The mountains of Appalachia seemingly have long memories.
For generations, the distressed and disheartened folk of the hills have battled poverty and deprivation while industrial tycoons from out-of-state gained and profited from their multiple economic woes and sorrows.
Even as songsters and poets sighed and whined in lyrical ballads one-after-another lamenting and bemoaning the backwoods misery and privation, political hacks and government agents seemed to care little or nothing for the hardships and sufferings of a once proud and independent people of the hills.
Yet there was joy in the hearts of many when the coal industry boomed. Thousands of men went into the mines to earn fabulous wages as the economy soared beyond their wildest dreams.
Men flocked to the pits and sent word back to their relatives that jobs were available for anyone with a strong back and a willingness to work hard.
Many of the miners, however, squandered their paychecks at coal company stores on silk shirts, 50 cent cigars, bottled and bonded whiskey, costly toys, tricycles, and red wagons for their children.
By the end of the month more than a few had run up their credit at the company store for as much or more than they drew out in pay. That was the beginning of hard times in the coal camps, even for those with steady jobs.
At the same time, the rent for a three- or four-room company camp house and utilities took up even more of the miners’ earnings. After a while, most were in dept up to their necks and slogging it out from week to week just to make ends meet.
The coal camp renters eventually became a disheartened and dejected people as they thrashed and stumbled along the muddy currents of mine waters of woe and coaldust heartbreak.
“We struggled and floundered as folksongs and ballads uncovered our helpless and hapless way of life,” explained Reba Fuller of Bartley in McDowell County. “Sometimes we didn’t have clean drinking water. We had to collect it in gallon jugs from small pipes leaking the water from hillside springs. It was the best that we could do.”
They worked and waited for the light, waited for wealth that never reached their wood-framed houses, even as they daily observed passing coal hoppers transporting tons of the black bituminous mineral to markets of a coal-starved nation.
Wealth and prosperity among the hill people were a distant dream, like the trendy and broken-hearted melodies that faded into the night from their radios purchased on credit at the company store.
“We lived on the edge of starvation in a land of plenty,” Hazel Cline of Panther Creek recalls morbidly, thumbing through some old photos of a coal camp long disappeared in the southern region of the county. “It’s a shame that we had to go through those terrible years at the mercy of want and hunger. Sometimes we went to the churches for help from their food pantry. They did what they could.”