It is a sad commentary that I come to you today in regard to the “Appalachian plague” that has manifested itself into the hearts and souls of so many fellow Logan Countians. I see it as an illness without a clear cut cure, and it is, shockingly, not even drug related. It is the slow and cancerous death of coal mining in the heart of Appalachia; perhaps the end of life— as we know it.
I grew up in a coal camp at Verdunville surrounded by coal miners and their families. My father was a coal miner, as was my grandfather, most of my uncles, and just about every neighbor. The sight of my black-faced grandfather walking up the alley with his dinner bucket in hand, and several of his grandchildren, including me, racing to beat the other to his oatmeal cake or pineapple pie that he seemed to always bring back in his dinner bucket, has never faded. Admittedly, it is odd that of all the things in life one sees, and accomplishes in these coal fields, sometimes childhood still looms as some of the “best days of your life.” One might say, “Nobody had anything, but everybody had everything.” It was, of course, like this just about everywhere in the county.
Logan has long been ravaged for its resources by mostly out-of-state companies and corporate land owners, first for its timber, and then our coal. Still, it is difficult to imagine the county had it not been for the coal mining industry that brought most people here to begin with. It is likely that without our mountains of coal that has been mined since the early 1900’s, southern West Virginia would not have been developed for much else. Even the timber industry could only have existed until the trees were all gone, taking many years to replace, and creating more flooding in the meantime. Before coal, the only business in the wilderness here was the lost art of trapping for furs, ginsenging, logging, and the making of moonshine. It is simply a fact that each and every life in Logan County has been affected in one way or another by the coal industry. Now, I ask, what are we going to do without it, if it does not make a “new President” comeback?
Recently, a gentleman from the Man area stood in front of me with a traffic citation that contained minor charges. As we spoke, he informed me that he had been a coal miner for the past 17 years until he was laid off. Since that time, the gentleman has lost his home, two vehicles, his wife, and—more importantly—his pride. He now lives with his parents. “What do they expect us to do around here,” he wearily asked? For his 17 years of mining coal to produce most of the energy that helps keep the “White House” comfortable, this man now receives only $91 a month in food stamps. And there are those in Congress who would like to even cut out that program.
Mining injuries, deaths and related disasters have forever taken its toll on the people of these hills and valleys, but the “black gold,” as it was once called, fueled this country in the making of steel and iron during two World Wars in which the results of either could have left us speaking the German language. After all, there was a good reason why President Woodrow Wilson during World War I made coal miners exempt from having to serve in the military. Still, many left to serve their country anyway, and several never saw these hills again.
Much of West Virginia is owned by out-of-state interests, and Logan County is no exception. Until the 1950’s, even the homes of the coal miners themselves were owned by the coal companies. The miners paid rent to the company and shopped at the “company stores” usually located in their neighborhoods. When mechanicalization in the coal industry replaced the jobs of many miners during the 1950’s, young men left for places like Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, and Chicago seeking employment. Some never returned to their native home. Now, I’m afraid that all of our healthy and willing young people will flee our county for better horizons, leaving only our growing older population and the remainder of the younger generation, too many of whom are drug addicts.
Neighboring Wyoming County, which has been hit terribly hard by the loss of coal jobs, is 75% owned by out-of-state corporate interests, who get state mandated tax breaks for what is labeled “managed timberlands.” I can’t help but wonder how much the property values would be raised if the lands were re-classified as “farmland” for certain crops—say, cannabis. As an example, Heartland Forestland Fund, an investment company out of North Carolina that owns much of Logan County and a total of 500,366 acres in 31 West Virginia counties, could help our state economy easily if the corporation was made to pay just a $1 more per acre per year.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the entire state is in economic trouble because of a lack of coal production— just take a look in Charleston as the Republican dominated legislature attempts to resolve a $430 million state budget gap. Hopefully, when it is all said and done, there will be something good come of it all. Unfortunately, I feel like it will be a situation of “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” If that be the case, no one needs to worry about the concealed weapon law. I mean, heck, who will be able to own a gun? Many laid off miners are pawning theirs right now to help pay their utility bills.
Bankrupt coal companies not only cost miners their jobs, but job related industries on the local level have been victimized, as some were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by these same companies. Others were owed lesser amounts, which they cannot recover.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. The fact is that with the lack of taxes derived from coal and related businesses, it should be just a matter of time before “everyone” feels the pinch,” including county employees. When one realizes that 70 percent or so of all tax dollars you pay goes toward the Logan County school system, the future of our children is obviously at stake. It is also a good reason to consider, as one always should, the qualifications of all persons and office holders when it comes to the impending economic struggle.
Miners’ and widows’ pensions, black lung benefits, and social security once played an important role in putting money into the local economy. Though social security benefits are still lifeblood for many, the fact is, pensions for miners and their widows have mostly been halted because of the deaths of the individuals who were receiving the checks.
It is hard to believe that back in 1974, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that the small town of Logan, which had 3,300 residents at the time, led the nation in per capita sales. It was reported at the time that the city’s merchants took in $33 million per year, more than $10,000 per resident. Do you want to know why?
Growing up back then, there were two magical words here in the coal fields: “Christmas” and “Check Day.” While the yuletide holiday need not be defined, allow me to explain “Check Day.” It was a time when millions of dollars came flooding into the crowded post offices at the beginning of each month, thanks to the United States government and the United Mine Workers of America. Social security, food stamps, and pensions made “Check Day’’ an energetic day. There were 10,500 Logan Countians drawing social security back then and a lot of pensioners.
Nowadays, there barely is even a union, much less people to draw any pensions.
Pardon me for not having a solution to all of this. But frankly, I would rather be a “squeaky wheel” than a “still sow” when it comes to this depressing matter. I just wish I had the “grease”—as I continue to love my rugged Logan County.
BITS and PIECES
I could almost kick by self in the rear for inadvertently leaving out three names from a listing of people I mentioned last week that formerly worked at The Logan Banner, or WVOW radio…..the late Jim Mitchell and his wonderful wife, Georgia, were great friends of mine…..Jim, who quite frankly was admittedly known as a “political whore” at election time, worked at both WVOW radio and The Banner, as well as doing television……another personality that worked at the defunct WLOG radio station, The Logan Banner, and started what was Chapmanville’ s The Guyandotte Voice newspaper, was Jerry Godby……and how anybody could forget the name of WVOW’s Dave Allen is beyond me, but I did…..anyway, I always marveled at how he could be so “spritely” when he did his very early morning radio show, “Dave in the Morning”…..a couple of other names some readers may recall as two of the The Banner’s best photographers ever were Emory Jeffrey and Jim McDonald…..last week, I wrote about a 1927 moonshine and murder case at Harts involving the Conley family there which ended with the killing of what The Banner said was Jim Tomley…..as I suspected, the name of Jim Tomley should have been Jim Tomblin, a well-known area name…..turns out Mr. Tomblin, who was shot and killed during the incident, was the grandfather of a friend of mine, Donald Tomblin, of Mud Fork…..this was brought to my attention by another good friend, Darry Browning of Harts, who informed me that Stonewall Conley was his grandfather, and that he remembered him talking about the incident…..there are many stories of the past with murderous endings, most involving alcohol…..being a Matt Kenseth NASCAR racing fan, I was not so happy when Denny Hamlin passed him to win the Daytona 500 last Sunday, but the good news is that Hamlin is a West Virginia resident; as you may know, he now lives near the Greenbrier Resort…..there a few positive things I would like to say about the town of Logan—it has a great group of workers representing it on its various departments, especially the Water Board, Fire Department and Police force …..more about the police department later…..by the way, Logan now has at least four fulltime residents living under the Water Street bridge, including one woman…..local churches and others, I’m told, regularly provide them with food and other necessities…..I don’t know about you, but I think the whole idea of a state caucus is silly; Primary elections just make more sense in voting for a President…..congratulations to Logan County Clerk John Turner for hiring Kevin Miller as an employee for the clerk’s office…..I have observed Miller at work at his previous job, and he was always a hard worker, and very courteous…..DID YOU KNOW that members of the federal government have been looking into the legitimacy of certain candidates seeking political offices in this state and county?…..the people ofthe Harts Creek area have forever been hampered by poor mountainous roads leading into it from all directions…..large properties there have been handed down from one generation to another, and I predict one of these days that their properties will be more valuable than any in the county…..I would never selling any property there, not even a mountain side…..QUOTE OF THE WEEK:…..”Here lies an Atheist; all dressed up, and no place to go.”—quote on a tombstone, although I don’t agree with it. FINAL NOTE: At least two City of Logan police officers, Robert (Junior) Adkins and his brother, David, are going to be featured in a television series titled “Appalachian Detectives.” The deal has been made and it will be regularly televised on the TRUE TV network. Originally, the name of the series was going to be “Hillbilly Cops”. Does this mean that he recent burglaries to several Stratton Street businesses could be solved? Stay tuned…….to TRUE TV, that is.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.