Life has its turning points. The little town of Coalwood, West Virginia represents a big one for me. It was after visiting the October Sky Festival there in 2005 that I decided to make a documentary film about the town. Who knows why. I had no experience as a filmmaker, no camera, no concept of all that it takes to video a video production of that scale.
In October of 2009, after a half-dozen more trips to Coalwood and four years of learning a few skills, a dream came true as I was able to go back to Coalwood and hand-deliver a DVD of “Welcome to Coalwood” to each of the people who had appeared in the film or helped me make it and personally thank them for welcoming me into their homes and letting me into their lives.
That 2009 trip was emotional for me, as some of the people were getting on in years and others had experienced major life changes. I’ll never forget the heartfelt thanks and hugs I received from these wonderful people just because I took an interest in them and their little town. It didn’t matter to them that the film wasn’t the highest-quality production or that it was made by a beginner.
Homer Hickam had put Coalwood on the map a decade earlier with his wonderful memoir, Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky. My project covered some of the same ground, but in a different way — by finding people from the old days who were still around to tell the history of the town as they remembered it.
My biggest initial motivation for attempting to make the film was to preserve on video some of the older people that I’d met. In fact, when I drove down there with my daughter Emily in the summer of 2006 to do my first shooting, I really didn’t know what I was doing — but I felt a sense of urgency to record some of them before it was too late.
I’m glad I did. Since I’ve made the film, several wonderful Coalwood residents who were “stars” in my film, including Red Carroll, Gene Turpin and Fred Beavers have died. Katie Jones has since move away, as has Janice McClure.
The Company Store, one of the two most import existing buildings in town, was torn down just as I was finishing the film, dealing a crushing blow to any historic preservation effort.
It’s really hard to explain to some people why that little, falling-down town grabbed me, but the fact is, it did. I’ve given up trying to explain it. It’s like trying to explain why you fell in love.
I’m a big believer in the importance of place. We all have places that we are emotionally connected to. For most of us those places are not famous or well-known, but they have meaning to us and represent something deeply important in our lives.
Coalwood is one of my special places. It changed my life.
The October Sky Festival is today. I should be there and regret that I’m not.
To the people of Coalwood: I’ll be thinking about you all day today. Thank you for what you’ve given me.
I’ve missed two October Sky Festivals in a row. I can only hope that there will be another one next year.
If you’d like to see some of my other Coalwood-related posts, here are the links: