Copyright 2004 Buddy French
I have many wonderful memories of growing up in Gary Hollow during the 40's, 50's and early 1960's and I'm sure many of my friends that lived in Blackwolf, Pageton, Anawalt, Jenkinjones and Leckie feel the same way.
Much has been written about living in a coal camp or company town, where its residents were held captive to a paternalistic life style. Where everything was owned and controlled by the company.
We've read stories about the destitute existence of life in an Appalachian coal camp, usually written by someone that never lived a day there. I'm not saying it was perfect, but most of us probably have many more good memories than bad ones.
All coal camps are not created equal and fortunately, I think McDowell County had some of the better built and maintained communities. I feel so privileged to have been a part of a unique culture that is now sadly lost to history, but can forever live on in our memories. The following contains a few facts and some memories of growing up there, so come on Coaldiggers and we'll take a little trip down memory lane. Let's climb aboard the "Time Machine Transporter" and buckle your seat belts and hang on for the ride of your life. The transporter starts out slowly, but as it gains speed, the years begin to blaze by as the calendar rolls backward through the 1990's, 1988, 1987 and to 1986, when U. S. Steel's mines were still operating. As its speed increases, the years continue to roll backward and another chapter of history sadly comes to an end as Gary High School closes out its illustrious history with the graduating class of 1978. The Coaldiggers would now become the Golden Knights as Gary and Welch come together to form the new Mount View High School.
The years continue to click off to 1972 and 1971, when the Coal Company still owned the homes in Gary. We now see those memorable years of 1970 and 1966 when the Coaldiggers were state AA football champs and we were all so proud.
With a terrific roar, the time machine accelerates to its top speed as we feel the G-forces holding us glued to our seats. Now the year 1962 has arrived and I see myself with all my classmates at our graduation dance at the Gary Country Club.
Quickly, 1960 rolls around and teenagers head out of Gary Hollow in droves on Saturday morning going to the Record Hop at the Pocahontas Theatre in Welch. We see the girls riding to Welch with their parents or friends, but the normal mode of transportation for most of us guys was to hitch hike. Can you even begin to imagine hitch hiking anywhere today?
The Time Machine Transporter zooms along and quickly arrives in those fabulous 1950's. Do you remember 1958 and the McDowell County Centennial and the wooden nickels that one could actually spend anywhere in the county? Our dad's grew beards for the Centennial and were referred to as "Brothers of the Brush".
As the time machine begins to slow, it's May 1957 and springtime has arrived in all its glory, along with the carnival, as Thomas Joy Land Shows set up at the Gary No. 10 ball park. What about those trips to Linkous Park swimming pool in Welch on those hot summer days. And of course who could ever forget Elvis and the birth of "Rock and Roll". Do you remember those fantastic dances at the Memorial Building in Welch and at the Elbert dance hall on Friday nights after the football games? How about those pegged pant legs and flat top haircuts combed back into a "DA" that was so popular with the guys.
It's 1956 and I bet you girls remember those pajama party sleepovers where you all stayed up until those unheard of hours like twelve midnight, giggling and talking about the guys at school you'd like to date. Television signed off with the National Anthem and came on the next morning with a test pattern that we somehow found fascinating as we sat and stared at it until the regular programming began.
Sleigh riding was the favorite winter sport. It seemed there was never a shortage of snow or a steep hillside to sleigh ride down in those McDowell County hollows. Large bonfires were built to huddle around for warmth and parents often joined their children for a night of sleigh riding on the weekends.
Times were good and we see those "I Like Ike" bumper stickers as the 1956 presidential race heats up. The coal industry is booming and coal miners are headed to Welch to buy new cars. Best described as two-ton masses of steel and chrome, a new automobile embodied the American dream. They zoomed down the highway with the aerodynamics of a giant brick, but boy did they have class!
The time machine slows even more as we come upon 1952 and 1951 and as we head into Welch, the traffic lines start at Coney Island on payday weekend as people crowd into town to shop. Some ride those old blue and white buses operated by the Consolidated Bus Line, frequently having to stand in the isle because all the seats are filled.
The sidewalks on McDowell Street are literally packed with a mass of humanity as people swarm into G. C. Murphy's, J. C. Penney's, the Flat Iron Drug Store, King Cut Rate, Franklins Dairy Bar and many other stores. The sleek Powhatan Arrow, with passenger cars filled to capacity, pulls into Welch. Hissing exhaust vents along its sides send out blast of snow white steam as puffs of black coal smoke swirl up into the air above its smokestack.
Back in Gary it's now 1950. We have slowed to a creep as we pass over an Italian lady's house in No. 6 Hollow. The wonderful aroma of homemade bread being baked fills the air as she slides the loaves from a large brick oven in her back yard. Television has not yet arrived in Gary and people listen to the radio as Lowell Thomas reports the news. On Saturday night we listen to the "Shadow", a mystery drama that keeps us gathered around the radio, leaning forward to the edge of our seat in an almost breathless state.
It's now 1949 and Gary High School is nearly bursting at the seams, as the hallways are so crowded that when the bell rings there's barely time to get to your next class. The powerful Coaldigger football team would enjoy four straight years of unparalleled success and become one of the dominant teams in southern West Virginia.
Now it's 1948, 1947, 1946 and finally the Time Machine Transporter grinds to a stop in 1945. World War II is over and at last the world is at peace. With some having been gone for three and four years, military men began to pour back into Gary wearing their dress uniforms and black shiny shoes. Nothing can ever describe the euphoria those mothers and wives felt as their sons and husbands stepped off the buses and into the arms of their loved ones. And with that, we see the beginning of the "baby boomer" generation. At this point I wish, as many of you might, that I could just stay for a while, but memories are there to be visited and not dwelled upon. Just remember that your memories can never be taken away from you and money can never buy them. So climb back aboard the Transporter, Coaldiggers, and buckle your seat belts again. We can always come back for another visit and the ride is free. I hope you've enjoyed our little trip down memory lane and maybe we'll see you somewhere back in the future.
Melvin "Buddy" French
Class of 1962