The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

September 24, 2012

Author examines Tug Valley's storied past

 

In his latest book, prolific writer Kyle Lovern came back to earth.

After years of chronicling UFO sightings in his native West Virginia, he has assembled some 300 photographs for a pictorial journey back across a century in “Memories of Tug Valley, A Trip Back in Time.”

Rich in history, the region welcomed such diverse personalities as baseball great Stan Musial, stripper Blaze Starr, personalities in the Hatfield-McCoy feud, country singer Loretta Lynn, boxing stalwarts Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano.

And the first real “war on coal” broke out right in this valley, the 1920 Matewan Massacre, a violent episode that left several Baldwin Felts detectives mortally wounded.

Police Chief Sid Hatfield became a hero of the working class when he sided with striking coal miners, but “Two Gun Hatfield,” as he came to be known, succumbed in a hail of gunfire within a year in retaliation for killing the Baldwin enforcers.

“I love local culture and history, and, like most Baby Boomers, I get nostalgic,” says Lovern, sports editor for The Williamson Daily News.

“I love antiques and collecting old pictures. I had collected many over the years, some of which I had taken several years ago. This area has changed so much over the years. A lot of buildings and schools are gone, where school systems have consolidated. The devastating flood of 1977 wiped out a lot of the old buildings.”

Lovern set about assembling as many photographs as he could from the past, some of which date back to the early 1900s, and once word got out about his latest project, friends either sent hard copies of aging pictures or emailed them to him.

“It was a lot of work and organization, but it’s been fun at the same time,” he said.

A product of Wilsondale, the torrid Blaze Starr exploited stage props, such as a burning couch (an inspiration for Mountaineer football revelers?), and became a cause celebre during a long-term affair with then-Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, a relationship that fueled the movie “Blaze” featuring Lola Davidovich and Paul Newman.

Many pay attribute to the stellar athletes of the times, some of whom wound up as state schoolboy champions.

Among his souvenirs is an autographed picture of Stan “the Man” Musial, the onetime St. Louis Cards slugger, who actually collected his first paycheck as a pro baseballer right in Williamson.

Signed by the Cards in 1938, he was assigned to the club’s rookie league team in Williamson, then part of the old coalfield minor league system that fielded teams in Welch, Logan, and Huntington as well.

A rare photograph in Lovern’s pictorial essay shows Musial, a southpaw, actually pitching — a position he soon abandoned after the Redbirds manager recognized his prowess with the stick, not unlike the career change years earlier of Babe Ruth.

Musial rode a bus out of his Donora, Pa., home to accept his first paying job on the diamond. Years after big league stardom followed him, Lovern managed an interview with Musial.

“He said he had a lot of fond memories of Williamson,” the author said.

“He’s iconic here in Williamson. His legend lived on for years. I played baseball there at Lefty Hamilton Park (Musial’s old manager) for Williamson. Straightaway center field was 431 feet. The only person who ever hit one that far was Stan Musial.”

Another picture depicts the star in a suit with four young boys.

Lovern grew up in nearby Nolan, about eight miles west of Hamilton, and has vivid memories of a ruinous flood that blanketed the Tug Valley back in 1977, uprooting some 6,900 families and damaging 400 businesses.

On that fateful morning, Lovern could see water approaching his hometown, and immediately set about helping rescue stricken families and salvage their belongings.

“Downtown William-son was devastated,” he recalled. “There was water probably in the second flood of those buildings.

“I watched homes float down the next day. We had two bridges in Nolan, one for cars, the other was a railroad bridge. These wooden houses would float down and hit those bridges and just splinter, shatter. They would hit them and it would be like thunder. Just constantly cars floating down, too. It was just an unbelievable disaster. Something you never wipe away from your memory, but it’s part of your history.”

And what history would be complete without a family portrait or two of Devil Anse Hatfield, one half of the feud that captured America’s attention in the late 1880s.

For the book’s cover, Lovern selected a vintage photograph depicting the old Williamson Fruit Market and Logan Street Grocery in Williamson, with Daisy Mosley and daughter Audrey standing in front.

Lovern’s book can be purchased through the publisher, woodlandpress.com, or at Amazon, as well as his earlier efforts, volumes one and two of “Appalachian Case Study: UFO.”

“There are a lot of pictures of downtown Williamson in the 1930s, some that look like postcards,” he said.

“Back then, it was a hub for business, all kinds of shops, clothing stores, restaurants, and theaters. None are there now. There are a lot of old buildings that no longer exist. This was a lot of work, but it was also fun, a labor of love.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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