Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

April 28, 2013

Memories of McComas come alive

McCOMAS — Click here for video

The former cafeteria of Pinnacle Elementary School is probably the only place in the world where you could hear an intelligent conversation concerning the number of steps leading up to the old McComas High School.

Patty Spicer Smith, 66, of Richmond, Va., had always heard that there were 99 steps up the hill to the old school building that served students of the greater McComas area from 1925-1960. “Ninety-nine steps with a landing in the middle where you could rest,” Smith said.

On the other hand, Jim Spencer, also 66, of Corryton, Tenn., thought that there were 102 steps to the school. “That’s why McComas had all those great athletes and sports team,” Spencer said. “Everyone got in great shape walking up those steps.”

The school building is long gone and only a few groupings of some of the steps remain, but memories of growing up in McComas, Crane Creek, Pinnacle, Sagamore, Crystal, Thornhill, Thomas, Windmill Gap, Godfrey and Mora poured out like a mountain spring during the Fourth Annual McComas Memory Walk Saturday. The recreation room of the Crane Creek Pentecostal Holiness Church — formerly Pinnacle Elementary — was filled with people sharing memories, and catching up on old times ... good times.

“Let me tell you this one story, and that will be all,” Johnnie Sparks said. “Do you remember that picture of me and Linda Brown I showed you that was taken up on the hillside where those houses were?” he asked. “One afternoon when I was about 4 years old, I wandered away from up there and got lost in those woods.

“The whole town was out looking for me,” Sparks continued. “I bet some of the people here today were out looking for me that night. Do you know where I was? I came out up at Windmill Gap. That’s a long way for a 4-year-old to travel.”

“I bet I’m the oldest person here today,” Buford Helmandollar, 87, said. “My daddy lived down here on Coke Road,” he continued, pointing to the few houses still standing on the road to the reunion site. “A fellow named Mr. Powers wanted to live down here on Coke Road, and my daddy wanted to get us away from the road. There were 12 kids in the family.

“Mr. Powers offered to trade my daddy his house that stood up on the hill for our house down on Coke Road,” Helmandollar said. “The house was way up in the woods, and it was bigger, but Mr. Peters said he would also give my daddy a pig if he would trade. We moved way up there in the holler, but I don’t think daddy ever got the pig.”

When organizers relaunched the Memory Walk four years ago, 125 people showed up for the reunion. There were fewer than that last year, but Saturday’s showing looked promising, “And they’re still coming in,” Smith said.

“Within the different communities, there may have been some rivalries, but that all ended when we got to high school,” Spencer said. “You had different coal camps, and there were little ethnic groups in the camps, but that was a matter of choice.

“It’s amazing to look around now and see wooded mountains,” he said. “This hill had two rows of houses on it. In the early 1900s, McComas was the largest coal camp in the state of West Virginia.”

Doug Sparks, Ph.D., a former high school principal in Southwest Virginia who now lives in Abingdon, Va., grew up in a family with 13 children — several of whom were gifted athletes.

“My brother, Joe Sparks signed a contract with the New York baseball Giants in 1956 and played several years in the minor leagues,” Sparks said. “He managed in the minor leagues too.”

“I remember when John F. Kennedy and David Brinkley came into this cafeteria in 1960 when Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency,” Johnnie Sparks said. “They both went up to the community center that used to be up the road and bought everyone a cold bottle of pop.”

Sandy (Bird) Porterfield’s grandfather, Charlie Bird, was in charge of the Pinnacle Company Store, but also was placed in charge of the company stores at Crane Creek and Sagamore.

“We had the first television set in the community,” Porterfield said. “I was born in 1950, and I have never lived in a home that didn’t have a TV. A lot of families back then didn’t have television sets in their homes.”

Being the granddaughter of the man in charge of the company store had its pros and cons. Porterfield said that the butcher, “Butch,” always cut her off a slice of bologna when she went to the meat market, but the alarm for all three stores rang in her grandfather’s home if anyone attempted to break into one of the stores.

“He was also the justice of the peace,” she said. “That could be interesting too.” Porterfield now lives in eastern North Carolina.

“I lived in Red Hawk, and went to school at Mora,” Tim Wellman said. “This was a good place to grow up.”

Most of the McComas area coal mines including Pinnacle, Crane Creek, Sagamore, Thomas, Crystal and Thomas opened in 1902 and with the exception of the Thomas Coal Co. Mine, were still operating in the early 1950s. The Thomas Coal Company closed in 1943, after producing 5,246,945 tons of coal in 41 years.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.comꆱ

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