Recalling a Coal River Company Town
The Abandoned Coffee Pot Cafe, Photo by Michael Keller.
By Johnny M Vergis
Special Thanks to Goldenseal Magazine
Let me take you to my hometown, Edwight, Raleigh County, back in the 1940's when I was
growing up there. Let's look down
from Turkey Rock on the mountain above town. There are coal miners walking to and
from between the bathhouse and the company store, children playing, and womenfolk
moving about. What a bustlng place my town is.
Dropping down to the intersection of State Route 3 and the dirt road that leads across a girder bridge
into town, we see two business establishments. One is a gas station with a large oval sign that reads
"Esso." Look at those pumps where the gasoline rises to the top, enclosed in a glass container
for anyone to inspect its purity. This is the garage owned and operated by Clyde Montgomery, whose
house is built onto the back of his business. On the other side of the intersection is the Coffee Pot Cafe, which in later years will become a teenage hangout.
As automobiles cross, the wooden planks of the bridge clap and rumble. Coal River flows below. The water runs greenish and clear except where Hazy Creek meets the Big Coal. Here the water turns black from coal dust washed off at the tipple
Look there on the side of the mountain. That repugnant blue smoke comes from slate, a discard of coal, that has ignited after years of exposure. At night the smoldering slate dump produces a shimmering red glow. It will burn uncontrolled for years to come, part of the backdrop to my youth in Edwight.
The biggest building in town, the company store, looks ahead. It's constructed of red brck and surrounded on three sides by a wooden porch, with wooden steps leading up to the main floor My favorite part of the store is on the south end. Here you can get comic books and honest-to-goodness cherry coke and Superman comics.
The other end of the store building houses the offices where miners can go in to the teller's window and draw out scrip, which is debited against future wages. The man in the office who always wears a hat and smokes a cigar is called "Big Tom." Those other two clerks are Arthur 'Shorty' Jarrell, brother to Orville the town barber, and Reginald Dietz, the father of Gene and Bob, two of my playmates
To your right is another teller window, where you can buy stamps for your letters Yes, Edwight has a post office and the post office is in the company store. Mrs. Lively is the postmistress. She will be responsible in later years for my going into the U.S Air force. I suppose the recruiters go to the post office to locate eligible candidates.
As you leave this office and enter the middle door on the outside of the store building, you go past the soda fountain on the right. Straight ahead are steps that lead up to the store offices. On the loser floor there is meat, clothing, toys and many other articles for sale. In the dry goods section is a lady named Ruth Foster, and in the meat department is Mr. Sharp the butchre. The manager of the store is Aubrey Ward, whose son is another one of my playmates.
The miner's bathhouse is the resposibility of Ray 'Shorty' Williams, the father of my friends Billy and Harry. As I help Billy assist his father in cleaning up the bathhouse, I notice that the miners' clothes and personal belongings hang in baskets from the ceiling, hoisted there by a chain and secured with a lock. I still think it's a strange system.
Across the street from the company store is the town poolrook, operated for the company by Claude robinson and later by Kenneth Eskins and Bill Parsons. A center island divides the poolroom into two sections, one side for the whites and one for the 'colored' clientele. This is a popular place, but when they try to get into the hamburger business they fail miserably. The best hamburgers come from Mike's Place, a successful non company restaurant and beer joint.
On one end of the poolroom building is the town doctor'soffice. Dr Ford, our doctor, willlater move to Beckley to continue his practice. In later years a new doctor's office made of cinder block will be built just across the street, to be operated by kindly Dr. John D Lee, assisted by Mary Brown.