Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

October 28, 2012

Heyday of coal: Family memories bring region’s rich history to life

It is hard to imagine McComas as “the place to be on a Saturday night,” taking a train to Pocahontas, Va., for a day of shopping or watching a movie at a theater in Goodwill.

Yet those were memories shared by my grandfather, a lifelong resident of Mercer County and career coal miner, before his death in 1990. When he shared stories of the region during the boom days of coal, I was one of the young people in the family shaking my head in disbelief.

“You went to McComas — take-a-left-in-Montcalm McComas — on a Saturday night? Why?” I would ask.

He would then tell me how the residential community had many businesses that attracted miners and their families.

Although he had many stories about the Bluefields and Princeton as well, it was the tales revolving around the small towns that sparked the most interest.

As a teenager, I could recall traveling to Mercer County’s two largest cities to shop and dine. But I had no memories of the smaller communities’ heydays.

Stories about Pocahontas were easier to accept, as remnants of the town’s prosperity are still visible today. Yet it was still fun to hear my grandmother talk about “getting dressed up” and taking the train there to shop for Christmas.

lll

Without question, it was the stories about Goodwill that drew the most bewilderment.

My grandparents and parents had resided in the former coal camp, and an off-hand comment about the movie theater would spur an outpouring of questions. They would describe the layout of the community, and the business and entertainment options for those who lived there.

Born decades after the mine shut down and growing up in Duhring, I knew Goodwill as the neighboring, rural, residential community. My earliest movie memories revolved around the Colonial and Granada theaters in Bluefield, and the playground at the Skyway drive-in at Brushfork. The thought of traveling five minutes up the road to watch a movie, in a spot now filled with trees and brush, was hard to accept.

lll

During the early 1990s, I attended the Goodwill community reunion with my grandmother. It was an opportunity to learn about the history of the coal camp and, more importantly, the sense of fellowship among those who had once lived there.

Standing in a grassy field, the one-time residents pointed out where the community center, which housed the theater, once stood. Not a timber remained.

While the words “coal camp” can elicit a negative image, many people who lived in the communities painted a far different picture when they spoke of those days gone by. They told of the unity among community members and simpler times, when doors were left unlocked and neighbors would “pop in” for a cup of coffee.

As an adult, I have been fortunate to meet many other people who lived in Goodwill — some who shared stories of the day my grandfather was injured in a roof fall at the mines. They recalled my grandmother hearing of the accident, and her anxiety at my grandfather’s injury — memories that highlight the genuine care and concern that seems evident among neighbors who were more like family.

lll

The sepia-tone picture in the scrapbook is one of my favorites. It shows my great-grandfather, Harvey McBride, standing beside the flagpole in Goodwill. According to family stories shared to young ones with pride, Grandfather McBride was the one who raised the flag in the community each day.

I marvel that a century after a photograph was snapped, I still know my great-grandfather’s daily routine. But I wonder if my nephews and nieces, and great-nephews and nieces, are aware of the family tale.

lll

The two Virginias are fortunate to have rich details of the area’s history at the Eastern Regional Coal Archives and in numerous books. But historians cannot document the life of each resident, of every movie that played at a coal camp theater, of family tragedies and triumphs.

In the years since the deaths of my grandparents and parents, I have often wished I had taken the time to write down or video their memories of long-ago days so the youngsters in my family could “hear” their stories as I did. It’s regretful to have failed at such an important life task.

Too often we do not truly appreciate our loved ones — and the stories they have — until they are gone.

My grandparents’ memories of Goodwill, McComas and Pocahontas remain vivid in my mind. But, just as old coal-camp timbers continue to crumble, I wonder how long they will remain. Will the generations to come know of our ancestors hardships and struggles, and of their day-to-day hopes and dreams?

For now, these recollections are tucked safely in my mind — nestled between memories of holidays past and favorite family moments. Maybe this holiday season I’ll share them, along with a few sepia-tone photos, with some of the younger ones.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

1
Text Only
Columns
Editorials
Poll

What’s your favorite garden fare? After voting, go to facebook.com/bdtonline to comment.

Corn
Cucumbers
Green beans
Tomatoes
Other
     View Results