Memories of a Coal Camp Childhood
by Phylenia French
My daddy was a bone picker.
At least, that is what he was known as in the West Virginia coalfields in the late 1930s. A bone picker was the worker who separated rock from the actual coal. His time spent in and around the mines eventually killed him. He got black lung and died, and in his daughter's eyes, 80 plus years was still too young.
Lying in his hospital bed with an oxygen tube connected to his nostrils, daddy still enjoyed telling stories from his work experiences in the coalfields. I gathered extra nuggets of useful information for my manuscript which was in the developing stage.
He came to Coalwood, West Virginia, in 1939 to work for Carter Coal Co., which eventually became Olga Coal Co. He told me he was paid $4.46 a day and his first job was removing rock from the coal as it came off the tipple conveyor belt. He also worked as a brakeman and motorman on the rail cars that rode down into the deep mines. He eventually became a skilled welder, a job he practiced until he retired around 1980.
In spite of the sentence pronounced upon them, the men who entered the mines for a livelihood developed a strong devotion and love for the land and the mountains where ribbons of black gold promised prosperity.
The demand for miners depended on the prosperity of the coal company that was in operation at a particular place and time. Men moved from camp to camp to support their families. This is the reason my family made several moves within the camps.
Though I was very young when we lived in Bottom Creek, West Virginia. I vividly recall one of our neighbors; a Hungarian man named John, who had only one arm. When we spoke of him, we addressed him as "One Arm John". In today's society this would be forbidden, but at that time, we made that type of reference just to identify a person, not to be critical or demeaning.
My memory of John seems to be a reflection only of his solitary life. I do not remember his mingling much with the people of the camp, consequently we didn't learn much about his family. Sifting through my memory, I see a lone, short man topped off with a black beret that crowned his face of orange peel skin and a prominent, bulbous nose. His long sleeved shirts always had one arm folded in half and pinned to his shoulder.
I remember watching the ice truck pull up in front of his house and the driver, using very large tongs, lifted out a gigantic cube of ice and carried it to his back porch, where he placed it in the bottom of a wooden ice box.
The fact that John was our next door neighbor allowed me to observe differences in others which I might otherwise have missed. I treasure the knowledge I gained as we lived in different camps early in my life.
When I was only five years old, I loved to jump rope, but seeking a challenge, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could run and jump rope at the same time. Well, I fell flat on my face in the middle of the asphalt road and lay open a nasty gash in my forehead.
I was actually scared (for some reason), to go home to be checked, so I ran under a neighbor's porch, who, when she saw my plight, took me by the hand and walked me home with blood streaming down my face.
My mother was so hysterical, she jumped the fence to go across the road and ask someone to take me to the company doctor. We must not have owned a car at that time and because the tipple where my dad worked was in walking distance of our house it must not have been necessary. I don't remember who drove me to the doctor, (I believe it was my uncle's brother-in-law), but my office visit required extended time because the gash in my forehead demanded stitches. When it came time to have the stitches removed from my head, I remember my dad walking me down the road, across the railroad tracks through all the slack from the tipple, and up a hill to Doc Ficken's office which was situated in a large, rambling house. The visit was short because the doctor only needed to remove the stitches and pronounce me healed, so Dad and I left the doctor's office with me bearing the reward of one lollipop for cooperating.
I spent most of my childhood in Maitland, a camp situated about two miles from Welch City limits. From Route 52, a bridge crossed Elkhorn Creek and led into the camp. There was a "colored" church at the end of the bridge and during summertime meetings, when the door was left ajar, singing, shoutin' and rejoicing echoed in the distance.
As we sat in our porch swing up on the hill, we could hear the distant roar of the steam engine as its massive tons of metal vibrated against the tracks. With the approaching speed of the train, came the lonesome sound of its whistle echoing from the mountains. That sound, even today, seems to evoke a romantic longing in the soul... for the mountains, perhaps?
A brick post office building was located next to the railroad track. I remember seeing the heavy, canvas, mail bags being tossed from the train to the yard of the post office as the train raced by.
We walked through the camp on our return home from school; consequently we were apt to encounter an approaching train on the tracks we crossed to make our way up the hill to our house. We stood off a safe distance and waited as the train passed with heavy, black, sulfuric smoke billowing from its stack.
We knew not to look upward as the train sped by because the shower of cinders raining down upon our scalp could fill our eyes as well.
In Maitland, our closest neighbors and very dear friends were Sam and Dorothea, a black couple. Their dwelling, which sat against a dirt bank with a sloping front yard and a path leading to the porch steps, was a three room, roughly built, wooden structure heated by coal stoves. And, of course, there was the infamous outhouse.
My most vivid recollections of these folks are very warm and family-oriented. Sam, tall and stout with a gentle demeanor, worked for a local man who owned a small "punch" mine. I remember the kneepads he wore for his work in helping to dig the low coal from inside the mountains.
On occasions Sam was known to imbibe alcohol and, at times, a quart-sized jar with clear liquid would appear from nowhere. Those seemed to be the times his features were altered, when his nose turned scarlet and his face took on a shiny appearance.
And Dorothea, a short, pudgy woman, kept her hair in short braids pinned close to her scalp. Very rarely, she would visit a beautician to have her hair straightened and set in waves, which she said was done with a hot iron.
Through the wide gaps between her teeth, you could detect stains from the Big G snuff she packed inside her cheek. Dorothea was a free spirited woman. And we loved to tell her funny stories because her whole body quaked as she threw her head back and shrieked with laughter.
There was a compassionate side to Sam and Dorothea as well. On the occasion of my brother's serious car accident, my mom and dad were called to the hospital at one o'clock in the morning and Dorothea willingly came to baby-sit with us while my parents drove the forty-five mile trip.
They had no children, so they treated my siblings and me as if we were their very own.
Even though their house was only a three room dwelling, they kept two boarders, James "Hamp" Hamilton and Alexander "Zan" Joyce, who were equally friendly. As I recall, neither of them was married.
On July 4th holidays, Sam and Dorothea treated us generously to summer coolers like watermelon, ice cream and pop. In those days, money earned by the miners was used for bare necessities, so soda pop or ice cream was a welcomed luxury.
Socializing with our black friends was a rewarding experience, for we learned much about their ethnic background. One significant memory I have of Dorothea's resourcefulness involved her biscuit making. After heating an empty, Carnation milk can a few minutes on top of the cook stove, she would use a knife to knock the top off creating an excellent, biscuit cutter.
Dorothea's cooking was absolutely delicious too! In her coal-fired, antique cook stove, she made egg custard pies and biscuits that would rival any delicatessen. On occasion, we would stop at Dorothea's house when returning from school and we always hoped there would be leftover biscuits in the covered, oval shaped, blue enamel roaster which sat on the cabinet.
She enjoyed picking wild greens (dandelion, “creecy” and poke), in spring while they were tender. She always cooked them with fat meat and served them doused with vinegar.
Dorothea was superstitious about some things. She said if you put your housecoat on backwards when you get out of bed, don't reverse it until noon. Also, if you spill salt, pick it up with the right hand and toss it across your left shoulder. Finally, you should leave the house through the same door you entered.
Sam and dad were such good friends and Sam proved his loyalty to their friendship when, on one occasion, our car caught fire on a cold morning when we were preparing to go to church. Dad had gone out, started the car and come back in the house to wait for it to warm. Without warning, the car caught fire and the smoke and flames could be seen from down the hill where Sam lived.
Knowing that my dad, exhausted from working the hoot owl shift would sometimes fall asleep in his car, Sam ran up the hill and jerked the car door open with flames leaping at him and shouted, "Ivo, are you in there!" He literally risked his life for my dad and I will always remember Sam as a hero.
To say I am grateful to have grown up in a place where people so readily accepted one another would be putting it mildly. My childhood experiences in the coalfields not only enriched my life but I believe it prepared the way for me to be a responsible adult.
Phylenia French resides in Virginia, but was born and raised in the coal camps in southern West Virginia. She is a LPN. Phylenia has been published in the Charleston(WV) Daily Mail, The Roanoke Times, Blue Ridge Traditions and Appalachian Life magazine. The piece presented here is from, These Were My Mountains, Life in West Virginia Coal Camps, a manuscript yet to be published.
Phylenia French presents readings to residents of retirement/extended care facilities. She presented a reading from her first book Homespun Yarns to an Elderhostel at VPI and has presented a program on Appalachian Culture to Adult Day Services participants.
Contact Phylenia French at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2002, Phylenia French, All Rights Reserved