The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

March 21, 2011

Edwight lives again in historian’s book

EDWIGHT — If the Coal River Valley had a bestseller list, “All Things Edwight,” by resident Rick Bradford, would be topping the chart. Since the book came out in late November, more than 110 copies have been snapped up, thanks to word-of-mouth.

Cracking open the thick book is like uncovering a time capsule. Photographs of the people and places of the once-thriving Edwight community crowd the pages, along with old documents, Bradford’s own poetry and narratives, and even a drawing by a long-ago Edwight resident.

“I decided that Edwight really needed some recognition,” said Bradford, retired schoolteacher and local historian. “Everybody that ever lived in Edwight really loved the place, and the only way you ever see it mentioned today is in connection with strip jobs or mountaintop removal. But there was a lot more to it than that.

“I felt so great living in Edwight. It had gone to nothing, and I really wanted to revive it. In a way, I wanted to relive it,” he said. “A lot of it, it was just like it was yesterday.”

“All Things Edwight” is Bradford’s fourth book about the area and serves as a pictorial companion to his historical account, “Edwight: Near the Mouth of Hazy.”

The vibrantly, lovingly preserved photographs and documents bear witness to life in a coal town’s heyday, when Edwight boasted an estimated 400 homes. Since the closing of mines and a sawmill, as well as the arrival of surface mining operations, the town has all but disappeared. The population has shrunk to around a dozen homes.

“I don’t think anybody really knew how temporary it would be,” said Bradford.  “That’s why a lot of pictures weren’t taken.”

Still, of what photos exist, Bradford has managed to amass a rich collection. The book depicts everything from a 1940s car stuck in the snow to gun traders, a health permit for the famous Coffee Pot Café, class plays, an old stanchion for slate buckets, and numerous photos of “regular” people, going about their daily business.

“Some people you’d never hear of — I like to include those,” Bradford said. “They deserve to be recognized, too. It’s not the great, big things that’re great; it’s the little things. There’s a lot of history in this place, maybe not big history, but things you want to remember.”

Each photo carries layers of memories. Bradford pointed to a photo of an older woman in a checked dress with thick-rimmed glasses, peering at the camera: Daffy Bonds.

“The first time I ever heard anybody use the word ‘commons,’ that was Daffy Bonds,” said Bradford. Bonds had told Bradford that her dog got loose in the “commons” and froze to death.

Throughout the pictures and narratives runs the story of the disappearance of those commons. As Bradford’s first book, “Edwight: Near the Mouth of Hazy,” describes, Edwight residents began to leave in 1957 when the mines started struggling, then emptied out even more when the mines shut in 1958. Men lost their jobs, and the vast majority of residents did not own their homes, having simply leased them from Rowland Land Company.

“Nobody really thought about who actually owned their place, until the mines shut down, and then they found out who,” he said.

In his first book, Bradford chronicled, “Rowland sold the town pump to the man contracted to dismantle the mining equipment and tipple, Joe Fish, from Logan. Fish removed the pump because the people were not moving out fast enough. People were scattered like the wind scatters leaves.”

Bradford described the mines’ impact as a “double-edged sword.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for coal, there wouldn’t have been Edwight,” he said. “But when the coal played out, the town played out.”

A lumber mill revived some of the population until the mill shut in 1985, and Edwight emptied out again. In “All Things Edwight,” a historical essay describes Pea-body Coal leasing the land and requiring many remaining residents of Shumate’s Branch to vacate the hollow to make way for a slurry dam. Peabody also dug up the graveyard to build a mine refuse site; in the book, Bradford lists, name by name, each grave exhumed.

Bradford hung on in Edwight — one of a handful who did — and continued to wander the same mountain paths. Bradford said that when Massey surface mining operations began in 1994, he was stopped for trespassing in the old trails along Hazy Creek that fed into Edwight.

“I’ve always run in Hazy, walked in Hazy, photographed, and went to school there,” he said. “That was my commons, and I lost it.”

Bradford described his fourth book as a chance to recapture and revive the commons and community of his memories, at least on paper. He collected most of the photographs in the 1970s and 1980s and spent three months arranging them into a book.

At the Marsh Fork Branch Library, where “All Things Edwight” is available, the book has struck a deep chord with local residents, according to Circulation Assistant Rosemary Miller.

“A lot of people have the same memories, but Rick was able to put it into words; it gives them a piece of the past to hold onto,” she said. “People from all over have come in to check out or buy the book.”

Bradford and the library have received numerous out-of-state orders from former residents who moved away.

“It’s part of the heritage, and people want to remember and pass it on, and this gives them something to pass on,” Miller explained. “They can take it and show their kids, ‘This is how it was…’ At one time, Edwight was a booming metropolis. It had everything. They had restaurants, stores, movie theaters, school, company store, doctor’s office, pool, taxi service, a man who fixed shoes.”

Bradford said that while the memories are bittersweet, he is committed to staying put and living among them.

“I’ve been stuck in a ghost town, but I don’t think of myself as being stuck, because I want to be there,” said Bradford. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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