A Day In A Coal Camp

Copyright 2008 by Buddy French


The following story is fiction.  It is… representative of a typical day in the lives of coal camp residents in the Appalachian coal fields of southern West Virginia during the flourishing era of the 1950’s.  Although the community of Elbert does exist and its 1950’s description is accurate, the characters, names and events are fiction.

The place is Elbert, West Virginia.  Many people living in this coal camp refer to it simply as No. 7 because that was the number of the mine located here.  My minds eye has me perched high on the point of the mountain just below the No. 7 water tank.  From here I have an unobstructed view of the communities of Elbert Height, Seven Bottom, Eight Bottom, Pinchback, Seven Hill and the highway leading down to Gary.           

Elbert WV

Elbert, WV, 1928
Courtesy WV State Archives

It’s 7:30 A.M. Friday morning May 21, 1951 and this particular day represents many different milestones.  It’s springtime and the mountains which had lain gray and dormant just a few weeks earlier are now a lush green and the smell of blooming flowers fill the air.  Lettuce and onion plants in backyard gardens have broken through the freshly plowed ground and are beginning to mature.            

The last day of school before summer vacation has finally arrived and the morning fog hanging over the hollow is burning off.  Small children with dinner buckets in hand began to emerge from their homes.  An ever increasing stream of kids, some assembled in small groups make their way up Seven Bottom toward the Elbert/Filbert Grade School.    At the same time older junior and senior high students are assembling at designated bus stops to wait for the bus to take them the three miles down to Gary High School.            

The community is starting to awaken.  It’s payday and the end of a long work week for coal miners.  Car after car pass by as the day shift miners form a convoy of vehicles en route to Filbert which is just a mile up the road where the No. 9 mine is located.  Many of the miners working there live at Filbert, but some live here and others on down the hollow.            

It’s now 8:00 A.M. and the Elbert Company Store and restaurant are opening their doors for business.  At 8:15 I see Mrs. Murenski come out of her house, the last one on the end of Elbert Height.  She begins descending the well-worn path below her home that leads to the foot of the hill.  This is a short cut to the store for those living on the hill and within minutes she has negotiated the path, crossed the road and disappeared into the company store...

Elbert 1945|

Elbert WV, 1945
Courtesy ERCA

By now the miners working the Hoot Owl shift at No. 9 have been to the bathhouse, gotten dressed and are going home.  Traffic begins to increase down through Seven Bottom and one of the first cars to come by was James Hairston.  Oh….he was so proud and grinning from ear to ear as he passed by in his brand new Pontiac Chieftain.  Its massive chrome grill sparkled and the car was fully dressed with mirrors mounted on the front fenders, a sun visor, fender skirts and mud flaps.  Its big Straight 8 engine purred like a cat as it whisked by.           

As I scanned the scene below, movement at the Elbert Recreation Center next door to the store caught my eye. It’s a large brick building that contains a barber shop, restaurant, post office, bowling alley, pool hall, dance hall and theater.  Things were getting quite busy as I saw people entering the restaurant and Joe Smith’s barber shop. Several people are gathered at the bus stop across the road from the store.  They’ve been waiting on the 9:15 bus to Welch that’s just now pulling in.  Consolidated Bus Lines has a scheduled run from Welch to Filbert every hour.            

Elbert Bus Stop
            Elbert Company Store and Bus Stop
            Courtesy of NARA

The temperature has risen to a balmy 79 degrees and the sun is beginning to peep over the top of the mountain.  Three young boys emerge from the company store with one carrying a bucket.  They are Tony Ramella, Tyrone Jones and Barry Johnson, all age twelve.  They have played hooky on this last day of school and appeared to have that sneaky look about them like they were up to something.  I watched as they walked around behind the company store and climbed up to the railroad track.  Momentarily, I glanced over to see Mrs. Catlett and Mrs. Simpson entering the post office.  When I looked back, the boys were running down the track to the large steel pedestrian bridge that crossed over the railroad.  In a jiffy they scampered up the two flights of stairs and ran out onto the bridge.  I realized they had heard the train coming and as it approached the bridge and railroad crossing below, the engineer gave three long blast with his whistle.  The steam engine appeared to be really struggling as it pulled the long line of empty coal cars upgrade, destined for the No. 9 mine.  I could here the choo,___choo,___choo of the locomotive and see large puffs of steam spewing from each side of the engine.  Tony, Tyrone and Barry all hunkered down on the bridge right over the track as the engine passed beneath.  A huge cloud of black smoke billowed up around them and for several seconds they disappeared from view.  As the smoke begin to clear I could see them laughing and running to the other side of the bridge.  Their faces were blackened from the coal smoke as they bent over and attempted to brush the cinders from their hair.            

Suddenly and with a thunderous roar, the drive wheels on the steam engine lost traction and begin to spin wildly and the engine stopped dead in its tracks, no pun intended.  Quickly the engineer pushed the throttle forward to stop the spinning and then began gradually pulling it back, trying to gain traction.  But once again the drive wheels began to spin so the engineer reached up and pulled another lever that released sand onto the rails in front of the wheels.  Very gradually he pulled back the throttle.  This time the wheels caught traction and slowly the train began to move forward.  Now it was obvious what the boys had in the bucket and why they had been down on the railroad earlier.  Realizing the tracks had been greased, the engineer raised his fist into the air and shook it at the three little pranksters as they stood above the railroad on Spriggs hill laughing.            

Over in Eight Bottom two company carpenters are banging away, driving nails into the new porch floor they are installing.  It’s the double house where the King and Wadarski families live.  Mrs. Catlett and Mrs. Simpson who I had seen earlier in the day at the post office stood in their respective yards catching up on coal camp gossip.  Mrs. Catlett told Mrs. Simpson she saw Margie Hightower in the company store yesterday shopping.  She said, “Margie bought that pretty floral print dress I had been thinking about buying.  It was a size 12, but I’m sure Margie needs at least a size 14.  And besides, she couldn’t afford it with four kids.”         

The midday sun is now beaming down on Elbert.  The noon bus is just arriving from Welch and stopped in front of the store to drop off passengers.  In the distance I hear the train coming again.  It’s the same one that placed empty coal cars in at the No. 9 mine earlier this morning.  Now it’s picked up forty loaded coal cars and is approaching the lower end of Seven Bottom at a much faster speed than when he went up.  The train’s brakes are making a loud screeching and squealing noise as the engineer slows the train for the curve behind the company store.  He keeps a wary eye out for the three little pranksters he encountered this morning as he sails by.        
As the day slips on into afternoon and the time nears 3:00 P.M., I see Old Man Rasnake over on Pinchback near the top of Seven Hill.  The sun is glaring off his bald head as he whacks away with a pair of clippers, trimming the hedges along the edge of the yard.  I don’t call him “old man” in a disparaging way even though he is seventy-years old.  He’s John senior and his son is John junior so he’s always been referred to by everyone in the community as old man Rasnake.  John senior has lived with his son and daughter in-law since he retired.  He and his wife Stella arrived here in Elbert from the old country in 1908 when he was just twenty-four.  He spent thirty-five years working in the No. 7 mines until it worked out in 1943.  Stella died tragically from cancer that same year.  Since there’s a housing shortage the coal company didn’t feel it was justified for a single man to have a whole house to himself so he was forced to move in with his son.
With the time now winding around to 3:30 school is letting out.  The Elbert/Filbert Grade School will not open its doors again until after Labor Day in September.  I can hear the jubilant sounds of small children’s voices.  Within seconds I see large groups of them began streaming down through Seven Bottom on the sidewalk on both sides of the road.  Some are holding hands as they skip along and sing in unison, “Schools out, schools out, teachers let the monkeys out.”  Now the school buses began dropping off high school students and the traffic gets heavy as the evening shift coal miners pass through Elbert on their way up to the No. 9 mine.
Another hour has passed and the day shift miners are now going home.  I noticed Howard Baker parking his car in front of his house up in Eight Bottom.  As he got out and walked into his yard, his seven year old son Billy came running off the front porch and leaped into his waiting arms.  I hear him saying,  “Daddy, daddy, did you save me a work cake?”  Howard lifted the lid from his big round silver lunch pail and handed Billy a snowball lunch cake, but made him promise not to eat it until after supper. 
There’s nothing fancy about mealtime in a coal camp, but it’s some of the best eatin’ you could ever want and then I heard Mrs. Baker say, “Y’all wash up and come on to supper.”  Howard, Billy and his two sisters sat down at the kitchen table and she served up three heaping bowls filled with brown beans, mashed potatoes and cabbage.  Next she pulled a steaming hot pan of cornbread from the cook stove oven where she had baked it in a black iron skillet.  When she sat down they all held hands, bowed their heads and Howard said, “Thank you God for your blessings and may this food go to the nourishment of our bodies and our lives to thy service. Amen.”  And in almost a whisper Mrs. Baker said, “And thank you God for bringing my husband home safely.”

It’s 5:30 and the neighborhoods are now buzzing with activity.  Children are playing in their yards and a young boy is attempting to build a dam across the creek behind his house.  Suddenly I hear his mother squall out from an upstairs window!  “Larry……get out of that dirty water right now or you’re going to get a whoopin‘.”     Two young girls have drawn a series of chalk lines and blocks on the sidewalk in front of their house and are playing hopscotch.  Over at the company store the evening sun is casting its shadows on a parking lot crowded with cars.  Coal miners are gathered on the store porch waiting on their wives.  They’re inside spending some of that payday on groceries.  Conversation outside is about the game tomorrow at the Elbert baseball field.

Elbert Company Store |

Elbert Company Store
Courtesy ERCA

Just up the street from the store a group of six young boys gather on the steps of a house enjoying a little “horse play” and reveling in the fact that school is out.

Elbert Boys

Elbert Boys
Courtesy NARA

And now for the fourth time in the last thirty minutes I see a man entering the back door of a house over on Pinchback behind the Clubhouse.  None of them have been in there more than a couple minutes before they come out carrying something wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag.  As I glance back over to check on what the young boys are up to I see they have disappeared.  It’s now 6:30 and families have finished supper and are sitting on their porch swings.  It’s time to relax, enjoy the warm spring evening and talk with neighbors.

Kunz Family at Elbert
Kunz Family at Elbert
Courtesy NARA

The clock now says 7:30 and dusk is beginning to settle in over the neighborhoods.  Lights come on at the Elbert Theater illuminating the marquis.  Wow, it’s a double feature tonight with Abbot and Costello in Meet The Invisible Man and Tarzan, the Ape Man.  I wondered where the young boys had run off to earlier.  Well….there they are, all lined up at the ticket window in clean clothes with their shoes freshly shined.  One by one they slide their thirty-five cents under the window for a ticket.  Once inside they gathered at the candy counter and it appears the Butterscotch Life Savers and popcorn are selling well tonight.
The hour is now nearing 10:00 P.M. which is late for people living in a coal camp in 1951.  Many are now in bed, but I hear laughter from somewhere nearby.  It appears to be coming from the Parks house.  They live on Elbert Height with a birds eye view right down on Seven Bottom and the Elbert restaurant.  Their porch light is on and I see Mr. and Mrs. Parks setting there with their son, Ralph and daughter, Mary.  A window is open behind them and next to it inside the house stands a large console model RCA Victor radio.  Suddenly, the laughter becomes almost hysterical and as I listen closely I hear the George Burns and Gracie Allen show on the radio. 

As the hour strikes ten their lights begin to go out.  Within minutes I see the last light upstairs go off.  A warm spring breeze blows the curtains back in an open bedroom window.  From inside….  I hear Ralph and Mary each say, “Goodnight mom, goodnight dad.”  And then from Mr. and Mrs. Parks, “Goodnight kids, don’t forget to say your prayers!”  


McDowell County