work, so all you can do is do your best and see what happens.’ We got started and we went through the semester and she just soaked it up like nothing. At the end, she got an A in the class. She was very capable, but she didn’t have any self-confidence. Many years later, I was at the bowling alley, this happens a lot, but I was at the bowling alley and some woman came up to me and said do you remember such and such student. I said oh yeah I had her in class. She was a good student. She says well she really appreciates what you did for her because she never had any confidence in her math skills and I encouraged her in math. That’s where you get your satisfaction. You know you get people that graduate and they go out and they become vice presidents of operations and all that kind of stuff and become very successful. 

You can put emphasis on production, but you have to have just as much emphasis on safety. When I went in the mines, losing my little finger wasn’t worth a pound of coal. I like to try to work safe. There was a buggy man on another shift and I’d come in and I’d take chalk and I’d write ‘Safety First’ on the canopy. I’d come back the next day, and the guy had erased it and put, ‘Jesus Saves.’ I’d come back and I’d erase it and put, Safety First.’ Both were good, just safety was very important to me.”

Xavier McClendon

“Kentucky’s a good place to live, but I’d really like to get out there in a big old city and stuff like that. Once I get my money if I ever get in the NBA or something I can take care of my mom and my step-dad and my mamaw and my papaw.”

Xavier McClendon, Age 13; Harlan, Kentucky:

“I like to play basketball, football. I’ve played football before [but] I haven’t really tried out for basketball. [I like] football [better than basketball]. It’s just, I think, a fun sport and a lot of people play it and a lot of my friends do, too. And I also like some of the players. 

I really like to go to the Boys and Girls Club. I’ve been waiting ever since I was six to come. They teach us to be really good. Ask us not to do drugs. The little kids like follow in bigger kids footsteps. Really, what I like about the Boys and Girls Club is Kendra, Katrina, and all them show me how to be so good to where I could be like a teen staff and show the kids what’s right and what’s wrong and all that. 

The first day I came to the Boys and Girls Club, I was really happy and I went to the door like almost every day and asked is it my birthday yet and stuff?  It’s pretty fun and it’s really cool to help out here and show the kids a lot of stuff. Some kids here, they want to be like Michael Jordan and Cam Newton and all and I show them how to play basketball and how to hold a football, show them how to throw it, shoot it, all that. 

I was going to be like a teen staff, but I got in trouble a couple of years ago at school and they said they want a positive kid. What they want me to do is, they want me to be like a good kid at school and here, and at home and everywhere else. Well, one time there was this kid and he was bullying me and stuff so we got in a fight and it was going on for a while and he started cussing me out and stuff so me and him fought a couple of times. 

I have two sisters, Alyssa is 14 and Alaina is 12. She had heart problems when she was a baby. Kyler and Kaleb, are my brothers. They are twins and they are 11. And then I have Elijah and Isaiah. Elijah is 18 right now, and Isaiah is about to be 16. All the boys are usually always gone to their friends and stuff. What I really like to do is go to my friends and play video games and stuff. Just spend the night, you know. 

[Camping] is a lot of fun, but you can hear a lot of noises and stuff. Freaks you out. It just sounds like screeching and you can hear wolves and stuff. It’s just crazy. Yeah, sadly [I’ve seen a bear]. It was big. I don’t know if it was a black bear or a grizzly bear. It was kind of colored like your camera here, black, kind of like your hat. Me and my mom and my stepdad were going hiking and we saw it and it was really big. I’ve seen a deer, lots of ‘em, and I’ve seen some baby cubs, like cub bears and stuff. When we went on the Boys and Girls Club trip hiking and stuff, up there at Camp Blanton we saw a deer. They showed us how to start fires and clear water, boil it and stuff to where you can drink it when you’re in the wilderness. 

My mom…she’s nice, she can cook. She’s another role model for me; shows me what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes she’ll be cooking, like, teriyaki chicken and sometimes Ramen noodles, and sometimes we eat Parmesan on top of chicken with marinara sauce on the side. It’s really good. It’s kind of hard, you know, to cook for like at least seven kids [laughs]. 

My step-dad is Kenneth Hopkins and he’s fun to hang out. He’s taken me fishing three times. He really doesn’t know how to go fishing though, so that’s why I usually try to go deer hunting with my friends or camping with my family. 

My real dad, he lives in Ohio. They split up, now [Visiting dad in Ohio] It’s fun, he’s got a nice house. I’ve got a step-brother named Santee and also I have two other step-brothers that is Donovan and Noah McClendon. It’s kind of hard to keep up with all of them. There’s like twelve of them. He took us to Magic Mountain, and we just really have fun, because almost all of my family lives in Ohio. 

What I really like about up there is where they’ve got bigger places and stuff. We went through Cincinnati and it was really big. We went over there and looked at the football field and stuff that they’ve got over there. It’s pretty cool. [

(What was your saddest time in your life?) When my step-dad Winston, he died. He was doing drugs and he just overdosed. I went to his funeral and I have a step-brother named Juwan and we both went there and we both cried. (What did you learn from that?) Not to do drugs. 

Well, when I go out of school I want to go to college and I want to at least try my best where I can go to the NFL or the NBA. Either one. 

Kentucky’s a good place to live, but I’d really like to get out there in a big old city and stuff like that. Once I get my money if I ever get in the NBA or something I can take care of my mom and my step-dad and my mamaw and my papaw. 

My mamaw and my papaw they live right up the hill from here, Fairview, which is where we are. [Mamaw] has kept me in her house for a couple of years. My mom went back to Ohio one year and she stayed for a while and then we stayed at my mamaw’s and she got in a little bit of trouble. We were living with my mamaw for a couple of years. Until we bought this house, she was living with us. We really tried to get in bigger houses and stuff to where we could live in them, we were so used to having my mamaw and stuff, all of us were, and we stayed there with my mamaw even when she got the house. We’d go over there and spend the night with her sometimes and that’s when she met Winston and then a couple of years later he died.  

[What’s special about your mamaw?] Where she took me in and took care of me till I was at least seven or six. She’s a good cook, too. What she does is she cuts up pieces of hamburger and throws some peppers in and spices it up and then and puts it…I don’t know what it’s called…is it like Manwich? And mixes it up and puts it like Sloppy Joes but with hamburger and peppers, red peppers and all these spices. It’s really good. What she really likes to make sometimes is macaroni, and I love it. 

My papaw? He’s always showed me like stuff what not to do like my mamaw has, and he’s taken me out hunting before, showed me how to shoot guns, and stuff like that. He has a lot of guns and stuff. He has a rifle, a lot of BB guns and stuff. He has all kinds of them and he’s bought all kinds of rifles and stuff and he has showed me how to shoot them. When we first came with my papaw, he could walk and stuff, but his leg, where he was in Vietnam and he got shot right there and he wasn’t getting enough blood to it so they had to cut it off. I think it was Vietnam or something. He was in the Marines. He wasn’t a Navy Seal or nothing like that. So, yeah, he’s told me stories about it. 

I bought this sniper game one time, and he’s [Papaw] like, ‘Xavier, you shouldn’t be playing, that’s not really a good game to play.’ I mean, it was kind of fun I guess, just kill people like terrorists and stuff. He said, ‘I don’t really like that game, we’re going to take it back tomorrow because the reason I don’t like snipers is because a sniper is the one that killed my brother when he was right next to me.’

That’s war. That made me feel sad, and I didn’t ever want to play a game like that again. What kind of games I play now? Now I don’t really play games, I just show my brothers how to play and watch them and stuff. If I ever do play anything, it’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer, sports-wise.” 

Dennis W. Robertson

“In our Appalachian communities we have never been taught to wait for somebody to help us. We have always been taught to overcome, ourselves. And when we make up our minds and put our nose to the grindstone and want to help ourselves, we will come out of this.”

Dennis W. Robertson, Benefits Counselor/Program Recruiter/Black Lung Clinic; Keystone, West Virginia:

“Growing up, the [coal] camps were pretty sophisticated, in a way, and there were a lot of people in the camps then. McDowell County had close to a hundred thousand people in it. Although they were segregated at that time, we had nine high schools in the county. Now we have one. Population is below 24,000 now, where it was once at 100,000. It was pretty booming then. Thriving. 

As a kid, my parental guidance was that school was the most important thing. It was critically important in my family, at least. I can’t say it was for every family. The two things that they didn’t tolerate were a lack of dedication and devotion to learning, and a lack of dedication and devotion to behaving yourself. For me in school, all the primary subjects Reading, English, Math, no grade below a B was tolerated. That was quote, unquote, unacceptable. And as far as our conduct, any grade that wasn’t an A or a checkmark, just depends on whether you were elementary or older, than that was unacceptable. If you can’t do anything else, you can behave yourself. There was no tolerance of it. 

Most of my family came through southwest Virginia down through the area near Roanoke, down in that area in Franklin County. On both sides of the family, my mother and my father, ran through there. It was the talk of, ‘You can make good money’ [in coal]. 

You go back to the original terminology in coal mining, and they talk about mining the coal and then taking it to the tipple. It was sort of like a structure that moved the coal from the mine to a place where they were going to prepare the coal for shipping, and they actually would then tip the coal over so it would slide down the incline on a hill and then it would slide down into a structure called the tipple. My grandfather was what they called a bone picker, this was back in the ‘30s. He separated coal and things like that. I can remember him talking about tremendous levels of dust, and this was like eight hours of this. That’s what he did. 

When my father came along, he started out as a general laborer and they went to machinery. I don’t think he cared for the continuous miner, but he liked the shuttle car pretty good, so that’s basically what he was in there but he also did work on cutting machines, Joy loader, all of that. I can remember one time he got trapped. The whole crew on that section got trapped and they struggled with that for an hour or two. 

[As a child, our Christmas was] not materialistic, not really gobs and gobs of stuff. They were family times more than anything else. It wasn’t about getting, and having the best and the finest things. They were simple things, like a bag with fruit and candy and nuts and a toy, or maybe two toys. Some toys were bought for all the kids, and you shared these things together. [On Christmas Day] You’d been told if you don’t go to sleep, Santa won’t come and as I got older, I had a sense of gratitude and a sense of responsibility toward the younger siblings, to make sure they were happy. To get your happiness off of [other] people being happy were the things you were taught in Appalachian life. 

I never attended a multicultural school until I reached Bluefield State College in 1966. We actually went to different schools then. We were the last graduating class that was segregated in McDowell County, 1966. The camp itself was all these various cultures. We played together. We came out of schools and played together and did other things together. But that was the prevailing political climate at that time. 

It was a little better here because people didn’t realize that it was like an unwritten rule that black and white miners had worked together since the ‘20s and ‘30s and wasn’t hardly anywhere else in the country, but it was here because it was national security to get the coal out of there. Anybody that was perceived as a problem to getting that coal out of there you, had to go. They just didn’t tolerate it. There wasn’t but one thing…that was the coal miner, and that’s all you were seen as, in most instances. If you saw [racism], it was more like a private thing, how people politically feel, privately. But as far as working, anything like that, the people who worked were the people who could get the most coal out. 

When they desegregated in ’67, when we went to school, to high school, my Principal had a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Several of the teachers under him had Masters Degrees from various schools and I don’t think there was anybody in our high school that was a teacher that didn’t have less than a BS. You know, rigorous demands. That would be unheard of back then, but learning was not, in a sense, an alternative. You had to learn. And even back then when they had corporal discipline, it would be a time to institute it because of a failure to devote yourself to learning. It was considered critically important. They saw it as the way out. The avenue to overcome the obstacles that they had faced. 

We were right in the transition between hand loading and mechanization as I became an adult, and began to study coal history a little bit. My dad, in order to keep his job, had to go to school on Saturday and take West Virginia University (WVU) extension courses in AC and DC mine machinery in order to maintain his job. They were going to mechanization, there was no recourse. You either had to do that, or leave. 

[After high school] I actually did work in the mines. I started out doing heavy labor there at the mining office where my dad worked, and then we gradually worked our way inside. I thought it was good money. If it were just left up to me, I would have continued to stay in mining. But [my father] gave me a choice, see, he loved it himself, but he didn’t want it for his children. He wanted what he considered better life. He loved it all his life, but he was in it then, he didn’t have any other recourses. He had an eighth grade education as far as attending school, but he wanted better for his children. I was the first one,  so I was under the gun prove things. Actually, in my family, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first one to graduate, to get an actual college degree. I wasn’t the first one to go, but I was the first one to actually get a college degree. 

[I worked in the mines] just the summers during college. That was enough, believe me. At that age, it was cool, to me. It was exciting and dangerous, but the labor kind of got to you. I can remember this: the first day after I got in the coal mines, actually worked in the coal mines I came home and I didn’t even make it in the house. I made it to the porch and I laid back on the porch and my mother had cooked my favorite meal and I really didn’t get to eat it because I was so tired. I think I woke up about eleven o’clock at night and just went to bed. At that time [my favorite meal] was what they called cube steak and French fries. That was interesting, but I didn’t get to eat my favorite meal, I was that tired and the next day I had soreness like I couldn’t even imagine. I found out I had muscles I didn’t realize I had.

I started just outside the mine putting in the switch, helping put in the switch. If I weighed 155 pounds, I must have been soaking wet. But anyway, I don’t know how many cars I hauled of gravel to put that switch in, but I know how sore I was. I could hardly walk the next day and they were kind of teasing me, saying, ‘Now you know what hard work is. Do you want to do that for the rest of your life?’ My father gave me some help [making that decision], he gave me a choice between going to Bluefield State or going to Grace Hospital in Welch, because he was going to send me there. Whichever choice you want. So that Fall, I started at Bluefield State. 

[There were dangers underground] but you don’t recognize it unless you’re a seasoned veteran miner. The beautiful thing was, I was around the miners and they all had, like, a brotherhood. My dad was their brother, so they watched out for me. They would show me certain things about cracks in the top. I got to see various kinds of machinery operating, at times. One of the most significant things I can remember is rolling a shuttle car about 22 breaks, and I can remember another instance in which I was on my hands and knees and the top was scraping my back. It’s been that low, and I’ve stood in places where the coal was higher than eight or ten feet. 

I wasn’t supposed to, but I actually did work in lines and cleaned and built lines. Roof bolts. I remember the first time I got on a belt to ride, to ride it in to the coal mine, They went to panicking because they said I got too close to where the crusher was, and I got the nerve to jump off. Believe me, it takes a little nerve to jump off and especially the first time you kiss a timber. But you learn. They had a little fun with me pulling miner cable to them. They kept telling me to pull, ’You ain’t pulling Dennis.’ They were sitting back laughing. After they had their fun, they just hooked the miner cable to a shuttle car or something and pulled it themselves.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in life about working hard and doing work that was hard is there’s two ways to do it: the hard way, and the easy way. They taught me how to work the work instead of the work working me. 
Most people have a perspective of coal miners as being uneducated. Their education was different from the typical education that you get out here. Their education meant they would live instead of die. They knew how to stay alive in a coalmine that could very easily kill you. So they had an education. They didn’t have a collegiate education, but the education they had was incredible. I think of people who went underground and later wrote books about mining. They taught themselves, but they also learned from those coal miners. 

I remember the first time I heard a timber pop, or crack, from the weight and I learned how to read certain things, and what they meant. I remember the first time they set a shot off and it literally shook everything, and I’ve seen heavy machines move like a giant hand moved them and that concussive force that you feel…unless you’ve been underground, or in the mines, you cannot really explain it. I mean that muffled sound, and it was like WOOMPH and everything just shook. I’ve heard that, ‘Fire in the hole,’ and when they say it. you’d better be ready. 

They would always look out for me, and get me back to where it was perceived by everybody as safe in case something doesn’t go right. It was interesting. I’ve cleaned belt lines by the miles. I’ve helped move belt, some extremely difficult belt. And I’ve cleaned around belt heads, and that was incredible. This actually happened; people might dispute it or disagree with it but this actually happened. They had a silo, and the silo had plugs and stuff on it that you had to grease and on the silo you could see things that you could put most of your foot on. We had about a 30-pound grease can and you had to move out along the edge of the silo with your feet like that and hold on and keep this can from falling and grease those plugs. I’ve been in places where there was what you call flow dust. It’s almost watery like, and you could hold your hand like this and it would go through the cracks and stuff … it was like trying to keep water in your hands. That dust was just that fine. I’ve blown my nose for a minute or two, and it would be black before it would start to clear up. 

I know one thing, I’ve made a mistake on, I’ve kind of learned the hard way, which I wish I’d done better with. A lot of times, we used the same lights that actual miners did and every now and then I’d forget to hook it back up right, and that meant that a miner was going to have lesser light or no light at all at times. That was a lesson I learned the hard way, too.

[Darkness in the mine] It’s like having one of these little pen light lights, and way down there you can see those little pen lights and they’d tell me, ‘Dennis that’s the miners,’ and I’d say, ‘Couldn’t be. What did they do, shrink?’ And as you started walking toward it, you’d see how big it is, but you could be that far up in there. And if you didn’t know where you were going you could get lost sometimes, because some of those belt lines were miles long.

[After college and the mines] I taught school for several years from ’72 to ’73. There were a couple of other jobs [but] I don’t remember that much detail about those. I actually worked in the Department of Employment Security. In 1980, I had a job selling insurance. In fact, I was the first person in the insurance company who was a black, what was considered a minority, from ’80 to ’86. I worked for a bank for a few years in southern West Virginia. It became a very infamous bank. You might have read about it, the First National Bank of Keystone, where they had a bankruptcy there. Then, I started doing this [Black Lung clinic] because I found it interesting [combining] coal mine history and helping coal miners get black lung benefits. I started in ’86, and my dad died in ’87, so it really became a focus for me, and it’s become my lifetime focus since then. 

It’s a combination job; benefits counselor and program recruiter. In other words, the work that we do and the people we work with, they don’t just jump up and come running in here. You have to actually recruit them. I’ve been up on hills and up in valleys knocking on doors to kind of build myself up. I help them fill out applications, and have been learning a lot of laws. What you can and cannot do, what you do and don’t do [in black lung benefits]. There’s two different ways that you can file for black lung benefits. You can file a state claim, or you can file a federal claim. 

In Appalachia, cultures that basically stuck to themselves had to learn to adapt to work with each other. You know, in a coal camp you had all these different cultures. It’s nothing for me to eat kielbasa, I eat Slavic foods, you know we exchanged things, spaghetti and German foods. I like kraut and wieners and I’ve been around German people and Irish people and English people and Africans for many, many, years. I’ve seen Italian stonemasons making walls, some of those walls, very old then, some of them starting to crumble, it’s incredible the workmanship. 

It was nothing for kids from different cultures to play together. The big thing for us was it was a better opportunity, better money. There are some people who will say, ‘well they didn’t pay you well.’ We were being paid much better than what we were. If you need a quarter, and you’re only making a nickel and somebody gives you a dime, that’s big money to you. You ain’t worrying about the fifteen cents you don’t have and don’t even know about. You just know that you just went from a nickel to a dime. People called us poor, but we weren’t poor in the things you can’t see and can’t touch. We were not poor in character, and honoring, and dignity, integrity, and morals and ethics. We weren’t poor in religious beliefs. It was material things mainly, but we didn’t even know we were poor until we were told we were. We were happy up until then. We had no concept of poor. 

I can’t imagine the number of different culture’s foods I have eaten in my life. There was like an unwritten rule…you will not disrespect anybody else’s culture because you are all here to mine coal. They talk about zero tolerance and stuff now? It was zero tolerance. You respected every man there. When you went in that coal mine, as they say, that rock don’t respect skin color. It falls, and it falls on everybody. 

In a sense, we were raised with a different perspective. We didn’t see it the way that a lot of other people in the early civil rights movement did. It was no big deal for black and white miners to work together. People don’t even mention that, and nothing has ever been raised about that, but black and white people and various cultures worked together in the ‘30s, twenty years before the ‘50s. Nobody ever said a mumbling word. Everybody was told, if you’ve got a problem going in there you, need to get on down the road, because we’re not going to tolerate problems. Coal was a national security issue, and the only people who were going in there, were the people who could get it out of there. 

If something happened in a coal camp, everybody cried because everybody knew the family and men that was lost or hurt or injured or whatever. We came together; you know what I’m saying? Everybody got through these negative experiences. They talk about the welfare systems and everything. The welfare system back then was neighbors. Neighbors. You can’t let your neighbor go home if something bad has happened. Neighbors would trust and respect. This is probably one of the last places on earth that you ever left your doors open. Nobody worried about somebody breaking into one of his or her house most of the time. That was a rare thing because who had what to steal? Everybody had the same things. What were you going to steal? 

We had a sense of loyalty and devotion to each other. People who come back here now, one of the first things they want to know is who’s still living and who’s died? Is such and such a one still living or if they moved or whatever where are they? I’ve got a lot of issues about the Internet, but one of the good things about it is that a lot of people have been able to reconnect through it. 

Families broke up. If a coal miner died, that house and everything had to be given back to the company. That meant that five or six children might have to go to three different people and families far away. Some families broke up, and some of them weren’t found until the Internet and relatives began searching for them. You see them come back together now, and they remember those times. It really happened. I’m not telling you what I read in a book or saw on TV on some history channel. I’m talking about what we literally saw, and experienced. 

[Appalachian stereotypes] I’ve heard the question, where do the barefoot people live? The only people I know that went barefoot were kids in the summer time. If somebody in the neighborhood saw you with shoes that were worn out, they’d get together and buy you a pair of shoes. Especially with children and the sick and the elderly. There was a kinship and a brotherhood and a sisterhood that would not let a brother or sister go down like that. 

When our families have left this area and gone to other places, people ask, ’why are you all so friendly? Why do you get along with everybody?’ Because we’ve done it all our life! We don’t know how to not do it. I remember when I went to New York City and I walked every bit of ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty blocks and I never spoke to a person. That was the worst thing in the world I had ever experienced. If I said, ‘how you doing?’ people would back away from me. You didn’t talk to people like that. Down here, that’s disrespectful. You don’t have to actually know who it is to acknowledge the fact that they’re alive, or say hello. A man tips his cap to a lady. He didn’t have to know her. It was just a respect thing. 

My mother taught me this; she could go into a doctor’s office where nobody was speaking to nobody, and she’d speak to every last one of them. The next thing you know, people were talking. They were kind of apprehensive with each other to begin with, but after a while they got to be what we called neighbors. 

[Volatility of coal employment] I saw this in the ‘50s. I saw this in the 60s and I saw this in the ‘70s and the 80s. Anybody that knows anything about coal knows it is cyclical. We will get through this too, just like we did then by swallowing pride, on all sides. Everybody gets entrenched. That hard-ass political idealism. It’s going to be my way or I’ll take the whole thing down. That’s what we’re saying. Everybody carves out his little piece of territory. 

In our Appalachian communities, we have never been taught to wait for somebody to help us. We have always been taught to overcome, ourselves. And when we make up our minds and put our nose to the grindstone and want to help ourselves, we will come out of this. We are actually contradicting what we have been taught all our lives. We have never been told to expect somebody else to get us out of it. You might have to do it with your hands and feet… climb out yourself. When we get back to that, our old fashion values and principles and idioms, we will. It’s going to happen! We’ll do it ourselves. 

We certainly don’t get help where we’re supposed to be getting it from. That’s why we have been taught [to help ourselves.] If your neighbor down there has found a way to do it, hey, show me how to do that. Help us do that. There are other towns doing it…what are you all doing and we’ll see if we can do the same thing. Just like neighbors help neighbors, why can’t towns help towns? Why does everybody have to have their individualistic thing that, okay, we got ours, so that’s your problem. That is not Appalachian culture. 

It’s going to take the Appalachian culture and cultures that are similar to show this nation, because externally, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to have to happen within and go out. It’s not going to come from out, in and we’re sitting here waiting on it. We have to do it. We have to believe in ourselves. We have to overcome it. We have to learn the things. We have to send our children to school to learn the technologies. 

When we stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and say regardless of the policy of you all, we’re going to do what we want to do, not only are we going to get out of it, we are going to help you out of your mess, too. 

If we learn to put aside our egos and our pride and get back to what we were founded on, rock bed principles of caring for one another, lifting each other up, what’s going to happen to us? We will never be, I don’t believe, what we once were, but we can be much better than what we are. It’ll come back to a degree. It’ll never be what it was in the heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s. We can still come back to a thriving culture that hopefully has learned its lesson, so that when in times the coal cycle is down, we can have enough alternative industries to sustain ourselves until coal hits its high level again, whatever that may be.” 

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.”