West Virginia
Historical Society

Membership Information

April, 2001

Coal Miners and Their Communities
in Southern Appalachia, 1925-1941

Rhonda Janney Coleman
(Part One of Two Parts)

(Ms. Coleman has a B.A. from WVU Tech and is a teacher in the Fayette County, WV School System)

There is a popularly held image of coal towns; they are dirty, squalid, poverty- stricken, collections of hovels with the atmosphere of concentration camps. (1) These are pockets of poverty controlled by overbearing, manipulative and ruthless coal operators. Similarly, common imagery portrays coal miners as being dirty, poor, bereft of the opportunity, ability or desire to better themselves. They are seen at the mercy of coal operators and the company store; constantly in debt, down trodden and wretched.

Allegedly, the coal operators are to blame for this situation. Some say that ruthless, powerful, rich men who were unconcerned about the miners, their wives and children who inhabited the hastily built and poorly constructed structures that comprised towns with names like Rock Lick, Kaymoor, Concho, Terry, Lookout and Dunglen Mountain. These apparently vicious men in the early years hired armed guards like the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to prevent their workers from forming the unions that would later demand higher wages, better conditions and safety and health regulations.

Coal towns and coal miners were dirty. Coal is dusty and dirty. The black coal dust settles on anything and anyone within sight. Were Fayette County towns the epitome of the venality heaped upon coal towns in general today? What did the inhabitants of these towns think of them? Did the Southern Appalachian coal operators own and control the miners as well as the mines?

Coal miners were indeed poor, but poor is a relative term and one that is subject to the poor person's own feelings on the subject. Were Fayette county miners really at the mercy of the coal company and the company store? Were there no other alternatives available? Were the miner and his family constantly in debt? Could he in fact sing, "I Owe my soul to the company store?" If so, was this a hidden agenda of the mine owners, to keep their employees under constant obligation with no other source for the daily necessities of life?

Coal company operators were rich and powerful men. Men like Samuel Dixon, who in the late 1800s founded the New River Fuel Company. That company later became the New River Company, operator of 22 mines in Fayette and Raleigh County, West Virginia. (2) In their haste to make a dollar from the rich bounty underneath West Virginia's soil, all could have been ruthlessly unconcerned about the lives of the miners and their families. Did men like Dixon ignore the health, welfare, education and religious leanings of their employees? The operators opposed the formation of unions in their fields. Some of them were in fact violently opposed, and the tales of the violence that attended unionization of West Virginia's coal fields will be told for many more years. When it was in their best interest to do so, the operators embraced the United Mine Workers of America. Within 90 days of the establishment of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, the West Virginia coal fields were unionized.

This then is an examination of a coal miner's life in the company towns of the Southern Appalachian coal fields. it is not intended to generalize every miner, town or operator in the area. Coal towns, their inhabitants and benefactors were as rich and varied as the seams of coal lying underground; some good, some bad, but all worth digging into. By the time of the Great Depression these towns were already in a decline. A slump in the coal industry, the onset of mechanization, the beginnings of the age of the automobile, all contributing to their demise.

In 1925, according to Crandall Shifflett, there were over 500 coal towns in Appalachia. The building of company "camps" began with the burgeoning coal industry in the 1880s. The discovery of coal and the subsequent building of the railroads necessary for transporting that coal to market, helped fuel the industrial revolution in America. Wealthy industrialists purchased large tracts of land at ridiculously cheap rates, built railroad lines to move their coal and out of necessity, began to build camps for their workers. Initially, inhabitants of these towns were primarily native white Americans. Farmlands all over Appalachia were shrinking as inheritances were divided up among the large Appalachian farm families prevalent in the late 1880s. Subsistence farming became a questionable occupation. Poor whites began leaving the " agriculturally depressed areas of the rural south in search of a better life." (3) They found that life in the coal towns of Southern Appalachia.

As the coal industry expanded, it needed more and more workers. The onset of World War I with its attendant decline in white male workers coupled with the decline in immigration, caused company operators to begin hiring black migrants from southern states. Blacks fled the rural south in droves to work in northern industries and Appalachian coal fields. By 1920, there were 80, 841 blacks residing in West Virginia; 69 % of the total black population of Central Appalachia. (4) The coal towns to which these migrants moved were white dominated. Blacks and immigrants lived in separate, inferior housing, often several families to one dwelling. As we shall see later, the plight of the black coal miner was no better nor worse than the plight of any Negro worker in America during this era. In fact, in some aspects, black coal miners in Southern Appalachia fared better than their contemporaries in other industries.

Paternalism was the order of the day. Some coal company officials called it to contentment sociology, " a blend of social control and benevolence designed to buy labor stability and "attract and retain adequate labor." (5) Some operators were less interested in benevolence than others, the level of their paternalism affected by outside influences such as the demand for coal, availability of labor, and the availability of other services in the surrounding communities. There were men however, like Samuel Dixon, owner of the New River Company, who believed that coal companies should provide more than "bare necessities" for their workers. Dixon felt that conditions in his towns should be "above the prevailing standard. "(6)

When the demand for labor was highest, a miner could command better living quarters. To retain good workers operators were forced to make improvements over the early pioneer camps, which were often little better than the shanties of popular legend. When the supply of labor was high, the miner's lot was more precarious. A slump in coal demand coupled with too many miners could mean the loss of job and home, as operators cut jobs and expenses and evicted miners from company houses. In these times, miners were indeed at the mercy of the operators, or to be more exact, at the mercy of an under-regulated and overpopulated industry.

Shifflett, in his study of coal towns in Appalachia states that the towns went through stages of development; early pioneer years, years of paternalism and years of decline. (7) Temporary housing with few amenities characterized the early pioneer camps. The first workers in a town were generally single men, sometimes immigrants and blacks, brought in to help build the railroad and the housing. Housing in these camps consisted of tents and boarding houses. Herbert Garten was a Fayette County resident who in 1921, at the age of nine moved to Terry, a Fayette County coal camp. According to Mr. Garten, housing was very rough in those early years. Most miners lived in houses that were of "Jenny Lind" construction, "in other words, it was just shanty-type buildings; the wind could blow through, you know, if you didn't have a lot of building paper on the inside." (8) One resident of the coal community of Summerlee recalls newspapers being used to line the insides of company houses built prior to 1920. Autos were not available to miners in those early years, so company operators soon added a company store to supply the necessities of life. As the company expanded its operations and needed more workers, family men were sought after. With the families would come more adequate housing, churches, schools and recreational facilities.

Conditions in the towns gradually improved over those of the early pioneer years. Company officials built newer houses. Some houses, according to Mr. Garten had plastered walls and were, "pretty good houses ... they were pretty nice." (9) Robert Forren, a former .Fayette County miner, born in 1907, describes his home in Dunglen Mountain, West Virginia in The pre-union years:

You take back at, during that period of time, a coal company home --We had nothing in our home. We had two or three old iron beds. And the table that we eat off of was made by our fathers. And you had one or two chairs. And you had what was known as stools, or powder kegs, and things like that to set around the table, eat your meal. Of course, you had a cook-stove and that was all you had at home. You had nothing else. (10)

After the unions came in however, Mr. Forren states, "we had better schools; we had better everything." (11) Labor unrest, increasing coal demand in the pre-World War I years, the ensuing labor shortages and miners moving from mine to mine all claimed partial responsibility for improved conditions in the early mining camps.

The company operators named their towns. Some were named for wives or mistresses, the town of McAlpin was given the maiden name of the operator's mother. Carlisle and Scarbro were named after English villages. Berwind took the name of the owner of the New River and Pocahontas Consolidated Coal and Coke Company. Towns were also named for their locations, North Fork, Slabfork, or given Indian names, Pocahontas, Matoaka. (12) The town of Summerlee was originally named Parrell, after a Mexican mining town that Samuel Dixon had visited. (13) Sister mining town, Lochgelly was originally named Stuart. An explosion ripped the mine apart in 1907, killing 84 men, and the town was renamed by C & 0 official, J. W. Herndon. Lochgelly was a Scottish mining town. (14)

Kaymoor, named after James Kay, first superintendent of the Low Moor Iron Company in Clifton Forge, Virginia, was one of 75 mining camps that the C & 0 railroad served between Thurmond and Hawk's Nest. In 1925, Kaymoor was sold to the New River and Pocahontas Consolidated Coal and Coke Company for over one million dollars. The mine continued to produce coal until its closing in 1962. (15) The Kaymoor mines (number one and number two) actually consisted of several communities, made necessary because of the steepness of the New River Gorge terrain. Each mine had two communities, each with its own store, community center, churches and schools. The bottom communities were opened in the Gorge, near the C & 0 railroad line and the New River. The top communities were established in the cliffs above because there was not enough space in the Gorge for all the miners and their families. In the early 1920s there were 131 houses in the Kaymoor Communities. 78 of the houses had electricity at a charge of two dollars per month. 25 houses .had cold running water. Houses rented for five dollars a month if unfurnished and eight dollars a month when furniture was included. Transportation from bottom to top consisted of a haulage system -- an open cable car that could carry up to 15 passengers. This cable car hauled people and freight up and down a 70 foot cliff. (16)

Historical perception has been that coal towns were dirty and crowded. It is taken for granted that mining families lived in abject poverty with virtually no alternative to this way of life, and that miners were uniformly discontent with their lives. Three studies, the U.S. Coal Commission Report in 1925, the Boone Report in 1946, and the Rockefeller Report in 1980, help perpetuate this image of the stereotypical coal town. These reports establish comparisons between fife in the Southern Appalachian coal towns and "northern, urban, middle- class standards of housing, sanitation and leisure." (17) This could hardly be called a fair comparison since very few communities in the rural south of this era could have lived up to those standards.

In 1925, the U. S. Coal Commission examined 880 coal communities;167 "independent" towns, and 713 company-controlled towns. The Commission issued ratings of good, average or poor to these communities, with the most weight given to "housing, water supply and distribution, sewage and waste disposal."(18) Fully two- thirds of a town's ratings could rest on these factors. The presence of running water and indoor toilet facilities ranked the highest, even though most rural southern homes lacked such amenities at that time.

The Boone Report, conducted by U.S. Naval officers and led by Rear Admiral Joel T. Boone, was designed to "assess structural quality of houses and the adequacy of sanitary facilities and water supplies." (19) Standards were set by the National Housing Agency and the U.S. Public Health Service.

While most mining families probably believed that America was the land of opportunity, they knew where they came from and what realistic options were available to them. Mining families took what opportunities were open and made the best of what was offered, much as Americans through out the country were prone to do during the era of the Great Depression. Miners who had migrated from rural farms were much less judgmental of conditions -- which were generally far superior to what they left behind -- than were the reformers who studied the towns and issued the reports. Miners themselves were concerned for the negative image the public had of miners and wanted to present themselves in a more positive light, especially in their local areas. (20)

One thing that was not taken into account by the generators of these reports was the miners' own feelings concerning their communities. The coal camps were not perfect, the miners realized that. Families coming in to mining towns from other areas noticed the differences, but quickly adjusted to them. As a general rule miners and their families were happy in their towns. Celia Chambers lived in the Fayette County town of Kaymoor in the late 1920s, where her husband was a coal miner. She said of her years there, "I like(d) it very well. We made a good living down there. We raised hogs, chickens, garden and everything. We got along fine down there. I really was sorry when we moved out from Kaymoor." (21)

Interviews with miners and their families reveal a feeling of a real sense of community spirit that has somehow died in the ensuing years. Ada Wilson Jackson, wife and daughter of a coal miner in Concho and Rock Lick, West Virginia, reports, "Well, people in those days, there were just neighbors.... I could come get something from you -- it wasn't anything said. If a miner was sick, or injured and couldn't work, he didn't have to worry about what would happen to his family. Mrs. Wilson states, "well, he didn't have to worry cause the people take care of him. My husband or my daddy or the next one would give his wife their card, scrip card, or whatever it was. "" Houses, privies, mine buildings, and stores are not what make up a " community, " it is the people within all these buildings and their social and economic relationships that develop that special spirit, sometimes called esprit de corp, Coal miners and their families formed their communities and fostered that spirit in all their relationships. According to Bob Forren, this was because of the shared hardships that miners endured, and the sacrifices made for their families. Mr. Forren comments, "our people knowed what hardships they had gone through, what sacrifices had been made . He also states, "there was a relationship at that time amongst the coal miners. In my estimation, [it] does not exist today. (24)

The mind continues to form pictures of coal towns as dirty, unkempt and rundown. Yet, the miners themselves attest to the fact that this was not the case, it just wasn't allowed by company officials. R. E. Cavendish states that in company towns of his acquaintance, a brick red was the standard color for the houses to be painted." Other mining family members relate that company houses were painted a light haze grey. Each family was responsible to keep the fence along side of their property whitewashed and their yard clean and neat. Whitewash was provided by the coal company and placed in special wooden containers at the corners of the fenced yards. (26) Most families in the Summerlee community even whitewashed tree trunks in their yard.

Life in the coal towns was not all work. Much was made of the miners' propensity for gossip, visiting and general "hanging around" by the investigators in the 1946 Boone report. However, for miners and their families, such occupations were not a waste of valuable time, but rather a means of holding the society together in difficult economic times. Many mentions are made by miners and their families of the value of visiting back and forth as part of the social life of the coal camps. Bob Forren talks about the visiting of sick and injured miners by neighbors bearing food stuffs (27) Mr. R. E. Cavendish, a former teacher and resident of coal camps in Fayette County says of visiting, "Well, they had a good many parties; invite people in ... Then, of course, they played cards, and went to school meetings and church meetings." (28) There were times though when visiting was definitely frowned on by the company. Bob Forren, a resident of Lookout, about six miles from the New River Gorge relates that company "thugs" would "walk the little roads in front of the homes at night to see that there was no visitation between the neighbors. And they attended their church services to see that they were, did not conjugate [sic] wheresoever." (29) This was in the early twenties, when opposition to unionization in West Virginia was at its strongest. At that time, miners could be fired and subsequently evicted from their homes for even mentioning a union in the presence of company personnel. (30)

Besides visiting, church and school meetings, miners and their families enjoyed much the same entertainment as Americans all over the country. In some communities, many miners owned radios. Herbert Garten relates that in the town of Terry where he lived in the early 1920s, only the superintendent had a radio. The superintendent fixed up a building, put in some tables and chairs, and the men used that as a gathering place to listen to the radio and play cards or checkers.(31)

Shooting marbles was a favorite past time among the children of mining communities, and, according to J. C. Blume, a resident of Fayette Station (Kaymoor Number 2, bottom), not only children played marbles. Mr. Blume relates:

There wasn't a whole lot of recreation at that time, so the older people shot marbles as much as the kids did. Yeah. The older people, the older miners and all, they shot marbles. We all shot together. Course the older ones usually took us kids' marbles. Usually beat us, you know. Some of us were pretty doggone good ... good shooters. (32)

Many coal towns such as Thurmond, Summerlee, Lochgelly and Royal (3 miles from Terry) had movie theaters. Kaymoor's movie theater, The Azure, showed movies every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings. Boston Blackie was a perennial crowd pleaser and Tom Mix and Buck Jones were favorite cowboy stars of the twenties .13 Mining towns were not devoid of literature either. Mr. J. C. Blume reports that in 1934, his first job was selling magazine subscriptions to Ladies Home Journal, Country Gentleman and Saturday Evening Post. He also sold newspaper subscriptions.(34) Mr. R. E. Cavendish states that some mining families got their newspapers from a "news butch" who sold papers off the trains that regularly passed through these communities. Mr. Cavendish relates, "he had a little comer on one of the trains that he sold his wares -- candy, and chewing gum, and cigarettes, and all kinds of things like that." (35) The Charleston Gazette and the Cincinnati Post were popular newspapers among coal mining families.

The trains that brought in the newspapers also provided daily transportation to the outside world; to and from school for many high school students, (36) and as a means of moving furniture from one place to another when a mining family found it necessary to move. When R. E. Cavendish lived in the mining community of Sewell he relates that trains from the C & 0 railroad stopped there four times per day; two eastbound and two westbound trains. The times when the trains stopped were big events, with people coming to the station to meet the train and "see the people come in." (37) Ada Wilson Jackson recalled that 13 trains ran through Thurmond daily, and while she had to walk to Thurmond to catch the train, from there she could, and did, go anywhere. (38)

Baseball was a popular leisure time activity in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Every little coal town had its own team. Every little boy had his dream of becoming a ball player. Charlie Kowaleski, a 40 year veteran of the Pocahontas coalfields says as a young boy he, "looked up to Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig, " (39) and tried to emulate them. Harry Perkowski, who later went on to play with the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs said that all he ever wanted to be was a professional baseball player. He learned how on the coalfield ball diamonds, playing with homemade baseballs made of paper and tape. (40) On the coalfield teams, skilled ball players abounded and fierce competition was the order of the day. For the operators, building the best ball team was almost as important as getting out the coal, and the operators paid ball- playing coal miners accordingly, gave them softer work assignments and recruited them from other mines. (41)

As in nearly every other aspect of life in Southern Appalachia, baseball teams were segregated affairs. Even though the blacks and whites had separate teams, they often played each other during exhibition and All Star games. Angus Evans, a player for the Raleigh Clippers states however that there were no racial tensions on the diamond. He remembers his years of coalfield baseball by saying, "we had a wonderful time." (42) The black teams, the Raleigh Clippers, Slabfork Indians, New River Giants and others, were professional to the point that they were only one step below the Negro professional leagues. For the white teams, larger cities such as Bluefield, Welch, Williamson and Beckley fielded teams that were in the Class D, Mid-Atlantic professional league system. (43)

Baseball in the coal fields served as a common ground. Everyone participated, whether by playing on the field, coming to the games or contributing a little money. Tremendous rivalries grew between towns as divisions developed within the league. By the 1930s, the coal field leagues had evolved into county leagues with presidents, managers, divisions, schedules, playoffs, championships and All Star games. At one time, the United Mine Workers had a league as well. In the early years, ball teams traveled by train to play one another, and hundreds of their fans would board the trains and travel with them. Every one from board members to doctors attended the games and supported their teams. Coal companies sponsored the teams, providing uniforms and expenses for teams such as Loup Creek, Lillybrook, Kincaid and Summerlee. Miners also supported the players. A box was often set up at the payroll office with every miner contributing a dollar a "half" (half a month, the usual mining pay period) to help the players out. Promotions and giveaways were popular ways to attract crowds to the ball fields. Cars were given away at Bluefield ball games, and spectacles such as donkey baseball and women's softball exhibitions were added attractions between double headers. (44) Rivalries between teams and towns were such that tempers often flared, in the stands and on the diamonds. Teams often recruited their umpires from the stands, and in cases of questionable calls it was usually the "guy that hollered the loudest got his way." (45) Many coalfield players went on to play in the major leagues, men like John Gorsica, who played for Beckley and went on to play in Detroit. Bob Bowman played in the coalfields for Keystone, and later in the majors for the Cardinals. Max Butcher went to Pittsburgh from Holden and the famed Stan Musial played for Williamson. (46)

The heyday of coalfield baseball peaked just prior to World War II. Miners went off to war, and when they returned, it was to a much changed world. Coal companies laid off workers as mechanization revolutionized the industry and coal demand slumped. Gains made by the United Mine Workers of America gave miners more money than they had ever earned.

Automobile production was back in civilian hands and workers bought them as quickly as they rolled off the assembly line. More and better roads were built in West Virginia. People had more options for entertainment. By the mid 1950s, company-sponsored ball teams had been disbanded, and an exciting era had disappeared.

Stuart McGehee, of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives says of coalfield baseball:

It might have been that the tipple was the outfield wall or a row of coke ovens could have been down the line. That didn't matter. Within the diamond, within the world of baseball, on the park, the quality of ball in the coalfields was as good or better than at any level of semipro or amateur ball in America. (47)

Angus Evans of the Raleigh Clippers, and now a retired school teacher from Beckley sums up the feeling of the players from that time, "We just loved the game. We'd have played for nothing." (48)

(To be Continued in July, 2001 Quarterly))


1. Curtis Seltzer, Fire in the Hole. Miners and Managers in the American Coal Industry, The University of Kentucky Press, 1985. Mr. Seltzer states of coal company operators, "They preferred to envelop miners in a total environment, the better to control their behavior. Mining became an occupational prison from which there was no escape, upward or outward." 20.

2. Robert W. Craigo, Ed. The New River Company: Seventy Years of West Virginia Coal History, Mt. Hope, WV, 1976. 1.

3. Crandall Shifflett, Coal Towns, Life, Work and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville 1991. xi.

4. Ronald L. Lewis, "From Peasant to Proletarian: The Migration of Southern Blacks to the Central Appalachian Coalfields," The Journal of Southern History, 55: 77-102, F '89. 81-82.

5. Shifflett, xv.

6. Craigo, 16.

7. Shifflett, 48.

8. Herbert Garten Interview, New River Gorge Oral History Collection (hereafter cited as NRGC), 5.2.

9. Garten, 5.3.

10. Robert L. Forren interview, NRGC. 8.7.

11. Forren, 8.9.

12. Shifflett, 34.

13. Craigo, 105.

14. Craigo, 105.

15. Shifflett, 39.

16. Shifflett, 39.

17. Shifflett, 146.

18. Shifflett, 146.

19. Shifflett, 147.

20. Shifflett, 155.

21. Celia Chambers interview, NRGC.

22. Ada Wilson Jackson interview, NRGC. 26.30.

23. Jackson, 26.30.

24. Forren, 8.18.

25. R. E. Cavendish interview, NRGC, 7.9.

26. Peggy VanAtter interview. Mrs. VanAtter was born and raised in the community of Summerlee, a coal mining town belonging to the New River Company. Interview by author, June 23, 1995.

27. Forren, 8.18.

28. Cavendish, 7.12.

29. Forren, 8.7.

30. Forren, 8.6.

31. Garten, 5.26.

32. J. C. Blume interview, NRGC. 7.

33. Lou Athey, Kaymoor: A New River Community, Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1986, 43.

34. Blume, 3.

35. Cavendish, 7.23.

36. Cavendish, 7.24.

37. Cavendish, 7.24.

38. Jackson, 26.35.

39. Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball, a WSWP (PBS) Presentation, Suzanne Griffith, writer and producer, copyright, 1994 by WSWP.

40. Harry Perkowski in Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

41. Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

42. Angus Evans in Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

43. Shifflett, 163.

44. Extra Innings, Coalfield Baseball.

45. Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

46. Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

47. Stuart McGehee in Extra Innings, Coalfield Baseball.

48. Angus Evans in Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball.

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