The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 30, 2012

Local author resurrects the company store

OAK HILL — Dale Payne’s fascination with company stores goes way back. The first time he entered one, he was 5 years old. It was Christmas. Mom was doing her daily shopping at the Wyatt Coal Company Store in Eskdale on Cabin Creek.

“I was so fascinated by all the toys. I will never forget that. It was overwhelming,” says Payne, a Fayetteville resident and renowned keeper of local history.

A few days later, in December 1948, the store burned down. But through his work as a historian, Payne has resurrected the store — at least the image of it — for others to see and study.

Payne’s 19th book, “West Virginia Company Stores” is a photographic tour of company stores across the state, from Payne’s own native Eskdale to as far afield as Brooke County.

Some of the buildings are architecturally unusual. But their physical characteristics meant less, perhaps, than the role they played in the coal mining communities where they were built.

“They were the hub of the community,” said Payne. “That’s where everybody gathered to talk, or just loaf. The post office was often part of the company store, the mine offices, the doctor’s office — everything was centered around the company store.

“You had blacks, you had Italians —  everybody shopped there. There was nowhere else to shop.”

Goods often cost more at the company store, but families had little choice. Coal companies paid in scrip — money that was only redeemable at the company store. And even if there was a better bargain somewhere else, getting there could be a challenge.

“These coal mining communities were very isolated. By the time they paid their train fare back and forth, they were just as well off to go ahead and pay the extra prices at the company store,” said Payne.

As an alternative, pack peddlers snuck into company towns in the cover of

darkness to avoid possible beatings by company guards, writes Payne in the book’s introduction. They set up their wares in miners’ homes, sold what they could and stole away before dawn.

A gathering of the largely foreign-born peddlers in Welch is captured in a photo included in Payne’s book.

As part of the research for his book on the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek mine wars, Payne did price comparisons between company and independent stores. He began to realize the extent of the swindle.

“The coal companies made more money on the company stores a lot of times than they did in producing coal. Normally everything they paid out in wages they got back through the company store, plus a little extra,” said Payne.

This realization, along with an understanding of the important role that the company stores played in the everyday life of coal mining families, inspired Payne to dedicate an entire book to the institution.

He researched for a full year, working every day. He found photos in the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield, in the West Virginia State Archives and in the personal collections of friends.

He also drew from first-hand accounts in 2,300 pages of transcripts from a U.S. Senate investigation into the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes. A store in Decota had iron gates installed on the archway and a machine gun mounted on the roof because of the conflict.

Placing the names of the companies that ran the stores was difficult, given that the mines changed hands so often. The addresses of headquarters sometimes didn’t correspond to the location of the stores.

But Payne pursued the challenge, and the result may be the best catalogue of West Virginia company stores to date.

The stores came in all shapes and sizes, from modest clapboard storefronts to grand structures of cut stone.

One that particularly fascinated Payne was the Pulaski Iron Co. store in Eckman, McDowell County. An ornate arch graced its façade.

“I thought it was so pretty. They could have made just as much money with a simple, plain building as they could with this extra archway and fancy trim. It’s a lot of extra expense,” he said.

A series of stores in Fayette, Putnam and Kanawha counties were all built in the same octagonal style, with deep, gaping front porches and windows on all sides.

One in Whipple still stands, now run as the Whipple Company Store and Appalachian Heritage Educational Museum. Its owner, Joy Lynn, says the design may have made surveillance of agitating miners easier.

Other Fayette County stores that have survived include those at Clifftop, Glen Ferris, Alloy, Mount Hope and Carlisle.

In the mid-70s, Payne visited a company store in Mahan right before it was torn down. When he walked inside, everything looked exactly as it did when the store closed in the early 1950s —  show cases filled with dry goods, groceries on the shelves, a barrel of pick handles. It was perfectly preserved.

“They called up there one day and said, ‘Close the doors, that’s it,’” Payne says of the owners.

“For some reason, in the 1950s, the majority of these stores were closed. Seems like everyone closed around 1958, and I don’t know why. I’ve never been able to find an answer to that.

“The coal industry was really going down at that time and that was probably a contributing factor. Mines were closing and shutting down. By that time the automobile was quite common and people had access to other sources of goods, so they did not depend entirely on the company store.”

Right before a store in Acme was demolished, a friend of Payne rescued several large ledgers full of records of the Stevens Coal Company.

It was in one of those hefty tomes that Payne discovered his grandfather’s name printed beside the sum he still owed to the company store.

Some memories of the old stores are positive, as when they acted as places of congregation for communities. Other aspects of the stores — like the practice of cheating miners out of their pay, offer up warnings and lessons.

For both reasons, Payne wishes that more stores and coal company towns had been left intact for future generations to visit and learn from.

“Most of them have bit the dust a long, long time ago,” he said. “I always said it’s a shame we didn’t have enough foresight years ago to save one of these towns, but we never think about those things until it’s too late.”

But Dale Payne does think about those things. His study is filled with local history books, mementos, relics and curiosities that help him fill the gaps of the past. He visits estate sales to score more old photos for his collection.

Every time he eats at Cracker Barrel, he looks at the old photos of unidentified people on the walls and wonders — who were they? Why have their names become lost to history? What is their story?

Book by book, photo by photo, he works to restore blurry, faded images to living memories.

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