Some Southern West Virginia coal camps seemed a good place to leave behind.
The remnants of the little camp structures gradually became rundown and eventually collapsed on the grounds onto which they were erected.
Once they had fallen into disrepair, the shabby places lost all vestiges of the reassuring and beautiful moments in time when passenger trains ran two or three times a day, and the company store stayed open until 9 p.m. just to keep the regular customers in flour, sugar, coffee, bacon, and eggs.
In summer, the produce stands slumbered under the weight of freshly harvested garden vegetables: corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, squash, onions, potatoes and more, as the camps prospered and succeeded with reassuring beauty and luster.
When coal prices were up, hearts beat to a steady rhythm of hope and families seemed to prosper. But following coal production’s heyday in the mid-20th century, the camps often became a synonym for rural unhappiness, closed to through traffic, excluded from nearby commerce; they often became a branded place apart from the rest of the nation.
But these disheartening and despairing images for some former residents are a far cry from the childhood recollections of Ella Nora Ramsey Carmony, a 1964 graduate of Baileysville High School, and an unfaltering devotee of her joyful and blissful memoirs of growing up in her proud and prolific Coal Mountain community in Wyoming County.
“It was a hollow between two mountains containing vast seams of coal,” Carmony recalled of her girlhood home. “For the hardworking folks of the mountains, coal was a valuable resource in that it enabled miners and their families to purchase vehicles, homes, school clothes, food and entertainment.”
Carmony saluted the coal industry of the past, mainly for being of great importance to all citizens of mountain societies, especially in Southern West Virginia, where life often depended on mine wages for sustenance and small camp dwellings for housing.
And yet, there were boundaries and restrictions that had to be dealt with and overcome, particularly in the realm of transport. “There was one road in and out of the camp,” Carmony explained. “It was about 10 miles of narrow, curvy, dirt road, which in most places followed the creek bed.
“To get to our place, you passed by Long Branch turnoff, crossed a bridge, went around a sharp curve at a large cemetery at the Belcher turn off at Hickory Bottom, and then on to Leatherwood, on to Guyan, on through Hatfield Town past the schoolhouse, then on to W.M. Ritter Camp and into the Coal Mountain white camp and green camps, and then on to the end of the road.
“On the way, there were hollows on both sides of the traffic lane, and there was a railroad along Cub Creek that went all the way into Coal Mountain.”
Coal camps, by and large, with their open spaces and spare-time venues looked sensible enough on the drawing board but were calamitous as occupants seldom established roots or remained long at one residence.
Because the spaces belonged to everyone, they effectively belonged to no one—so they became unused, uncared for and eventually ceded to the lawless and violent ways of disgruntled neighbors.
Still, if there was, in the very design of a place like the old mining camps, exclusion from the broader culture outside, a kind of symbolic shunning, there was often a sense of belonging within.
“Coal Mountain was a good place to live,” Carmony recalled. “We had good folks, good friends, good times and good lodgings. Friendships lasted for years with Tolers, Hatfields, Browns, Stokes, Kennedys, Brooks, just to mention some of the fine folks. I am very proud of everyone from Coal Mountain.”
In fact, there were tears when families were forced to vacate the premises once the coal mines shut down and work ceased to exist in the community. In time, the old coal camp frame houses were written off as failures of architecture and design.
But they did not necessarily reflect or connote failure of the families who lived and loved there. That is why, amid the hopes and dreams for a new and better life, tears fell among residents when mines closed, and they had to pack up and leave their homes.
Schools seemingly were the epicenter of the community, according to Carmony. “We had recesses and enjoyed plenty of games. We had plays at different times during the year. On rainy days, we would have word hunts on the blackboards, spelling bees and other games that could be played inside. Sometimes, we would have a movie, shown to us from a projector that the principal, Mr. Green, operated. These were enjoyed by all.”
There was a medley of other school events, too. “At Halloween we enjoyed dressing up in costumes and returning to the schoolhouse for a party where we would have a fishpond for treats,” Carmony said. “We had ballgames, and most of the community turned out to enjoy them as much as the school children.”
The Abingdon VA resident continued:
“Coal Mountain Elementary was a fine school to attend. We had some of the finest teachers and a lot of good students. Some teachers had no children of their own, so we were all their children. We had fine janitors and cooks at the school, too.”
Carmony also noted that her coal camp community boasted of several churches, stores and community centers that attracted residents of all ages. “We had stores like Red Jacket or Island Creek Co. Store, Archie’s, and Emory Kennedy’s store. We had a theatre, skating rink, post office, and on occasion some outside entertainers would venture in to play music and hold square dances. But if we needed a vehicle, furniture or school clothing, we had to go to Gilbert, Welch, Iaeger, Pineville or Mullins.”
Ask anyone who grew up in the old coal camps of the 40s and 50s and they’ll tell you. If you were a thief, you were whipped soundly and run out of the community.
If your children misbehaved, they were corrected by the adults who lived nearby. If a neighbor was in peril, the surrounding brothers and sisters of the camp came to his immediate rescue.
Whatever else they do, tough neighborhoods instill a sense of identity often so deeply felt as to be indelible.
There are few more wistful ex-patriots than those who grew up in the grittier parts of our fiercely independent mountain culture during the era of the old mining camps—replete with a country store, a camp doctor, a recreation hall and a church house.
Perhaps the reason is simple: In hard places there is a sense of tribe, the fealty to place like the fealty to family. Members may criticize its shortcomings, but they are bound tight and defensive against insult from without.
And though the remnants of the little camp structures might have turned into shabby places today, in earlier times they were reassuring and lovely.
Change is the way of the world, however. And like time, memories are fleeting.
Maybe because of even harder lives the tenants left behind or maybe because love (if never luxury) was close at hand, what they knew there was sometimes beautiful.
And when it was not, it was still home…
Top o’ the morning!