Coalwood is in my heart today

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.

Red Carroll (2006)

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.

Eugene Turpin (2006)

"Miss Katie" Jones and Emily Date (2006)

Bill & Reba Bolt / Jim and Carol DeHaven (2006)

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.

Red Carroll talks with a group of Minneapolis teachers on the steps of the Clubhouse (Oct 2008)

If you’d like to see some of my other Coalwood-related posts, here are the links:

Big Creek High School: A missed opportunity for historic preservation

Coalwood on my Mind

Memories of Red Carroll

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

“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.