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.

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“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.

Memories of Red Carroll

Red Carroll died on Saturday at a hospital in Beckley, West Virginia at the age of 92. He was recovering from surgery on a broken hip from a fall a few weeks ago. I first heard the news from Joe Hotkewicz, a good friend of Red’s who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. The fact that neither Joe nor I have ever lived in Coalwood is significant, because it tells you a little bit about what kind of person Red was.

Ernest “Red” Carroll was one of the first people I met in Coalwood, West Virginia in October of 2005. I was there as part of a group of teachers from Minneapolis on an unusual and (for me) life-changing professional development experience called “Coalwood to the Cape”, organized by Brad and Julie Blue.

We had come to Coalwood for the annual October Sky Festival to visit the home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, made famous by Homer’s book and the movie October Sky. Father of rocket boy Jimmie “O’Dell” Carroll, Red was the last surviving rocket boy dad. Julie Blue knew Red well from her several previous visits to Coalwood and she made sure we got to spend lots of time with him.

Brad and Julie with Red during our tour of Coalwood, October, 2005 (photo by Steve Date)

Red led us on a narrated tour of the town, the rocket launch site (dubbed “Cape Coalwood”), a working coal mine, and he was part of a panel discussion in the town of War. He also invited us to his house. There, he showed us some of the “treasures” he’d collected while hauling trash in Coalwood, plus his vegetable garden, his bee hives and his beloved dahlias that lined the fence around his yard.

Julie and Red in his backyard. His shed (left) was a museum of old machines and gadgets he had collected. Some of his dahlias are visible in the background. (photo by Steve Date)

Red was in his late 80s in 2005 and while he moved slowly and took frequent short breaks, he still had plenty of energy to show us the town he loved so much. He was born in Coalwood and had live there all his life. He worked at the “tipple” for the coal mine for 16 years. The tipple is where the coal is loaded into trains or trucks after it comes out of the mine. Red’s job was “picking bone”, in other words, sorting the coal and discarding other types of rock that come out of the coal cars. He told me that he loved that job – “Couldn’t wait to go to work every day”, he said.

When the tipple closed in 1954, Red needed to find another job. He applied for the position of garbage collector. He was thankful to get the job and did it well for the next 33 years. Red was one of the instrumental adults that helped Homer, O’Dell and the other rocket boys get the materials they needed to build their rockets.

Red Carroll giving kids pony and wagon rides, 1956 (photo by David C. Ridenour)

The Red Carroll I knew was a quiet man – kind, generous and gentle. He was above all, a man of faith. To say he was deeply religious understates it. His faith in God was stronger than anyone I’ve ever met and God was just barely under the surface in every conversation. Peggy Blevins always says that Red had “DSL to the Lord”.

By some accounts he had a little harder edge in his younger years. He was a strict, but loving father to O’Dell and his brothers and sister. O’Dell says that one of the things his dad wouldn’t allow him to do while growing up was go to movies. How ironic that years later, Red not only liked the movie October Sky, but embraced it with all his heart and encouraged everyone he met to see it.

After Homer’s book and then the movie came out in 1999, tourists started coming to see the town that was now known as “Home of the Rocket Boys”. Red would usually be around somewhere and stop to talk with visitors. He told them about the history of the town and showed them the sites they had come to see. When a few people in town decided to have a yearly festival honoring the Rocket Boys, Red quickly became an important part of the festivities.

Red opened every October Sky Festival with an emotional prayer and then spent the rest of the day roaming around town, greeting visitors and catching up with old friends.

Here’s a little video I did from the 2009 October Sky Festival, featuring Red Riding the fire truck into town with the Rocket Boys and then saying a prayer to open the day’s festivities.

Red kicks off the 2006 October Sky Festival by delivering the invocation as only he could. (photo by David Goad)

Red had two sets of children. The older generation — with Virginia, his first wife — including Jimmie (O’Dell), grew up in a very different time in Coalwood. There isn’t much left (in Coalwood or anywhere) of the life and times that Homer Hickam wrote about in his memoir. Red was very proud of Jimmie (O’Dell) and the rocket boys. Sadly, Red lost another of his sons, Donnie, a few years ago.

Red in his backyard with Caleb and Ivy, October, 2007 (photo by Steve Date)

Long before Larry King ever got the idea, Red had two sons at an advanced age with his second wife, Ivy. Josh is now in his twenties and Caleb is a Junior in high school. Red always talked about hoping to live long enough to see them grow up. It was one of the things that kept him going.

During the 5 years that Brad and Julie brought Minneapolis teachers to Coalwood, Red’s tours and a stop at his house became a regular and special part of the group’s activities. Each year he moved a little slower, he needed a little more nap time, and his voice became a little weaker, but he always gave us all the energy he had. He was a good friend to us and a great ambassador for Coalwood.

Red welcomes the 2007 Minneapolis GEMS/GISE teachers group to his house. (photo by Steve Date)

I’m not going to pretend I knew Red well. I was just one of the thousands of people who came through town, met him and will never forget him. I have to thank Julie and Brad Blue for introducing me to Red and to Coalwood. They had a lot of affection for Red and he for them. Brad told me yesterday, “Homer introduced us to Red. And Homer wrote The Coalwood Way. Red LIVED the Coalwood Way.”

My favorite picture of Julie and Red together.

I also want to thank David Goad, for helping me get to know Red better and going to Red’s house with me to interview him for my film (the first interview I ever did) and coming along when I did other shooting with Red. Red and David liked each other a lot and David’s presence, approval, and his helping me interview Red was very important to me.

Red and David Goad at City Hall in War, WV, August, 2006 (photo by Steve Date)

The last time I talked with Red was a couple of days before the 2009 October Sky Festival. I had just arrived in town and was talking to someone in front of the Clubhouse. Red was cruising around in his car as he often did. He pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. “Hey Buddy, when you gonna stop up at the house and see me?” I know he called everyone “Buddy”, but I always liked it.

I stopped over there a little later and we had a nice talk. I had just gotten DVDs of my movie printed and it was one of the great moments of my life to be able to give some copies to him. Red was one of the main reasons I made the film. He was the first interview I wanted to do when I began shooting in 2006 and he was the cornerstone of the project.

He seemed tired and frail that day. He would occasionally drift off and lose his train of thought. He told me he thought it would be his last October Sky Festival and the condition he was in gave me no reason to doubt it.

However, it wasn’t his last festival. He hung on for another 15 months and was able to greet all the visitors to his town one last time about 3 months ago.

If we are equal parts mind, body and spirit, then Red did it right. He took care of himself and lived a long, good life. His body and mind gradually deteriorated at a ripe old age, but his spirit continued to the end. To me, that’s the way it should be. He loved life, but I’ve never met anyone so prepared to leave this world as Red was. And now his spirit continues through the memories of all of us who knew him.

Rest in peace, Red.

Do you have any memories of Red that you’d like to share? Leave comments below. Thank you.

Coalwood on my mind

It was five years ago this week that I arrived in Coalwood, West Virginia for the first time. It seems longer ago than that. Sometimes I feel that Coalwood and I have been friends for a very long time.

Brad and Julie Blue (then Julie Ferris) brought a group of Minneapolis teachers to the hills of southern West Virginia to see the town and meet some of the people featured in Homer Hickam’s book called “Rocket Boys”, which was made into the movie “October Sky” in 1999. This trip was the first of a two professional development excursions named Coalwood to the Cape — or “C2C”.

Here's our group at the Dian Lee House B&B in Bluefield, WV. Homer Hickam and rocket boy Billy Rose are in the front row.

We met a lot of great people in Coalwood, but one of the most memorable was Red Carroll, father of Jimmy O’Dell Carroll, one of the rocket boys. In his late 80s at that time, he’d become the town’s greeter and historian. He gave us a long guided tour of all the important sites.

Red Carroll tells us about Cape Coalwood, the place where the boys launched their rockets.

We also visited Big Creek High School in the neighboring town of War, where the rocket boys attended school and where Miss Frieda Riley inspired them to teach themselves how to build bigger and better rockets. Big Creek is a very cool building, preserved from another era. Sadly, it was closed last spring and is scheduled to be demolished in a couple of months (see my post from September 22).

The footbal field was right out the front door at Big Creek High School. Notice the OWL - the school's mascot - atop the school.

We got a chance to spend a day in Coalwood during the quiet time before the October Sky Festival. Peggy Blevins invited us to dinner, Helen Carson gave us a tour of Big Creek H.S., Ms. Katie Jones welcomed us to her church for ice cream, Bill Bolt spoke to us about the old days in the machine shop, and we met Homer Hickam, who spent the evening telling us all about Coalwood and answering all of our questions. At Peggy’s house, we met David Goad, who later was instrumental in helping me do a documentary film about the town.

On later trips, we met Carol and Jim DeHaven, Gene Turpin, Tootsie Spraggins, Bobby and Jack Likens, J.R. Hatmaker and many other residents and former residents. They all added to the fascinating, collective story of Coalwood.

My first October Sky Festival that year was great. The Minneapolis teachers rode into town on a hay wagon in the parade. That was fun. In subsequent years, we would move up to the top of the fire truck — quite an honor, indeed. It was interesting to see several thousand visitors fill the dying little coal town of about 200 residents for that one day. Everyone was happy. Older people who live there said it took them back to the old days, when Coalwood was a bustling company town of 2,500 — every one of them either employed by the coal company or the child of someone who was.

Homer Hickam speaks to the crowd from the Clubhouse porch at the October Sky Festival in 2005.

One of the reasons people come to the festival is to meet Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys. Roy Lee Cooke, Jimmy “O’Dell” Carroll and Billy Rose attend the fest every year and love chatting with fans of the book and the movie.

O'Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, Billy Rose, Homer Hickam (L-R behind table) sign Homer's books for fans.

On behalf of the other C2Cers, thank you Brad and Julie Blue for making it possible for several groups of Minneapolis teachers to come to this place for this festival. Because of you, we all have memories that we’ll never forget.

Julie and Brad walking past Homer Hickam's boyhood home in Coalwood.

And thank you to the people of Coalwood and McDowell County, West Virginia. You’ve been a big part of my life for 5 years.

The October Sky Festival is tomorrow. I’m sad that I have to miss my first one since 2005. But having my family together for the weekend and seeing my two kids run a marathon on Sunday will be pretty cool, too.

If you get a chance to go to Coalwood tomorrow, say hi to everyone for me. Tell them I’m thinking about them and hope to see everyone next year.

Big Creek High School: a missed opportunity for historic preservation

I like old buildings. They’re often visually interesting. They evoke feelings and memories from another era. They have stories to tell.

They’re irreplaceable.

After hearing rumors for a while, I recently found out that Big Creek High School in War, West Virginia will be demolished soon.

Big Creek High School in October of 2005

If you remember the movie, “October Sky” or Homer Hickam’s book, “Rocket Boys”, on which it was based, then you know about Big Creek.

Homer "Sonny" Hickam's senior photo from the Big Creek High School yearbook

It was the school where young Homer — “Sonny” in those days — and his friends attended Miss Riley’s class and were inspired to “aim high” and learn how to build rockets that eventually won a national science fair and put them all on college-bound paths that led out of the coalfields and dying towns of southern West Virginia.

I made a documentary film about Coalwood, West Virginia, home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, a few winding miles down the road from from War. I’ve been inside Big Creek High School a few times and found it to be a fascinating place, a time capsule where you could immediately feel as if you were back in the 1950s.

My first visit to Miss Riley's former classroom in 2005


A tropy case contains The Rocket Boys' National Science Fair medal. Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miss Riley (Laura Dern) look skyward in a poster from the 1999 movie, October Sky.

The school had been scheduled to be closed several years ago, but construction delays in building the new consolidated school in the town of Iaeger prolonged Big Creek’s shutting down until this past summer. In 2006, the iconic football field immediately in front of the school was demolished and construction began on a new elementary school. The new building was built just a few yards from the front of Big Creek H.S., completely blocking the former view of the school.

They had ripped up the football stadium when I visited in October of 2006.

New elementary school blocks view of Big Creek (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

That was bad enough, but at that time there was at least a plan for preserving the high school building after it closed. It was to be given to the City of War. They were going to use various parts of it for office space, storage, businesses and — best of all — some of the rooms were to be preserved as a history museum. Miss Riley’s room would have remained in its nostalgic, mid-20th century state for visitors to see for years to come. The building would have been a place of memories, not only of the rocket boys, but for all Big Creek graduates. It could have been a tourist stop in an area that desperately needs that kind of thing.

It was a great idea and it would have worked.

But other forces came into play. I’m not sure how it all fell apart, but it did and I’m sad about that.

Tom Hatcher, Mayor of War, WV, and proponent of preserving history whenever possible, was quoted recently in the Bluefield, WV Telegraph as saying that he’s given up the fight because “Unfortunately, the rate of deterioration since 2005 has made this option cost prohibitive and an impossible venture.”

My friend Shawn Cheeks is a senior this year at the new high school in Bradshaw. He’s a bright young man with a strong sense of history. He recently made a documentary film about the history of Big Creek. I asked him how he felt about all of this. While he has great memories of Big Creek and feels badly about its upcoming demise, he says that the damage was really done when the elementary school was built right in front of the high school, blocking its view. “It would be like building something right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so you couldn’t see Lincoln”, he says. “It loses a lot of its ‘Landmark status’ when you can’t see it.”

Shawn wants people to know that things are going well at the new school and everyone is looking forward to Homecoming this week. The students are looking forward to “preserving some of the old traditions while starting some new ones”.

Shawn’s 30-minute film about the history of Big Creek H.S. can be order for $12 at
Shawn Cheeks
P.O. Box 946
War, WV 24892

Can you see the owl peeking out from behind the new school? (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

I made my documentary about nearby Coalwood in hopes that somehow the right people would see it and do something to save what’s left of that historic little company-owned coal town. Before I could finish the film, the company store building, one of the most significant structures, was demolished by the current owner without warning to the residents of Coalwood. People had tried to buy it and restore it for years, but the company wouldn’t sell it. But neither did they maintain it, and after a couple of decades of sitting empty and uncared for, it got to the point where it was too far gone.

Now this important and wonderful school building will soon meet the wrecking ball. Big Creek High School, home of the Owls, is now said to be “too far gone” to save.

This didn’t have to happen.

If you ever get to war, West Virginia and drive by the new elementary school, take a moment to stop and think — and try to visualize the Big Creek Owl sign on top of the old high school.

I will.

The Owl no longer casts this shadow on the new school. It's been taken down and put in storage. (photo by Shawn Cheeks)