Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Lifestyles

July 15, 2012

The magic of our coal towns

BLUEFIELD — For years the town of Pocahontas has experienced a fair amount of heartache. The close-knit community has seen historic buildings crumble into the streets, without any regard for the past. And let’s be honest: It is a sad loss. But heartache is not always limited to a particular area. All across Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, small coal towns are disappearing, being swallowed up by time and Mother Nature. The saga of this small coal town is still unraveling in front of its residents. The recent storm created additional damage in the town, creating even more heartache for folks who call Pocahontas home. The old company store was the most recent building to come down. The site is now surrounded by a white safety fence. It is hard to find positivity in situations like these. As Appalachian people, we cherish the past and find solace in the old days. We march a fine line between change and preservation. From Pocahontas to downtown Princeton, the line wavers back and forth, like a high-wire act in front of a large crowd.

I didn’t walk the high wire in Pocahontas but I did walk down her streets. Three models, all local women from the two Virginias, and Bluefield Daily Telegraph photographer Eric DiNovo, followed in silence. But we were not there to take photos of the damage. We were there for the autumn issue of Prerogative magazine, a regional magazine for southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. A few months ago, I expressed an interest in the town as a possible location. It took a few phone calls, one to the town’s mayor, and another call to the Center for Christian Action, to explain why I thought the town would be a great backdrop for a fashion shoot. You might be wondering the same thing.

Our coal towns have charm. By other standards, these towns are relics of the past, when coal was king and roads swarmed with workers and families. When stores and entertainment could be found on every street, along with churches and houses with inviting front porches. The crowds are gone. The buildings faded. Yet the magic remains in the origins of towns like Pocahontas.

I wanted that charm inside the pages of Prerogative magazine. The white fences, the brick streets, the columns on front of the old Pocahontas Opera house — all are perfect backgrounds. I wanted to recreate the past, even if only for a day. Sometimes it takes imagination and a camera lens to find beauty where others see loss. Have you ever noticed the brick streets in Pocahontas? They are uneven; weeds and gravel line the street. Beautiful. And the old buildings? They are old, tired and faded. No one remains inside their walls. Yet, their presence demands attention. And we didn’t hesitate to use their doors, brick walls or steps. The results? Great photos of three local women enhanced by the historic town of Pocahontas. The town is like a mystery book, tucked away in a dusty attic. The cover is worn, but the story inside keeps the reader guessing at every chapter. I felt like an explorer and every corner held possibility for another stunning photo. As we continued to walk up and down the streets, I couldn’t help but imagine women — dressed in the finest evening gowns — walking to the opera house. What did they look like? Who were they? And more importantly, do they still haunt the town of Pocahontas? I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in the magic of the past. In the silence of the mid-morning, with rain fading in and out of the clouds, I imagined their approval of our presence.

Many residents of the town stopped to chat throughout the day. They were curious — I admit, we were quite a mismatched group — about why we were taking photos of their town. But we are not the only magazine to explore the town of Pocahontas. In 1998, the international fashion magazine W traveled to Pocahontas for a photo shoot. Bramwell Mayor Lou Stoker still has a copy of the issue. And Editor Samantha Perry, who was then the Lifestyle editor, wrote an article about the Pocahontas fashion spread. Fourteen years ago, Prerogative didn’t exist; the magazine’s first issue didn’t appear until the spring of 2007. Now it’s our turn to let Pocahontas shine in the pages of Prerogative. I hope others see the beauty that remains in our coal towns. The world spins, it changes with society, technology and Mother Nature, but the magic remains for all who walk down the brick streets. Take a second look, I did.

Jamie Parsell is the Lifestyle editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at jparsell@bdtonline.com.

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