By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
POCAHONTAS, Va. — Click here for video
Several area football teams kicked off their 2013 seasons last Friday, but on Monday — Labor Day — folks in Tazewell County, Va., gathered at the 22nd Annual Coal Miners’ Reunion in Pocahontas for the kickoff of the 2013 political season that will continue through Nov. 5.
Until the mid-1950s when the Pocahontas Mine ceased operation, Pocahontas, Va., was informally known as the capital of the Pocahontas Coal Fields — and from 1933 on, showed unwavering support for the United Mine Workers of America. While union support remains strong in Pocahontas, local voters demonstrated opposition to President Barack Obama’s cap and trade legislation, early in his first term, and voted popular incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher out of office.
The Obama Administration didn’t come up during the traditional stump speeches in front of the caboose in Laurel Park, but the union did, as most speakers expressed their appreciation to the UMWA.
State Senator Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, served as keynote speaker for the event. He spoke about how the coal industry has changed and credited the UMWA with making those changes.
“Things have changed,” Puckett said. “They’ve changed because labor stood up (against the companies). If you have a benefit today, you need to thank these coal miners who stood up in the 30s.
“The union workers have made us what we are today,” Puckett said. “Be proud if you’re here today and you’re a union person.” He expressed his thanks to all union workers throughout the nation. “Our country will rise and fall on the middle class, and that has been brought to you by union workers.”
Walter W. Wise, a Pocahontas native who is now general president of the Iron Workers Union said that growing up in Pocahontas helped give him his roots in the union. He said he spoke with AFL-CIO President Rich Trumpka early Monday morning, and said he sent his regards. He also said the UMWA has strong leadership in President Cecil Roberts.
“Mr. Peabody took this coal away, and now he wants to take away the miners’ health care rights,” Wise said, making reference to Francis Peabody, a Chicago-area coal operator who established one of the nation’s largest coal companies that started in the 1880s at roughly the same time that the Southwest Virginia Improvement Co., opened the Pocahontas Mine. “God bless our union workers and God bless America,” Wise said.
David Smith, president of Historic Pocahontas Inc., served as master of ceremonies. Pocahontas Mayor Ben Gibson thanked the audience for attending, and expressed his thanks to Senator Puckett and Del. J.W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell, for their support of development along the proposed Spearhead ATV Trail in Pocahontas.
Dr. Thomas Brewster spoke about his grandfather and father’s work for the (then) Norfolk & Western Railway, and of how the family’s sacrifices made it possible for he and other family members to attend college. He also briefly discussed the role that volunteers have played in organizing the annual reunions that honor coal miners and railroad workers.
There were also “stump speeches” involving county political races. Morefield did not attend, but his Democratic opponent, James M. O’Quinn, pledged his support for the coal miners, and thanked the UMWA for their endorsement. “I’m new at this,” he said by way of apologizing for not having a lot of typical campaign material to distribute. “I can give you a handshake and a smile,” he said.
The race that appeared to draw the most attention was between Incumbent Northern District Supervisor Thomas B. Childress and Republican challenger Garland “John R.” Roberts. Childress was appointed to the board of supervisors to finish Brewster’s unexpired term.
“I don’t believe in living in the past. I believe in building for the future,” Roberts said. He explained that he has been associated with community activities including Habitat for Humanity, the Tazewell County Fair, the Tazewell County Fiddlers Convention and for serving as the Voice of the Pocahontas Indians. “I’m the man that gets the job done,” he said.
“As an historian, I am not a person who lives in the past,” Childress said. He said that he has been a volunteer in service to the area and Tazewell County through his entire life. “The coal mining is gone, but the coal mining heritage is here.” Childress said that he is the candidate with the connections and the clout necessary to move the community forward.
A female shouted out questions for Smith relating to issues involving Historic Pocahontas, but Brewster intervened, saying that the event was for the stump speeches. “This is not a debate,” Brewster said.
During each set of stump speeches, event organizers held drawings for prizes. Robert Farley, Roy Williams and Hugh Shrader were each honored as being the oldest coal miner attending, but Farley earned the top prize of $100, since he had the earliest 1924 birthday of Jan. 16. Williams and Shrader each received $50.
The candidates for the southern district, Tazewell County Board of Supervisors — Incumbent Supervisor D.M. “Mike” Hymes, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Jerry R. Blackburn, talked about the importance of Labor Day, but also made pitches for election.
“I’ve seen hopes and dreams diminished,” Blackburn said, recalling eating at Eva’s. “Many of the problems we face are because too many people think it’s all about me.” He said that Pocahontas cannot be duplicated, but said it can be revitalized in other ways. “I think the citizens of Tazewell County are ready for a change,” he said.
“Today is Labor Day. It’s a day to remember all men and women who work,” Hymes said. “This holiday is about regular workers.” Hymes said that he has served on the board for 10 years, and believes in serving the entire county, not just the Southern District. “People of the Northern District know what I have done here,” he said.
Tazewell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Lee spoke on behalf of the constitutional officers. “As a prosecutor, I don’t prosecute many working people,” Lee said, adding that workers tend to be respectful of others. “I prosecute the people who sponge off of others,” he said. He said that Labor Day is a celebration of workers, and urged everyone who was attending the event to: “Really, think about the significance of this holiday,” he said.