The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 14, 2013

Abandoned coal camps a reminder of days gone by

Point blank

By John Blankenship

— Some southern West Virginia coal camps seemed a good place to leave behind.

The remnants of the little camp structures gradually became rundown and eventually collapsed on the grounds on which they were erected.

Once they had fallen into disrepair, the shabby places lost all vestiges of the reassuring and beautiful moments in time when passenger trains ran two or three times a day and the company store stayed open until 9 p.m. just to keep the regular customers in flour, sugar, coffee, bacon and eggs.  In summer, the produce stands slumbered under the weight of freshly harvested garden vegetables: corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, squash, onions, potatoes and more.

In those times, the camps prospered and succeeded with reassuring beauty and luster. When coal prices were up, hearts beat to a steady rhythm of hope and families seemed to prosper. Built in the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, the camps often became a synonym for rural wretchedness, closed to through traffic, excluded from nearby commerce, a stigmatized place apart from the rest of the nation. Coal camps with their open spaces looked sensible enough on the drawing board but were calamitous in reality as occupants seldom established roots or remained long at one residence.

Because the spaces belonged to everyone, they effectively belonged to no one so they became unused, uncared for and eventually ceded to the lawless and violent ways of disgruntled neighbors.

Still, if there was, in the very design of a place like the old mining camps, exclusion from the broader culture outside, a kind of symbolic shunning, there was often a sense of belonging within.

Ask anyone who grew up in the old coal camps of the ’30s and ’40s and they'll tell you. If you were a thief, you were whipped soundly and run out of the community.

If your children misbehaved, they were corrected by the adults who lived nearby.

If a neighbor was in peril, the surrounding brothers and sisters of the camp came to his immediate rescue.

Whatever else they do, tough neighborhoods instill a sense of identity often so deeply felt as to be indelible.

There are few more wistful ex-patriots than those who grew up in the grittier parts of our fiercely independent mountain culture during the era of the old mining camps, replete with a country store, a camp doctor, a recreation hall and a church house.

In hard places there is a sense of tribe, the fealty to place like the fealty to family. Members may criticize its shortcomings, but they are bound tight and defensive against insult from without.

Hard places, to be sure, are love-hate complexes. They can trap or motivate, toughen or break you down.

They have their own codes and currencies, their education system, too. And it’s not for nothing that so much literature — so much music and fashion — emanates from both rural and urban patches of want.

There, daily life is intense — the smells, the noises, the temper-fraying heat, the dispiriting cold. There, the senses, by necessity, become more acute.

Paying attention to a glance or a brooding silence, distinctions in might and status, is a survival skill. Details matter.

To a middle-class stranger, it’s true; one alleyway or street or road would have seemed as squalid as the next.

But as the boys knew ... no two cold-water flats or coal camp houses were alike.

In fact, there were tears when families were forced to vacate the premises once the coal mines shut down and work ceased to exist in the community. In time, the old coal camp frame houses were written off as failures of architecture and design.

But they did not necessarily reflect or connote failure of the families who lived and loved there. That is why, amid the hopes and dreams for a new and better life, tears fell among residents when mines closed and they had to pack up and leave their homes. The remnants of the little camp structures might have become shabby places today, but in earlier times they were reassuring and beautiful.

Change is the way of the world, however. And like time, memories are fleeting.

Maybe because of even harder lives the tenants left behind or maybe because love (if never luxury) was close at hand, what they knew there was sometimes beautiful. And when it wasn’t, it was still home.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.