Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 8, 2014

Coalfield living was many things, but boring was never a good description


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — I heard a man say once that he was never bored — that being bored was an insult to oneself. Before Four Seasons Country got its name, in the days when the late V.L. “Stubby” Currence had, in the Sunday pages of the Daily Telegraph, labeled these hills as Our Grand Area, there was not much time to be bored. Labor was still the key word of the day and in hindsight perhaps a scarcity of labor-saving devices made that true.

Two generations ago, this place many of us call home was quite a different area. For many people, the only color shows they had seen were not on a television screen but at the movies. In fact, there were still quite a few shows still in black-and-white. In the mid-1950s ads first began to appear that shows were in Technicolor or Vistavision.

 That was about the same time when most theaters were advertised as being fully air-conditioned. From the Lavon in Princeton to the Flanary in Richlands or the Clinch Theater in Tazewell, folks sometimes took a break from summer with a visit to the cool confines of the cinema. Here in Bluefield, the elegant Granada Theater combined with the ultra-stylish Colonial down on the avenue provided just about every convenience a customer could ask for.

Sociologists would mention that many of those same showplaces had only recently begun to offer equal opportunity for all patrons. The lofty balconies for many years had been reserved for people of color and a host of theaters had conveniently-placed stair steps on the sides of the buildings so that those ticket holders could discreetly take their places above their white patrons. It was only after civil rights laws changed those seating arrangements that many people of all races discovered that the best seats in the house were actually in those same balconies. (Many first-generation teens driving to the movies for the first time with their dates found other reasons than the movie to covet those high-rise seats perched above the main floor.)

Yet, the movies were only a sometime diversion and not a regular destination for most non-city dwellers. In the heyday of the great Pocahontas coalfields, work was the dominant factor. From deep in Buchanan County across to the ridges of Matoaka and everywhere in between, coal mining was the center of most family activities and usually underground mining.

Handloading had not long been replaced and although mechanization was increasingly taking over duties, there were still often hundreds of workers at the larger operations. Longwalls, shears, and cost-effective equipment were still mainly confined to the drawing boards of many companies.

In so-called “bedroom communities” like Bluewell or Abbs Valley, where the miners did not live in coal camps but had the luxury of cleaner surroundings a few miles from the operations, there was always plenty of work in and around the home.

For instance, if the family had an acre or two, or more, then there was enough land for raising a few animals. The region was farming country before the coal industry opened up so it was fairly common for families to have a milk cow.

Going to the company store for milk and butter was an expensive procedure, so the larger families of the time were well served with their own supply. That in itself required a labor force. Children and mothers took turns milking, churning butter, and feeding when fathers were away at work. Those with enough space also usually found a way to raise chickens. Fresh eggs tasted better than “store bought” and all good cooks knew that high quality cakes and similar foods required a good amount of eggs. The chickens, too, required food and water so yet another work detail had to tend to that chore. The front yard could not be neglected, either, because the neighbors took pride in maintaining their space and no one wanted to be the “poor kids on the block.”

Hand-pushed lawnmowers, requiring a good filing of the blades after most cuttings, took a lot of effort and many young men first began developing muscles by pushing them up, down, and across the greensward.

Gardens had their own special labor requirements, along with Monday wash days to clean the clothes and then the overall house work was divided up among the family. Somehow, that all combined to teach responsibility and team work in a true application of the word “family.”

And being bored? Don’t let your mother hear you say that — she or your father will find plenty of things for you to do!

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.