Coal camp Christmas memories


Dwight Williamson - Guest Columnist



Dwight Williamson Guest Columnist


Christmastime brings back many memories for me. The smell of a fresh cut pine tree standing in the living room and the crackling of a fire built to keep us warm while sleigh riding off the schoolhouse hill at Verdunville is what comes to mind as I wander back to the days when I was considered a “Porch Sitter.” The “Porch Sitters” were numerous coal camp kids of varying ages who claimed the concrete porch of the No. 16 Island Creek company store as their domain—both in daytime when it was open, and at night when it was not. All the world may be a stage, as Shakespeare once declared, but our world was basically the coal camp community of Mud Fork, and our stage was the company store porch.

It was on that porch that (through daylight hours) “great minds” went to work each day deciding what mischief could be arranged for the evening. During breaks between games, a small coke, a bag of chips and a moon pie usually accompanied the normal “Porch Sitter,” as we re-energized ourselves for another sporting event—be it basketball with a homemade back board and rim near the store; baseball at what we titled “Stickweed Stadium,” or football, usually beside Verdunville Grade School. Yes, it was tackle football, and no, there were no helmets, pads or any other protective gear. Most definitely, it was very competitive, fun and dangerous.

Over the years, the “Porch Sitters” grew up, but not before they concluded some interesting times. In their past was the antics of Halloween such as the blocking of roads with huge fires, running from the State Police afterwards, and throwing balloons filled with water from a small cliff near the road onto the windshields of passing automobiles. The sounds of gunfire often accompanied all of the above, but the adrenalin rush came with the heart pounding in the chest as the hills seemed to envelope the escaping “Porch Sitters” in their dark-of-night getaways. One of the guys still swears to this day that he did not know the elderly woman was in the toilet when he turned it over during that one particular Halloween evening. And I believe him. After all, he did admit to putting fresh dog manure in a paper bag, setting it afire, and then placing it on a neighbor’s porch. After knocking on the family’s door, he would scamper to a hiding place and watch and laugh as a man would open the door and instinctively start stomping the bag.

I believe that wintertime was harsher during those formative years, as the various creeks would freeze over and remain that way for days; as did the Guyandotte River. When it snowed, the roads that pierced through the coal camps were never plowed. As a result, an old car hood would serve as a sleigh after it was connected to the back of a vehicle that usually had chains on the tires. The driver then would travel up and down the snowy roads pulling kids perched on the hood. An occasional accident would add a bloody Christmas color to the snow.

Mail order catalogs were the thing of the day. My mother and others usually relied on Montgomery-Ward, Sears or J.C. Penny catalogs to purchase mostly clothes that would arrive by mail to the tiny post office that stood near the company store. Most other Christmas presents were either purchased at the company store or sometimes in the town of Logan. There simply was no such thing known as a “shopping mall.” The Trailways Bus Lines provided regular bus service to and from the town and to most parts of the county. The bus terminal was located in the area where Wendy’s in Logan now operates.

Snowmen were comprised in most yards and snowball battles were part of the wintry days, but as day turned into night, both boys and girls headed toward a flickering fire seen upon the ice-glazed hill that led to the school that today still serves the community. Hours upon hours were spent riding sleds off the hill and around a sharp curve at the bottom that was difficult to maneuverer. Since nobody had a watch, time was never a factor. We came and went as we pleased, always entering our homes with frostbitten feet that were warmed by standing on top of a gas floor furnace that was usually located in the center of the home. The smell of burning rubber from our boots would result from standing on the furnace; a furnace, which over the years had left many scars on small children who playfully would fall onto them while running through the house. The furnaces had been put into nearly all the coal camp houses once gas lines reached the area. Prior to that, each home had a fire place. Outside toilets also were the norm, until water lines were expanded to the region. I’m not sure, but that entire infrastructure likely happened in either the 1940’s or ‘50’s.

Snow filtered sunlight combined with smoke from nearby slate dumps gave an eerie daylight experience to the coal camps. Dust from an Island Creek company mine tipple was a daily experience that in the summertime left women sweeping their porches daily. In the winter, a black faced coal miner could easily be spotted through the spitting snow showers as he walked up the alley from work, his dinner bucket in hand.

Long walks up the railroad tracks at nighttime were routine for the adventurous “Porch Sitters.” Occasionally, a vehicle would stop and the driver, who had made a wrong turn somewhere, would ask for directions to Logan. Our answer was always the same: “You can’t get there from here.” We enjoyed the blank look on the driver’s face when he drove off mumbling to himself.

Most of the time, we had no real destination when we traversed the railroad tracks, oftentimes seeing who could walk on a rail for the longest distance without falling off. There was, however, one spot along the way that we always stopped to rest and to gander at a dimly lighted cinderblock building that stood across the creek from the tracks. Occasionally, when a patron would stagger out of the only entrance to the location and was headed to the toilet out back, the sound of music could be heard from a jukebox inside the smoke filled beer-joint that was simply called “John’s.” The closer it got to Christmas, the more the music seemed to be played each night, and one particular song was repeated time after time—“Blue Christmas.” Sitting on the railroad tracks for long periods of time, we imagined being behind the ominous walls that shielded two billiard tables, a jukebox, a pinball machine, a bar, and an unusual man, named “John.”

There was always a mystery to the place called “John’s.” To the “Porch Sitters,” it was an environment that was forbidden ground. We had heard many stories about the place and sometimes witnessed men fighting on the unpaved parking lot. Yes, we desired that intriguing environment.

Years later, we would cross over the divide and leave the shadows for a dose of reality behind the cinder blocked walls that held many mysteries, including as to why “Blue Christmas” was played so much. But, that is a story best left for another day.

Dreamers that we were, the “Porch Sitters” were content at the time. There might not be a BB gun wrapped neatly under a Christmas tree for any of us. And, it was not likely that anyone would receive a new bicycle. Ah, but the sweet smell of mother’s homemade gingerbread cookies made up for everything after a long evening in the snow.

Besides, we didn’t need a lot. After all, we had our friends and family—as well as our company store porch that even had a telephone booth.

Have a joyful Christmas with your family and friends.

BITS and PIECES

It was nice to hear from former Logan Banner Editor Melody Kinser, who I worked with for several years at The Logan Banner back in the ‘70’s and 80’s…..Melody has lived in Virginia for the past 11 years, the last eight in Richmond where she is the managing editor of four weekly newspapers and two monthly publications associated with the Richmond Times-Dispatch…..Mel and I shared some wonderful times with the old crew we had at The Banner…..the former resident of Mud Fork is there with her mother, Hazel, who had been active in Woman’s Club organizations at Verdunville and in Logan, as I recall…..her father, Dallas, died many years back and was a longtime employee of Appalachian Power…..not long after exchanging texts with Mel, I ran into former Logan Banner Circulation Director, Bob Kolovich who was visiting family here for the holidays…..very few people know that Bob was chiefly responsible for getting me a job with this paper…..after first working in the circulation department under Bob’s supervision, I began covering local sports teams and writing as a correspondent…..most people remember my old buddy as a good athlete, especially at the game of softball where he excelled as a pitcher and hitter…..oh, the stories we could share (and just as many that we could not)…..Bob also lives in Virginia, and I believe he told me the place was named Petersburg, and that is not that far from Melody…..I guess former Gilbert businessman Buck Harless is happy that Mingo-Central’s football team won the Class AA football championship……Buck, for whom the team’s football stadium is named, left us several years ago, but his legacy lives on as the appropriately named Miners’ team made all of the coal field people happy with its victory…..Logan water rates are going to increase by 18% in the near future, while sewer rates are to rise even more, and some people are not too pleased with that news…..however, it has been nine years since there was an increase in the water rate…..speaking of Logan, I’ve seen plans for the new bridge crossing the Guyandotte near the hospital that show that several houses at Buskirk Hill could be purchased in a plan for the bridge…..work, I’ve heard, should begin this coming spring…..the leading vote getter in Logan County this past November election was deserving County Clerk John Turner, who received 10,118 votes….also, there were 81 write-in votes for President of the United States…..Chicago Cubs fans will see a 19.5% increase in ticket prices this coming season, and that is not good…..when I checked on ticket prices for the Reds game there last July, the cheapest ticket was around $75……QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “ You’re saving a few bucks a year, but spending $300 to get a front-end alignment…….”—Nick Casey, who will be one of Jim Justice’s new hires…..Casey was speaking of the state’s gas tax, which is set to drop for the third straight year…..he noted that drivers save an average of about $28 per year but the decrease costs the State Road Fund about $12.5million in revenue…..my only question would be, “Where in God’s name does Mr. Casey get his vehicles worked on?…..I sure hope state vehicles are not going to be serviced at the same automotive place he takes his to…..DID YOU KNOW that the letters in P.R.I.D.E., which is a local organization formed in 1957 during a time of extremely high unemployment in the region, stand for Progressive Rejuvenation Improvement and Development Enterprise?……FINAL NOTE: Some of the cabinet appointments by President-elect Trump surely have drawn considerable interest across the nation. However, when it comes to the argument about the popular vote versus the electoral vote, one must consider that Californians cast 8,167,349 votes for Clinton and 4,238,545 for Trump. So, when you think about it, Clinton did receive 2,017,563 votes nationwide more than Trump, but it was really only because of California’s vote totals. Oh well, “God save the Queen”—I mean, King.

Dwight Williamson Guest Columnist
http://loganbanner.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/web1_Dwight-Williamson-Web-1.jpgDwight Williamson Guest Columnist

Dwight Williamson

Guest Columnist

Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.

Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.

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