By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
From mining records to personal scrapbooks to odd artifacts, one woman oversees some of the most important pieces of regional coal history.
Becky George is the resident archivist the Eastern Regional Coal Archives located at the Craft Memorial Library. George said the archives houses a wide variety of documents related to the coal industry.
“We have land records dating back to the late 1700s,” George said. “A lot of the stuff in the archives is from the very late 1800s and the early 1900s. There are ledgers from the Bluefield Police Department showing arrests and fines. We have ledgers from the coal companies showing how much each of the miners produced and how much they were paid. It also shows records of how much money the miners spent at the company store, seeing the doctor and for rent.”
A native of North Dakota, George has been working in the archives for four years.
“I was born in a small town called Surrey in North Dakota,” she said. “I grew up on a farm there, but my husband grew up in this area. I lived in Florida for 12 years, and then we moved here so our kids could be closer to their grandparents. I have a degree in early childhood education, and I taught school for several years. When we moved here, I applied for a part time job at the library because it sounded fun. I’ve always loved to read and to be around books. After I started working at the library, I found out about the archives. I have worked at the library for six years and then began working in the archives four years ago.”
Though not always a history lover, George said she developed a love for coal history from the late Dr. Stuart McGehee, who was the first archivist at the library.
“I was never a big fan of history in school,” she said. “I developed a love of history as I got older. I never liked it as a kid. I think as we get older we get more interested in the way life was way back when. Stuart passed on a lot of his passion about history and the archives to me. He gave me a love for the area. I think I know the history of this area better than the area where I grew up. I know a lot about the coal barons in Bramwell, the mine wars on Blair Mountain and in Matewan. I just find all the material very interesting. I know people who grew up here and have no interest in the coal industry or the history of the area. They don’t care to know.”
George said the archives began nearly 30 years ago.
“The archives started in 1983 when the Pocahontas Coalfields celebrated their centennial,” she said. “They collected all of these records and photographs. The state archives did not want them and West Virginia University did not want them, so the Craft Memorial Library took them. We also collected items during the Mercer County quasquicentennial in 1988 and the Bluefield centennial in 1989. We have a lot of scrapbooks donated by members of the community. We still get donations, and we are always happy to get donations. We are more than happy to preserve any archives we can for the future.”
George said the archives are much more than just written records.
“We have scrip and tags that a miner would hang up to show he was on duty as well as a lot of the old helmets,” George said. “We have a lot of oral histories in the archives. There are recordings of people who witnessed the Matewan massacre and talked about life in the coalfields. These recordings are first-hand history. The Baldwin Felts and Pocahontas Operators Association records are most frequently used. A lot of the items from the Bluefield collection are also used quite a bit.”
Not all of the archives are strictly related to the coal industry, George said.
“People think the archives are only coal related, but we take artifacts and records from the coal industry, rail industry, Bluefield and regional history,” she said. “We have Bluefield Orioles memorabilia and some Bluefield High School yearbooks dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. We have the First National Bank archives, which date back to 1891. We also have scrapbooks from garden clubs, rotary clubs as well as cookbooks from area churches and a cookbook gathered for the Bluefield centennial. There was a collection a family donated who had two sons in World War I. One was killed in action and the family left their photos and records, which I’ve found very interesting.”
Some of the items in these collections are a bit unusual, George said.
“There is a gum wrapper and a toothpick we have archived in our Baldwin Felts collection that were evidence in a case they were involved in,” George said. “Those are some of our more interesting pieces of memorabilia. We have a lot of memos from the company and statements from the legal cases Baldwin Felts was involved in. There is information about Sid Hatfield, correspondence, telegrams, excerpts from their reports and trial transcripts as well as newspaper clippings. A lot of people are interested in this archive.”
George said other archives deal with the architectural history of the region.
“Another large collection we have with us is the Mahood Collection, which shows the design of a lot of the homes and buildings in downtown Bluefield as well as around Mercer County,” she said. “Mahood also designed a lot of the company stores in the area. We have blueprints, photos as well as some personal items.”
However, it is the Pocahontas Operators Association archives George said she is most drawn to.
“I never get tired of looking at our first collection, which has all the photos of the coal camps throughout the area and old pictures Bluefield,” she said. “It shows the history of the area, and it’s fun to imagine what it would have been like to live during that time when Bluefield was bustling with activity.”
George said the archives are used for a wide variety of purposes.
“Genealogical research is popular,” she said. “A lot of people want to know where they came from and what life was like for their parents and grandparents. We also have a mix of authors who come in for books. They are mainly non-fiction writers, but we get a few fiction authors in here as well. We also see a lot of students doing projects for school. Recently, we’ve had several requests to look at old annuals.”
For George, the best part of the job is helping people find what they were looking for.
“I love helping the patrons,” she said. “People are so happy to see the stuff that we have here. People are just thankful when they find their great-grandfather’s name in a ledger or to find a photo. It gives me a real sense of satisfaction, especially since these are historic materials people don’t expect to find. They hope against hope to find what they are looking for here. We had a woman whose husband donated some old lanterns 20 years ago, and she had never come to see them. It brought tears to her eyes to see they were still here and being enjoyed but other people.”
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org�