Peeled Chestnut Mountain perched peacefully above Machine Shop Holler outside Pocahontas. For most of the year, it remained virtually unnoticed, a Normal Rockwell-era collection of homes on the ridge top. A few people knew about the Billy Sunday church on the roadway, another reminder of a bygone time and a former professional baseball player-turned-evangelist that many in the area had never heard of.
Russell and Pat Synan changed that for a generation as they decided to open their home to the community, Four Seasons Country and beyond a few times each year. A reunion for locals – and that number grew every season because a meeting on the mountain changed nearly all who took part. Once having been part of the July or Pumpkin Festival gatherings, the folks were no longer strangers but part of the congregation, as old William Tecumseh Sherman said once after being welcomed by a group of citizens who were experiencing freedom for the first time.
Russell was welcomed on up to the next level this past week and the gentleman/gentle man with the warm smile and unlimited friendship for his fellow man will be sorely missed. His legacy will long remain up there on the mountain – and beyond.
Those hill top shindigs brought together boys and girls of all ages. It was a time to at once look back, look around and look ahead. Some came with heavy wallets, some showed up with only the change in their pockets but for those happy hours they all were just neighbors. Therapy might be the word, an oasis of relaxation in an unsettled world.
Pocahontas is the “original coal town” in Tazewell County, the boom town where the first of 44 million tons of black diamonds over 72 years was shipped toward Norfolk on March 12, 1883. That opened up the Norfolk & Western and also the Virginian Railway to develop the area mining operations which brought thousands of jobs and spawned scores of communities across the mountains, often luring immigrants from distant lands to seek employment.
The Synan group, primarily of Welsh descent, generally came to America during the period between 1850 and 1920 and many were laborers. Russell was a great example of a person who believed in doing his part. Not only was he a proud military veteran, but he spent a long career working for a power company. Along the way, Russell took part in many community events and developed a desire to do something special for his neighbors.
As a member of the Pocahontas Lions Club, he and Pat were loyal supporters of the summer Bluegrass Festival which brought sparkle to the town for several years. Along with the wonderful contributions of heroes like the late John Barbour, help from businessman Frank Rodgriguez, officers like Bob Baker, musician Duke White, Toby Barbour, and many others, the event was a true warm weather treat.
That was only a part of the joy that the Synans were involved with. Along with officials of the town of Pocahontas, they made sure that the July 4th holiday would be memorable. Fireworks one night on the mountain, fireworks another night in town. It was a big thrill for a little place and made us feel more special. A last generation of “old time” miners and their families needed that.
After the original mine closed in 1955, a slow decline settled over the area and gradually the busy road up Peeled Chestnut and the one in nearby Boissevain toward Jenkinjones no longer hummed with a steady stream of traffic carrying miners to Pocahontas Fuel Company or U.S. Steel mines in McDowell County.
The Synan Fireworks show and fall Pumpkin Festival erased worry lines on untold scores of faces and replaced them with smiles a couple of times each season. There was music, local and regional, in the stage area with seats and tent covers for all. Nearly everyone joined the long lines for special miners’ bologna sandwiches and hot dogs. If a person had money, a donation could be given but the main idea was to break bread together and just enjoy.
The hay rides on the mountain were always a treat. Spectacular scenery made each one memorable while the old-fashioned fun of children, parents and grandparents sharing them was the special magic of memories that will not fade. Flea market items, good conversation and talks of the old days combined to make those gatherings a date to mark on every calendar.
Oh, it was a community event and lots of people helped. Still, it would have been easier not to have it at all. Russell and Pat were just the kind of people who would open their home, their yard, welcome hundreds of visitors to park their cars and walk all around the place simply to have a good time.
If you want to name a couple of hometown heroes, Russell and Pat Synan would be near the top of the mountain.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Bluefield High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org