A Coal Camp--Visiting The Past

by Buddy French
Copyright 2010

The following is a recollection of the many memories I have of my childhood days growing up in a coal camp.  But first a brief summary of the coal camps in West Virginia and McDowell County in particular.

It was a diverse culture with a very structured life style.  Its diversity was displayed through an almost even mix of blacks from the south, whites native to the region and European immigrants.  The coal companies built and oversaw the communities the miners and their families lived in.  Everything was owned and controlled by the company with the general superintendent of operations having a town mayoral type position.  Its good points and bad points have often been debated.  But I believe most of the residents of that era probably agree it was a way of life with strong family ties in close-knit communitiesNeighbors were often more like family, helping each other out when needed.   


When I was growing up in the 1950‘s, Gary Hollow was a mecca of activity.  The wheels of the mining industry were cranking out a steady stream of coal from all the mines there.  We lived in houses that were built close together that extended several miles up the narrow hollows.  I could not imagine living any place other than a coal camp.  Distant cities like Beckley and Charleston were just unimportant locations on the map.         

The coal mines in McDowell County were operating at or near full capacity.  Living standards in some of the company owned coal camps were probably nearing their peak.  Especially in the larger camps, the coal company showed great interest in the upkeep of their communities.  They employed a labor force of painters, plumbers and electricians to maintain the homes.  The miners were enjoying higher wages and safer working conditions, while the company stores and businesses in Welch were booming.  Sales of new cars and televisions were at an all-time high.  Electric clothes dryers were replacing clothes lines in the yards.  No longer could you tell that Monday was the designated wash day by seeing clothes hanging on the lines.               

Only those who experienced the life and culture of that era can truly understand and appreciate the many wonderful memories we have.  Please keep in mind that this is the view of life as seen through a child’s eyes growing up there.  For better or for worse it was our home and all we knew.  Nowadays, what one would see as a disadvantage was then simply a way of life.          

For me, the coal camp was a place of tranquility and simplicity that seemed sheltered from many of the problems of the outside world. Television was in its infancy and occupied only a fraction of our day.  It was a time when a six-year-old could go out unsupervised and spend the day safely playing all around the neighborhood.  The only real danger was the wrath you might endure from your mother if you were not home in time for supper.                 

Religion played a major role in our lives.  Polishing my shoes on Sunday morning for church was a routine to which I quickly became accustomed.  From a hill above my house, I could count five churches just in our community alone.  And there were ten other coal camps in close proximity of each other spread out up the hollow.  Vacation Bible School was something many of us looked forward to every summer.  

On hot summer nights we slept with only the screen door latched.  There was a time in the earlier years of the coal fields when lawlessness was more common, but while I was growing up violent crime was something you read about happening only in far off cities.  As for gun violence, the only kind I remember was shots being fired in the mountains during hunting season.  The word “drugs” brought to mind a trip to the company doctors office.  Sitting on those hard wooden benches and the antiseptic smell will forever be etched into my mind.  And who can forget that a shot of penicillin seemed to be the cure-all for everything.

The coal camp was a wonderful example of the great American melting pot of different nationalities and ethnic groups.  My childhood friends had names like Smith, Herlovich, Heldreth, Charney, and Sagady.  We didn’t have computer games and gadgets to individually entertain us so we often played in large groups.  We improvised and played made up childhood games like Hide-and-Seek, Red Light-Green Light and Snake in the Grass.  One real favorite we enjoyed was Kick the Can or as some called it, “Tin Can Alley.”  With as many as eight or ten of us, we liked playing this game after dark and in the back alley road behind the houses.  A combination toilet and coal box sat behind each house offering good places to hide behind.  With a lump of coal retrieved from a coal box, we drew a circle about three feet in diameter on the pavement.  A can....which could easily be found in a nearby trash can, was placed in the circle.  Carnation milk cans usually worked best because the end had not been cut out of them.  Then someone was selected to guard the can.  A player was chosen to kick the can down the road giving everyone an opportunity to run and hide.  The person selected to guard the can had to bring it back and place it in the circle.  Now he had to venture out away from guarding to find everyone in their hiding places.  When he found you he ran back, picked up the can and pounded it on the road three times while calling out your name that you had been caught.  The objective was to catch everyone, but if you ventured too far from the can while searching, someone could come in and kick it down the road again.  At that point everyone that had been caught could go hide a second time.  If you weren’t quick on your feet you may never catch everyone and get your turn to go hide.         

There was never a shortage of things to do.  From a young boy’s perspective it was always fun to go out on a warm summer night to catch night crawlers, the choice bait for fishing in the river.  The water was too dirty for us to eat the fish we caught, but we really enjoyed catching them.  If we didn't feel like fishing we would launch a homemade boat into Tug River.  Sometimes they would float down stream and sometimes they would sink!         

Dad didn’t give me a weekly allowance for spending money.  If I needed money, I would pull my red Radio Flyer wagon along the side of the road and collect pop bottles.  They brought three cents a piece at the company story.  For less than fifty cents I could buy a Coke, Moon Pie and a stick of pepperoni.  Coal miners also liked to gather on the company store steps in the evening and on weekends.  It was a favorite spot for socializing and bragging about how much coal they had loaded.

Another great form of entertainment was playing in the mountains.  My best friend and I, whose name was also Buddy, would often spend the day there.  Exploring the woods, swinging on grapevines and damming up small creeks was our version of the modern day amusement park.  We would often leave after breakfast and not return from the mountains until supper. 

I still remember that tragic day in 1955 when I was eleven years old.  We were just returning home and Buddy’s mother met us in front of his house.  She told him that his dad had been seriously injured in a mining accident and was taken to Grace Hospital in Welch.  He worked in the Gary No. 6 mine, the same one where my grandfather had been crushed to death in a slate fall several years earlier.  The next day I went to see Buddy after he returned home from a visit with his dad.  He began to cry when he tried to tell me what happened.  He said his dad was pinned between two mine cars when they jumped off the track and wrecked.  His hip bones were crushed in the accident and he was in terrible pain.  After about two months his dad was released from the hospital, but would remain crippled for life.  Since he could no longer work, Buddy and his family weren’t allowed to stay in their coal company house.  It wasn’t too long before they moved to Virginia and I had lost my best friend.  A couple years later I received more bad news.  Rather than enduring the pain any longer, Buddy’s dad had taken his own life.

Bicycles were a huge part of a young boy’s life in the coal camps.  The Schwinn Roadmaster with its big fat whitewall tires, luggage rack and headlight was the Cadillac of all bikes.  Then the “English bike,” imported into this country from England, became all the rage in 1956.  It wasn’t hard to distinguish them from their American counterparts because of their tiny tires.  With three speed gears they were considered an elite racing machine that could outrun any other bike.  On Christmas day in 1956 I became the proud owner of one.  It was just the second English bike in Gary No. 3 or what was referred to as Main Gary.  The name plate just below the handle bars identified it as a Hercules Tourister, manufactured in Birmingham, England.                
Life in the coal camp had been good for me, but I’ll never forget when I began the seventh grade in the fall of 1956 and my first year of junior high school.  My world was suddenly turned upside down.  I began to display symptoms of a disorder that had taken over my life and one I feared I may never recover from.  The resulting psychological and emotional changes were unlike anything I had ever experienced.  Even a trip to the company doctors office would not have cured this affliction.  Weeks went by before the diagnosis became obvious.  I had been stricken with what was commonly referred to back then as..…“girl crazy“          
I had never before found anything at all interesting about girls.  They didn’t want to play in the mountains or go fishing.  But then I saw this girl in school one day and the lack of those good traits didn’t seem to matter anymore. I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.  When I met her in the hallway my heart would begin to race and if I tried to speak to her I became tongue tied and panic stricken.  My bumbling first time romantic experience was a total disaster, but amazingly I began to notice there were other pretty girls in school.
It was that time in a young boy’s life when one actually began taking notice of personal hygiene and not having to be forced to take a bath.  And there was that first experience with shaving so I could make those long sideburns grow.  I remember actually looking forward to going to the barber shop to get a flat top haircut. 
Saturday morning on miner’s payday weekend was something to look forward to.  Traffic out of Gary Hollow was heavy and a long, slow moving line of cars into Welch were usually encountered at Coney Island.  Once in town, you often spent another fifteen to twenty minutes circling the streets looking for a parking place.  Incredibly, I found myself taking an interest in the latest fashion in teenager’s clothes.  I remember Mom taking me into J. C. Penney’s and my first experience of walking on a carpeted floor.  Penney’s had the bright blue and red pants that were becoming the latest fad.  Some pants had a buckle in the back just below the waistline.  If you wore the pants with the buckle loose you were available, but if it was buckled, you were “going steady” and had a girl friend.    
Cars were something else that caught my fancy in 1956.  It was so exciting to go to Welch see the new year model cars.  I remember it was late September and Don Clark Ford Sales at Coney Island was showing the new 1957 Ford for the first time.  It was a big deal back then to keep the cars covered and hidden from the public until the new car showing date. That was the day I fell in love with the 1957 Ford Sunliner Convertible.  Its long, sleek tail fins introduced a new era in automotive design.       
By the summer of 1957 I was thirteen, but of course we would say “going on fourteen“.  Frequent trips to the Linkous Park swimming pool in Welch were becoming routine.  After cashing in several pop bottles at the company store, a few friends and I would walk over to the Gary gas station to catch a ride.  We could have ridden the bus that ran once every hour, but we wanted to save that thirty-five cents to buy snacks.  With our swim trunks rolled up in a towel in one hand, we would stick out the other hand and raise our thumb.  Usually within five to ten minutes we could catch a ride and arrive at the pool by the time it opened.  A day of frolicking in the water really worked up an appetite, so by the time we got home that evening we were ready for supper.  Suppertime in the coal fields usually meant everyone sitting down together for a family meal.  A typical menu might consist of cornbread, brown beans, cabbage and mashed potatoes, while desserts were usually reserved for Sunday meals only.
Another great thing about the year 1957 was witnessing the beginning of the Rock and Roll era.  My sister Betty and I always looked forward to going into the G. C. Murphy store when in Welch.  Our first stop was always the record department.  They would let us play our favorite songs by singers like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino.  Those 45 RPM records were just ninety-eight cents a piece and we usually bought a couple to take home and play on our little portable record player.  Before heading back to Gary we always liked to stop by the Franklin Dairy Bar for a big cone of vanilla ice cream.  
Ronnie Sagady, who lived just down the street from me, had become my closest friend by the time I was fourteen.  We went on adventurous hiking trips deep into the mountains and took long trips on our bicycles.  One summer morning we decided to do the six mile ride to Welch.  Traveling on the main highway we arrived in town sooner than expected.  With no particular destination in mind we rode through Welch and up to the Sterling Drive Inn.  The day was still young so we said “what the heck, let’s ride up through North Welch and out on to the Pineville road.”  In about an hour or so we had come to what was referred to as Pineville Stretch.  At about a half mile in length, it was probably the longest stretch of road in McDowell County.  It had a notorious reputation as a favorite place for guys to bring their souped-up hotrods to drag race late at night.  The only thing we saw racing that day were go-carts at a small track near the side of the highway.
It was now early afternoon and we began to think about the long ride back to Gary.  Wanting to take a little different route, we rode out to the Stevens Clinic Hospital and turned up the new Welch bypass.  I had recently installed a speedometer on my English bike that registered 50 MPH and often wondered just how fast this bike would go.  As we started down the other side toward Coney Island I shifted my bike into its highest gear.  When we approached the steepest part of the grade I stood up and leaned forward over the handle bars.  With all the strength in my legs I pedaled as hard as I could.  About halfway down the mountain I looked down to see how fast I was going.  With the pavement beneath me passing by at a breakneck speed, the speedometer needle was registering 45 MPH.  When I looked back, Ronnie was in the distance trying to catch up on his smaller twenty-four inch bike.  That was one of our most memorable rides and I would estimate we rode about twenty-five miles that day. 
No longer were we collecting and selling pop bottles for spending money.  We were now in the car washing and detailing business.  With the coal mines booming, miners rushed to Welch to buy new cars.  For many it was the first brand new car they ever owned and they took great pride in keeping them clean.  Unfortunately, the closest thing to a car wash machine in a coal camp was a water hose.  As young entrepreneurs we were happy to offer our car wash services on Saturdays.  On a good day we could make fifteen to twenty dollars each which was pretty darn good money back then. 
As we grew into our mid teens and earned our driver’s licenses, we needed that extra money for gas when we used the family car.  We always looked forward to going to Welch on Saturday morning for the premier event in the county; the Record Hop at the Pocahontas Theater.  Russ Cook emceed a live broadcast on WELC radio from the large theater dance stage.  He went on the air at ten o’clock with Dave “Baby” Cortez’s song, “Happy Organ” blaring from the huge speakers while the stage was packed with jumping, gyrating teenagers.    
A fierce, but good clean competitive spirit existed between the schools of Gary, Welch, Big Creek, Iaeger and Northfork/Elkhorn.  But on Saturday morning, when they all merged at the Pocahontas Theater, it was all about music and dancing.  We were more interested in who was performing the latest moves or dressed the coolest.  Our common bond was just being teenagers who loved Rock & Roll.
Now….some fifty years later I still enjoy reminiscing about those days growing up in McDowell County.  I’m reminded of a more simplistic time when it was a much larger and slower moving world.  And I’ve come to realize why we felt such pride for our communities;  simply put…. it was home.  Residents of other coal camps throughout McDowell County felt as I did and rightfully so.  The friendships we established and the communities we lived in will forever be frozen in time in our memories.

Melvin "Buddy" French
Class of 1962
Copyright 2010

McDowell County