“Owe my soul to the company store” — some like it that way.

My friend Reid Parkinson sent me a Newsweek article last week about a company town called Scotia, California. It’s the last of a dying breed of community — a one-industry town completely owned by a company.

Scotia, California - the last company town? (photo by Newsweek)

Reid knew I’d be interested because a couple of years ago I made a documentary film called “Welcome to Coalwood“, about the dying former company-owned coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virgina.

Before I got involved with Coalwood, I’d never thought much about the idea of a company town. I had a vague recollection from my childhood of “Sixteen Tons”, the 1954 hit song by Tennessee Ernie Ford that painted a simple, negative picture of a type of community where residents were completely controlled by a company that owned everything – including the only store in town, to which the coal miner was forever and inextricably indebted.

If for no other reason, watch this video (introduced by Dinah Shore at some sort of banquet — probably in the 1980s) for its cool, RatPack-style, finger-snapping vibe.

One of the surprising things I learned during my first visit to Coalwood in 2005 was that most of the old-timers remembered the company-owned days with fondness and nostalgia. Sure, the coal company owned everything, they said, but in many ways that made for a better community.

There was virtually no crime, they said, because criminals would be banished from living there. They had good schools, because the company made sure they hired good teachers and had a good school building. There was no city government bureaucracy, because there was no city government (and also no property taxes). People kept up their properties because there were fines and the threat of losing their house if they didn’t. They didn’t mind buying everything from the company store because it had everything they needed — at least they thought so at the time. The town was clean because the company sent around people to tag people for having trash in their yards, polluting the creek or other public health risks. There were competitions for most attractive house and yard. Whether it was out of fear or pride, the residents of town worked together to keep out the riff-raff and they were proud of their community.

Coalwood in the 1930s - "Everything we needed, we had right here", according to life-long resident Red Carroll. From left to right in the photo, the doctor's office, "clubhouse", post office, company store, offices, school. (photo courtesy of David Goad)

The coal company in Coalwood began selling the houses to individual miners in the 1960s. This, one of the people I interviewed for the film says, “was when the town started to go down”. Another woman said that when the company stopped doing everything for them, they “felt like orphans”.

This surprising irony was one of the main reasons I decided to make a documentary about the town of Coalwood.

Coalwood, West Virginia during the 1920s -- company houses being built during a boom era for coal. (photo courtesy of David Goad)

Scotia, California - lumber is king here (photo by Newsweek)

At one time, there were thousands of these company towns all across the U.S. This phenomenon peaked in the 1930s, but as workers became more organized and became less willing to be dependent on the company for making all their decisions for them, these towns began to disappear and transform. Coalwood’s coal mine closed in the late 1980s and it declined steadily into the near ghost town it is today.

The idea of a company town, at least in the strict sense that Coalwood was, seemed like such a throwback to another era, that I didn’t really think that such a place still existed. Then Reid sent me the piece about Scotia. It’s an interesting read. Even today, people there say many of the same things the older people of Coalwood do.

For more information about my film, “Welcome to Coalwood”, go here.

We won’t get fooled again — or at all.

We’ve had snow on the ground in Minneapolis since November 13 (see my post about the first big snowfall). A lot of places in the U.S. get a lot of snow — even more than we do — but many of those areas have the hope of melting it occasionally throughout the winter. Up until a week or so ago, we’d just been adding blanket upon blanket to the November cover.

Then we had a few days in the 40s and even touched 50 once or twice. Some people around here were ecstatic, but most life-long residents played it cool — because we knew.

The weather people on TV were all blabbing about spring being in the air, etc. I heard one say that our 50 degrees a few days ago was the “first kiss” of spring.

But it was mid-February and we knew. They talked every night on the news about how much snow was melting, but I looked around my neighborhood and didn’t really see a major change. Here’s a photo of my front yard today. Yeah, it was deeper a few weeks ago, but does this look like a major melt has just happened?

Does this look like spring to you?

Guess what? Now the bipolar cabin-fever mongers are all wringing their hands about tomorrow. The latest prediction I’ve heard is another blanket of somewhere between 12 and 20 inches in the next 24 hours.

Yes, we were kissed by spring last week. But it was just an obligatory peck on the cheek that promised nothing more.

It was actually kind of sad, in a way — because we knew.

So let it snow. Check back in about a month and a half and we’ll talk about showing some affection.

February golf in Minnesota – not all of our domes have collapsed, and we’re grateful for that

Winter golf in Minnesota is a bit of a challenge. But there are a few options:

1. Watch golf on TV. (most popular)

2. Go outdoors and try to actually play a version of the game of golf.

The Chilly Open, Wayzata, Minnesota

An example of this is the “The Chilly Open”, which takes place today in Wayzata, Minnesota on Lake Minnetonka. Unfortunately, all their tee times are sold out, so if you didn’t plan ahead, you can only go out and be part of the gallery. The event looks like it could be fun — at least the eating and drinking afterward.


3. Head to one of Minnesota’s luxurious golf domes. This is what I do occasionally with friends Roger and Bob.

This is what I call a winter get-away

Go through the airlock revolving door and you are instantly transported to another world — one where nothing is natural, nothing real. It’s a place you can — you must — let your imagination run wild. It can be Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, or the crappy muni in your town. It can be anything you want it to be if you just close your eyes and swing away.

Is it a balcony seat at Radio City Music Hall? The Hollywood Bowl, perhaps? No, it's the 100 yards your ball gets to fly before hitting the plastic tarp and falling to the floor.

But don’t think it’s all about whacking drivers or hitting fat iron shot off mats that fly just as well as crisply hit ones. There are places to hone the short game, too. The putting and chipping areas are easily as good as many mini-golf courses – without the pesky windmill, dinosaur or pirate getting in the way.

This guy understands that putting on astroturf is better than nothing. Or he thinks that's true anyway. The jury is out on that one.

So a good time was had by all on Friday afternoon. Did we improve our swings? Probably not. Did we get sore backs? Yes. Did we do anything that vaguely resembled golf? That’s unclear.

But we Minnesotans are a grateful people, and it was worth a few bucks to get out — then get in — and hang out, use our imaginations and think about real grass and warm sunshine. And just like real golf, sometimes it’s not about the golf.

So those those are pretty much all of the Minnesota winter golf options.

4. Actually, there is an option #4, which is the one Roger is choosing. Get on an airplane on Tuesday and fly to Palm Springs.

Good for Roger and his airplane. I couldn’t be happier for him.

Roger is practicing with the idea that he will actually be playing golf soon. Whoa -- It's hard for me to wrap my head around that one, but do what you must, Roger.

Starbase Minnesota is a good use of defense funds

My fifth-grade students and I just finished a week at Starbase Minnesota, a math, science, engineering and technology program in the Twin Cities. This is my third year taking students there and I’m very impressed with it. Starbase is funded by the Department of Defense, with the National Guard providing “classroom space, access to aviation resources, expertise and support, and volunteers from the Guard serve as guest speakers at graduation.”

U.S. Marine Corporal Carr answers questions from Minneapolis students

Starbase is great because it’s a week of very motivating hands-on science and math activities that focus on the standards we teach. The instructors are excellent — all are licensed teachers and they do a wonderful job with our students.

The Starbase instructors all take on science-related names. Here "Igneous", our teacher, demonstrates heat conductivity of a material used by NASA. Later, our students tested a variety of materials to determine which would be the best one for a heat shield on a Mars lander.

Starbase’s mission and purpose is to work with inner-city 4th-6th graders. Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools can apply for the program. If accepted, the tuition for the week is free — the school only has to pay for transportation to and from the facility near Fort Snelling and the MSP International Airport.

Two of my students program a robotic "Mars rover" to do missions on the surface of that planet.

The week is high-energy, high-learning, and lots of fun. My students learned more about math and science during the Starbase week than any other week of the school year — without a doubt.

Igneous teaches the science behind the air pressure experiment we just did.

We are lucky to have been able to spend a week here. Thank you to all the great Starbase teachers and thanks to the Department of Defense, the National Guard and the Marines for sponsoring this wonderful learning experience for Minneapolis and St. Paul students.

I feel kind of bad for the poor suburban kids who don’t get to do this.

Can we please put Groundhog Day out of its misery?

For weatherman Phil Conners (Bill Murray) the day turned from a dreary assignment into a living hell. I’m not sure what he learned by repeating it over and over, but I think that the idea of G-Day being a good day for a “holiday” was not it.

Groundhog day makes me sad. Every February 2nd when I wake up, turn on CNN and see the puffed-up old Punxsutawnians pretend that people care a whit about their silly ritual, I think, “30 seconds of my life I’ll never get back”.

I’d rather watch Egyptians throwing rocks at each other.

Or or the abandoned cars on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago looking like the opening scene of a post-apocalyptic movie.

I have a plantar wart on my foot that I’d rather look at for 30 seconds.

Groundhog day is the least celebrated of all celebrated days.

Nobody cares. Nobody.

The day, like most “holidays”, has roots in the ancient world. It can be traced to either “Candelmas” — the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Mary brought baby J to the temple 40 days after he was born) or “Imbolc”, the day marking the half way point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. (Now that’s a celebration I can get behind!)

But a big rat predicting 6 more weeks of winter? (and that’s supposed to be the optimistic option)


And where’s the fun?

Where I live, a good year would be 8 more weeks until the snow is gone — 10 weeks not unusual at all, and possibility of snow for a couple more after that.

Can we please put an end to this nonsense?

I’m not against meaningless rituals in general — Halloween is great, for instance — but only because they bring a little joy. Groundhog day brings to network news shows a large, ugly rodent and large, ugly men in ridiculous top hats.

And now I’ve wasted 10 more minutes writing about it.

So in the interest of something good coming out of this, I’ll close with a link to a page on Eats.com that contains some great-sounding recipes for groundhog meat.

Thanksgiving, look out!

"Leave me alone!"